Saturday, June 4, 2016

War **

After enjoying all three plays I have seen by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Appropriate, An Octoroon and Gloria), I arrived at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater with high expectations. Unfortunately I was disappointed. Although I credit the playwright for his ambition and imagination, I did not feel that he had produced a coherent work. From reviews, I gather that the play has changed considerably since its 2014 Yale Rep premiere, Nevertheless it still did not seem like a finished product. The focus is divided among too many themes including sibling rivalry, family secrets, the scourge of dementia, dealing with parental illness, meeting parental expectations, racism in America and Germany from WWII to the present and man’s underlying simian nature. Particularly in the second act, there are too many long monologues that interrupt the flow. Roberta (the able Charlayne Woodard) is a well-to-do middle-aged African-American divorcee who has been rushed to a Washington hospital after suffering a stroke while visiting the ape house at the zoo. Her daughter Joanne (Rachel Nicks), a would-be children’s writer, is married to Malcolm (Reggie Gowland), a low key school teacher of no particular distinction, who is white. They have a young daughter. Joanne has only recently resumed a relationship with her mother after long years of estrangement. Her hostile brother Tate (Chris Myers), a political functionary working in Boston, flies in to be at his mother’s bedside and immediately lashes out at everyone including the kindly nurse (Lance Coadie Williams). We later learn that Tate and his male partner have recently split. Roberta was brought to the hospital by a mysterious woman who speaks almost no English; this is Elfriede (Michelle Shay), a German half-sister that Roberta has only recently discovered and, somewhat implausibly, never mentioned to anyone. Malcolm discovers a man staying at Roberta’s apartment, Elfriede’s angry son Tobias (Austin Durant), who is out to get a share of his late grandfather’s legacy. The nonstop shouting and bickering between Tate and everyone else grows quickly tiresome; Tate is so relentlessly nasty that I eventually cringed whenever he opened his mouth. The play’s most interesting feature is that for much of the first act we witness the comatose Roberta trying to regain her bearings with the assistance of a pack of gorillas led by Alpha (Williams again) whose language is projected as subtitles. It did not work for me. Simian imagery pervades the play from the monkey-sound taunts at Roberta’s father in Germany to the ape house at the zoo and the apes in her struggle for consciousness. Mimi Lien’s elegant scenic design is evocatively lit by Matt Frey. Montana Blanco’s costumes are apt. I can’t fault director Lileana Blain-Cruz for failing to bring all the disparate elements together better. While this evening was a disappointment, three hits out of four is still an enviable record for a playwright. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission.

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