Monday, March 16, 2015

Playwrights With and Without Agendas: Reverberation and The Colored Museum

Luke Macfarlane and Aya Cash in Reverberation. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Reverberation, which just closed at Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut, is the first play I’ve seen by Matthew Lopez, whose The Whipping Man was well received in New York in 2011. Reverberation is a brand-new play about the debilitating consequences of grief and the interplay of loss and sexuality. Its thirty-five-year-old protagonist, Jonathan (the Canadian-born actor Luke MacFarlane, best known for the TV series Brothers and Sisters), has lived alone in Queens since his partner of fifteen years, Gabriel, was beaten to death in front of his eyes. His grief has paralyzed him.  He works out of his apartment, rarely venturing outside; he doesn’t keep up with friends; he turns down his parents’ offer to visit them in Oregon for Thanksgiving or Christmas. His only ongoing contact with the world is in the form of one-night stands with men he meets on Grindr, and he prefers them to visit him and gets rid of them when the sex is over. That’s what happens in the opening scene, where he has an intense sexual encounter with Wes (Carl Lundstedt), who’s twenty-three and so knocked out by the experience that he’s eager to see Jonathan again. “You fuck like you invented it,” he tells Jonathan, and a month or two later, when he gets up the nerve to come around to see him again, he’s both more graphic and more lyrical about what made Jonathan a more powerful, and also more poignant, lover than anyone else he’s known. By then we’ve figured out that Jonathan’s sexual performance is his way of holding onto his life with Gabe – of channeling those emotions once more – but he can only parcel them out in discrete, limited interactions. 

But by the time Wes rings his doorbell a second time, Jonathan has found a friend. Claire (Aya Cash) moves in upstairs, into the apartment Jonathan used to share with Gabe but abandoned after his murder, and is so aggressive about offering her friendship that she breaks down his practiced resistance to any kind of intrusion into his private life. Initially she makes the mistake of assuming he might want to sleep with her. Once they both recover from that embarrassment, and her need for comfort after an evening with an abusive date evokes his compassion – he shares his bed with her (in a non-sexual way) so that she feel safe and cared for – she becomes his pal, his confidant and practically his roommate. On the nights when he wakes up from nightmares, she reciprocates his generosity. By act two, however, it’s clear that their intimacy has become, for him, an unhealthy substitution for the loss of Gabriel. 

Carl Lundstedt and Luke Macfarlane.  (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Reverberation holds you, and all three of the characters feel real, three-dimensional, and I don’t think that’s a small feat. Contemporary American playwrights tend to use characters to make points (as Bathsheba Doran does in The Mystery of Love and Sex, the last new play I reviewed), and contemporary American plays with gay protagonists are more likely to employ characters as exhibits in sexual-political screeds (Casa Valentina, Mothers and Sons, The Nance). Lopez puts the characters first – not just Jonathan but Claire and Wes; he isn’t interested in lecturing the audience. Not all his ideas are good ones, though: for instance, Jonathan designs sympathy cards, which, he explains to Claire, find words for the things that are too hard for people to say for themselves. (Lopez underscores the meaning of Jonathan’s job when he tells her about Gabe’s death, and her response is “I don’t know what to say.” Case in point.) Sometimes he falls into the trap, especially tempting for young playwrights, of writing set-piece speeches. There’s one in the first scene, delivered by Jonathan to Wes, about the tactile quality of books that you don’t remotely believe a man who’s retreated from the world would say to a pick-up he’s trying to hustle out the door. (Plus it’s a device: Lopez needs to find a way for Jonathan to send Wes off with a copy of one of his favorite books, James Baldwin’s Another Country, to prepare his return in the second act.) And Jonathan’s speech to Claire about Gabe’s murder feels more like an audition piece, which is how MacFarlane performs it. 

The play falls apart at the end. When Wes comes back and talks about what their night together meant to him, his perspective is unexpected and even moving. But when he recounts their initial online exchange about movies and his surprise when Jonathan kissed him, you wonder if Lopez has forgotten the narrative set-up. Isn’t the idea of Grindr that it’s an easy, immediate means of finding sex partners? The real problem, though, is the Hollywood-thriller twist at the end, which (a) cheapens the drama and (b) doesn’t make sense when you run the plot back through your head (which is true of most such twists).

Jonathan is an extremely challenging role that doesn’t fully work; MacFarlane struggles with it, but the struggle is impressive, and even when he can’t quite get on top of the character, it’s an admirable performance. Lundstedt, a recent Carnegie Mellon graduate, is extremely touching as Wes; this is the kind of acting that deserves to kick-start a young actor’s career. And Cash shows both comic and dramatic range in the role of Claire. The three performers have been sensitively directed by Maxwell Williams, in a show that boasts superb production values: a fine two-level set by Andromache Chalfant, dynamic lighting by Matthew Richards, and costumes for Claire that manage to both articulate qualities in the character and give us a sense of how Jonathan sees her. (One of her outfits is a dress he buys her as a gift.) As a play, Reverberation balances virtues and faults; as a production, it telescopes the distance between Hartford and New York.

Capathia Jenkins, Ken Robinson, and Nathan Lee Graham in The Colored Museum. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I felt pummeled by The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play, which Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company has mounted on its Boston University mainstage. The last show I saw that was as smug, self-congratulatory and assaultive as The Scottsboro Boys, the screeching musical tirade about race by Kander and Ebb and David Thompson that Susan Stroman directed on Broadway five years ago, in which the notorious incident of the railroaded black men accused of raping a white woman was put in the form of a minstrel show. Wolfe’s equally obvious idea is to present late-twentieth-century African-American culture as a series of exhibits: the soldier dying in the jungles of Vietnam, the prettified models on the pages of Ebony, the Afro-versus-straightened-hair debate, the coked-up clubbing drag queen and so forth. The preface, “Git on Board,” where a stewardess on a time-traveling airplane instructs her passengers to put on their shackles, reveals Wolfe’s point of view in the first couple of minutes: a century and a quarter after emancipation, blacks are still no better than slaves – to vanity, fashion and self-delusion as well as racism. Man, does Wolfe ever think he’s clever, dropping one leaden irony after another. If you were lucky enough to drift off to sleep at the end of Exhibit #1 (“Cookin’ with Aunt Ethel,” where a down-home TV chef whips up a shawl of little black figurines that hangs around her neck like an albatross) and didn’t wake up until the finale, you’d still get the whole picture.

Never having seen any previous productions of the play, I couldn’t say if Billy Porter’s direction is overstated or merely renders the script as Wolfe intended it to be performed; my guess is that it’s pretty much a fait accompli on the page. The six members of the cast – Nathan Lee Graham, Capathia Jenkins, Ken Robinson, Shayna Small, Rema Webb and the dreadlocked percussionist Akili Jamal Haynes – work up a righteous sweat, and you can be impressed by their talent and energy even as it wears you down. The monologues are punishingly attenuated, and a sketch called “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” which takes on all of the drama Wolfe rejects as bourgeois – i.e., pretty much anything that’s appeared on Broadway that he didn’t have a part in, as either writer or director – feels interminable. (The only moment in it that perked me up was Jenkins’ impression of Jennifer Holliday in Dreamgirls.) One scene, “Symbiosis,” has a promising comic premise – an assimilated black man (Robinson) throws away all the emblems of his rebel sixties-seventies youth as the symbol of his younger self (Graham) protests – and ends well (he can’t let go of the Temptations singing “My Girl”), but in between Wolfe can’t resist turning it into yet one more lecture.

Indignation and outrage can fuel satire, though, as Voltaire and Swift and the Brecht of The Threepenny Opera knew, they’re only dramatically effective if they’re transformed. Contempt has no place in satire at all, and that’s the prevailing tone of The Colored Museum. It may cheer Wolfe to think that he’s superior not only to his subjects but to his audience, but that attitude works a kind of reverse magic on his play: the contemptuous becomes the contemptible. Both Jelly’s Last Jam, the Jelly Roll Morton musical he wrote and directed for the late, great Gregory Hines, and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, his tap-dancing extravaganza starring Savion Glover, suggested that African-American musical performers who succeeded in crossing the color barrier and making a hit with white audiences, like Morton and Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, were merely kissing the Man’s ass. Next season he’ll  be adapting the legendary 1921 black vaudeville show Shuffle Along into a musical about the original production, to star Glover and Audra McDonald.  Caveat emptor. 

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment