It could be that, after months of having to watch actors in two dimensions on screens, I am so grateful to be in the company of life-sized human beings that I’m in a glass half-full mode. I have seen a few plays recently that I think fall short, but I was grateful for them because of performances I would not have wanted to miss.
A lot of the press has noted that Douglas Carter Beane’s Fairycakes bears more than a passing resemblance to the Sondheim-Lapine musical, Into the Woods. Both mash up fairy tales, though Beane adds A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the mix. I miss the aspect of Midsummer that I have always found most intriguing: during the night, three distinct communities that ordinarily have nothing to do with each other – the aristocrats, the fairy world and the rude mechanicals – interact with each other intimately. By eliminating Midsummer’s aristocrats and rude mechanicals, much of the point of the play seems to me to be gone. (Beane might well say that, by adding Elizabeth I and a wood-carver into the mix, other communities are represented, though, in my opinion, not to similar effect.) The plot is wispy to the point of evaporation. Mostly Beane seems to be looking to have easy fun with anachronisms and topical jokes coming out of the mouths of classic characters. Jay Ward’s “Fractured Fairytale” cartoons used to accomplish much the same thing, and they ran under six minutes.
But. Jackie Hoffman. Julie Halston. Ann Harada. Kristolyn Lloyd. There is enough meat on Beane’s spare ribs for each of these performers to make meals of. Jackie Hoffman standing flat-footed in a tutu taking a stab at magical gestures (when she’d just as soon stab an olive with a toothpick) is enough to put me away for minutes. Julie Halston’s joy in being fully present lifts my heart. (Sometimes watching her react to others is more interesting than what she is reacting to.) Ann Harada has a matter-of-fact wryness and a commendable willingness to be a good sport. And Kristolyn Lloyd sings so beautifully that one can almost miss how cheerfully she subverts the conventions of leading lady tropes. When the material itself isn’t engaging, Gregory Gale’s costumes reward detailed examination, including the various ways he has supplied much of the cast with wings. Beane has written better plays. I trust he will write better plays in the future. If this evening feels like minor work from him, I was happy to have the company he assembled.
Douglas Lyons’s Chicken and Biscuits promises a couple of hours of family bickering culminating in a group hug. And that’s pretty much what it delivers. The patriarch, a minister, has died, and family members gather for the memorial presided over by the son-in-law who is taking over his post. Some unsurprising secrets come out, and there is the usual quota of low-grade insult humor familiar from decades of watching sitcoms. Again, for me, the pleasure was in watching performers make the most out of material that didn’t challenge them much. Norm Lewis radiates ease as the new minister. Ebony Marshall-Oliver and Cleo King spar as battling sisters in rhythms so familiar that you have to resist the impulse to sing along. With fresh memories of watching Michael Urie in Gogol and Fierstein, it’s a little disappointing to see him hemmed in by the conventions of the gay Jewish boyfriend, but he’ll be back in something more satisfying soon, and in the meantime he lands some solid laughs. A search engine informs me that it was Muriel Spark who wrote the line (for her sniffy character Miss Jean Brodie), “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.” Well, for those who like watching archetypes of Black comedy tag familiar bases, the evening will be enjoyable. The audience I was with made clear they were having a very good time indeed.
The audience at Keenan Scott II’s Thoughts of a Colored Man was also enthusiastic, often breaking into applause in reaction to specific lines or at the end of passages. I share their enthusiasm for the cast and about three-quarters of the text. The play depicts one day in the lives of seven Black men in a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Scott is at his best when being specific – either in monologues or in ensemble scenes set in a barbershop. He has a talent for illuminating the individual perspectives and philosophies of characters he intends to reflect a range of experiences. I had problems with him identifying them not with concrete names but with qualities – Lust, Wisdom, Depression, Love, etc. These characters are too rich to be labeled so reductively. Rather than letting the audience respond to the best of his material with our own feelings and theories, Scott insists on explicitly articulating the themes he wants to make sure we’ve apprehended. I think he should have trusted us more. I hope in his future plays he will ditch the overt editorializing and allow his gifts as a dramatist full expression. Even so, Thoughts of a Colored Man is more stimulating than Fairycakes and Chickens and Biscuits. Like them, it offers a platform for a company of gifted performers, but the best of it reaches for and frequently achieves more.