Eureka Day review – Helen Hunt is an anti-vaxxer on the attack in anti-woke satire

Eureka Day starts off in the familiar territory of the culture wars and lobs a hand-grenade at the liberal left in its venomous satire on language and all that it apparently conceals. The grenade comes in bright, primary colours as a gang of progressive California parents gather in a school classroom to speak in ludicrously over-the-top homilies about offence, and empowerment.

But beneath its broadsides, Jonathan Spector’s 2018 play has a serious-minded core which grapples with the organisation of power and the masking of privilege in groups. This emergency meeting has been called to discuss an outbreak of mumps and the plot drives towards a clash over the MMR vaccine which, while being dated, captures many of the complications around debates on the Covid vaccination, from fear of misinformation to conspiracy theory and distrust of science.

The committee is led by Don (Mark McKinney), a Rumi quoting irritant who is not so much a virtue signaller as a human semaphore. The group’s real power lies with Suzanne (Helen Hunt), who talks fuzzily about community and consensus but is desperately controlling beneath. She comes to loggerheads with Carina (Susan Kelechi Watson) the first Black woman welcomed into this committee. There is also Eli (Ben Schnetzer) a braggy full-time father and May (Kirsten Foster) who, with her knitting needles and smock, may as well be knitting yoghurt.

Directed snappily by Katy Rudd, the first half is full of impeccably polished satire, but we wonder where this can go; the script revels in its attack on the liberal left, spending too long taking pot-shots at this flatly drawn gang of entitled types, who use language as ammunition and concealment. “I feel fragile,” says Suzanne, and it sounds cartoonish.

But the second half lets much of the satire go in favour of surprisingly earnest debates on social justice, vaccination and the pull of conspiracy theory. Suzanne’s anti-vax stance contains enough complexity to make it intellectually troubling. It takes in everything from her distrust of doctors following the loss of a child to arguments about big pharma and science’s neutrality in a what May calls a “bigger, faster” capitalist world overrun by misinformation, profiteering and climate disaster. The play might have gained by spending longer on unravelling these meaty subjects, especially the idea of investing “belief” in the goodness of new science.

But the cast is strong, covering over the smaller cracks of the script, and the starry names in it give slow-burn starry performances: Hunt is at ease on stage, her character growing in brittle power. Kelechi Watson is arguably even better as the outsider who makes her lone stand. There is a clever lightness of touch in Spector’s treatment of race too; Suzanne’s casual entitlement and white privilege is revealed through accidental slips: “When they go low we go high,” she says, echoing Michelle Obama while looking directly at Carina, and goes on to make a bigger blunder.

Yet neither woman is entirely condemned, despite the satire of the first half. Spector brings a surprising humanity to both their positions and neither is deemed absolutely wrong or right. The play floats important questions: how do we make decisions for the good of the majority? Is agreement by consensus ever possible or is it always sabotaged by covert leaders and self interest?

The final scene sees Carina playing this group at their own game by parroting their sugared words on the importance of consensus. It is a hollow end, answering its questions around power, entitlement and community with bleak and beady-eyed cynicism. It feels pat too and while the play as a whole develops from its caricatured first half into an engrossing and textured show, it has the potential to go much further, dramatically and discursively, but keeps that potential unspent.

• At The Old Vic, London until 31 October.