Sunday, January 16, 2011
The Whipping Man ***
Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting the New York premiere of Matthew Lopez's historical drama on its City Center stage. The premise that Lopez asks us to accept -- that the household slaves in a Jewish household in Richmond practiced Judaism -- is not totally implausible: in Biblical times, Jews encouraged their slaves to convert and circumcised the males whether or not they converted. Lopez takes the coincidence that the Confederate surrender occurred one day before the beginning of Passover and runs with it to spin an interesting tale of deceit, betrayal and mutual dependence that culminates in a seder. Caleb DeLeon (Jay Wilkinson), the Jewish family's son, is a seriously wounded Confederate officer who returns from the war to find his home looted, partially destroyed and deserted except for the family's longtime servant Simon (Andre Braugher). The two are soon joined by John (Andre Holland), a former slave Caleb's age with a knack for trouble. At Simon's suggestion, they hold a seder, during which they read and discuss verses about the nature of slavery and freedom. At the seder, secrets are revealed that forever alter their ties. The play has some awkward moments, but was consistently interesting. The acting was good and Doug Hughes's direction was smooth. John Lee Beatty's set and Ben Stanton's lighting were grimly effective, although I could have done without the symbolic lightning, thunder and rain that never cease.Warning: the first scene is extremely grisly.