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It has long been a rule of the theater that social change or tension is best examined in intimate situations. That, for all its prodigious humor, is the aim of Paul Oakley Stovall’s new play “Immediate Family,” now at the Mark Taper Forum. The play offers up an awkward reunion in a family full of secrets and unspoken tensions as a way to look at how the restructuring of the very concept of family creates its own issues in modern America.
The play covers so many issues at the same time that may be its only major flaw: one shuffles from tension to tension, meaning that some get shorter shrift than perhaps they should. Indeed, the playwright’s intent appears to be the conversations one will have afterward with others in attendance. Still, busy though it may be in content, the production itself proves so well conceived the audience leaves satisfied, as the characters prove likable, the comedy is genuine and the message surprisingly heartwarming.
The story takes place in the Hyde Park home in Chicago which Evy Bryant Jerome has inherited from her parents, a powerful African-American preacher father, Jessie, and his always-supportive wife. Indeed, their portrait hangs in the living room, surveying their progeny’s actions with implied expectation and judgement. Now Evy’s brother Tony is getting married, and the widely dispersed clan is gathering: half-sister Ronnie from her home in Europe, and Evy’s favorite brother Jesse, Jr. from New York. For Evy, this is her entire immediate family, but for Jessie, Jr. family extends beyond blood to the silly-tough neighbor girl he grew up with, Nina, and Jesse’s same-sex partner Kristian – whose arrival brings much to the surface.
The conversations this gathering inspires create the play, ranging from issues of orientation, race, class, to what makes a family a family. Evy’s determinedly cultured and almost desperately even approach plays against Nina’s brashness and unabashedly trashy humor. Kristian being a white Swede brings its own disquiets. Even the circumstances of Ronnie’s family connection create issues relating to the noble father’s potential feet of clay. The result is fast-paced, often very funny, sometimes equally wrenching, and a bit like encountering a rubber ball in a small box – bouncing around from surface to surface without ever landing anywhere for long.
The virtual choreography which keeps this from becoming a series of static conversations is beautifully designed by director Phylicia Rashad. Her sense of place and people connects these diverse characters and, with the aid of John Iacovelli’s evocative set, allows them large and small conversations and the intimacies of life in separate but unified spaces. And the performances are uniformly individual and strong.
Shanesia Davis’ upright Evy vibrates with the rigid strength of her upbringing – a sort of seething righteousness – even as it isolates her from the rest of the characters’ innate informality. Kamal Angelo Bolden’s casually happy Tony makes great counterpoint to Davis’ character, and that balance becomes essential. Bryan Terrell Clark gives Jesse a solidly non-stereotypical carriage and a certain playfulness which offsets the serious divisions this character sparks. Cynda Williams provides an egalitarian sense of civilization as Ronnie, the outsider-insider.
The two actual outsiders (at least from a certain perspective) are also the most unlike. Yet, both are catalysts for the necessary explosions which redefine the Bryants themselves. As Nina, the earthy lesbian from next door, J. Nicole Brooks gives a physicality to underlying sexual tensions with a gleeful abandon – an in-your-face counterpoint to the general gentility of the Bryant family. As Kristian, Jesse’s Swedish boyfriend, Mark Jude Sullivan starts out with an almost comical accent, but soon settles into a gentle but confident person determined to not be overlooked.
“Immediate Family” has a charming intimacy, even as it seems to cover a lot of ground rather quickly: religion, mendacity, acceptance, the importance of race, the shadow of a patriarch, all appear in sometimes rapid succession. And yet there are also moments of gentle depth, as the Bryants come gradually to terms with who they are, and how they relate to one-another. And there is laughter – almost constant, healthy laughter over people’s behaviors we cannot help but recognize.
In short, the play is very human. Performed without an intermission it will leave you wanting, truly wishing for, more. Still, what it has to say is apt, and with laughter it manages to get many points
across which might otherwise sink in more slowly. It is certainly worth a look.
What: “Immediate Family” When: through June 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Satudays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25-$85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org
The fact that playwright Bernard Weinraub spent most of his life working at prestigious newspapers obviously informs his work in the theater. Indeed, although nominated for awards in its off-Broadway run, his first play, “Accomplices,” met with mixed emotions among critics. Ostensibly detailing the U.S. government’s thwarting of attempts to rescue Jews from Europe as World War II began, it was hailed by some, but was labeled by other critics as more of a lecture or an expose´ than a play. Now his second work, “Above the Fold” hits closer to his personal and long-time professional home. Yet, there is the same sense of mixed emotions.
Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, “Above the Fold” examines the modern ethics of journalism in a time of shrinking print venues. It speaks to the value of a good story, over a right or balanced one. Such discussions have happened before, in books, in films as far back as the 50s (an example would be “Ace in the Hole”), and in examinations of modern media. The message of journalism and journalists as tools of the powerful is a recurring theme in modern times as well, as anyone knows who ever watched “The West Wing,” much less anyone paying attention to politics these days.
That which may be new in this play is more a matter of style and acting skill than some shocking revelation, or some great message of doom or hope we have not yet heard.
The story appears loosely based on the case of those Duke University LaCrosse players in 2006 wrongly accused of attacking a local African-American girl. It centers on Jane, a young New York Times writer sent to cover the story of three white fraternity brothers accused of raping the stripper engaged to perform at a frat party. Jane, anxious to get the more choice overseas assignments, plows into the middle of the tale when she arrives to cover the candidacy of a young southern district attorney. He hands her exclusive information about this potentially explosive rape story, and she is quick to run with it.
Jane ends up with a series of front page articles which feed the stereotype: rich white boys filled with entitlement, young and struggling African-American single mother abused by them, righteous district attorney determined to defend the local community against the university outsiders, etc. That she is African-American herself may make her even more ready to believe it all. Certainly, she gains a great deal from the notoriety of the story, as it grows. But the closer she looks at the situation, the more she begins to wonder about that story itself. Soon, she is faced with tough personal and professional choices.
The characters, except perhaps Jane herself, prove comparatively predictable. Still, they are played with fervor and care. Mark Hildreth’s earnest district attorney, soft-spoken, charming, and apparently without guile, gives plausibility to the reporter’s eagerness. Kristopher Higgins, Joe Massingill, and particularly Seamus Mulcahy make the three young men both suspicious frat boys and sympathetic human beings at turns. Kristy Johnson does what she can to develop the boys’ victim, with her erratic attention shifts and aura of addiction, beyond the elements of either two-dimensionality or stereotype. Arye Gross hits all the right notes as he plays the classic newspaper editor, nurturing to young talent while responsible to the publisher upstairs.
Still, what makes this play worth watching, predictability, and stereotypical situations and characters notwithstanding, is Taraji P. Henson as Jane. Her ethical wrestlings prove very real, as does her outrage as the story she is telling slips out of her grasp and becomes larger than she can possibly control. Watching the character’s move from what she at least sees as detached professionalism to passionate care, to angry disillusion keeps the audience’s focus and brings a certain gravitas to what might otherwise be a Movie of the Week.
“Above the Fold” may not be a great play, but it has performances worth watching. Director Steven Robman keeps the intensity at a heightened level, and – in concert with Jeffery P. Eisenmann’s fascinating set pieces – intensely immediate. Costumer Dana Rebecca Woods provides instant definition for each character. It’s all done in grand style. Just don’t go expecting to learn something you did not know, and you’re fine.
What: “Above the Fold” When: Through February 23, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave in Pasadena How Much: $38 – $72 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org