It was a thoughtful and forgiving audience that showed up at the Hattiloo Theatre for the opening-night performance of The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae. The patrons howled with laughter even when the show's humor lurched in uncomfortable directions. They applauded mid-scene when the performers in this absurdist courtroom drama made their points. A couple sitting behind me maintained a loud running dialogue throughout the entire show that consisted of little more than "This is fantastic," repeated over and over again. To be fair, Marcia L. Leslie's script is a comic wonder, and the uniformly strong cast was committed to some brave character choices. But the show was not fantastic. More's the pity, because it's a funny, provocative play, and with a little less pretension and a little more polish, it could be something special indeed.
The plaintiff's name is Victoria. And as the title of the show explains, she's a black woman. She's also short-sighted, because, well, that's also mandated in the title. Although she's been to college and has a fancy title, her job description is, essentially, dust management. That's right, she's the high-tech, possibly hot-to-trot cleaning lady at a firm that adapts old movies to newer viewing technologies. She blames her lower income and lack of upward mobility on the stereotypes of African-American women who appear in the same entertainments she adapts. The co-defendants are Mammy Louise, a ball of buttery love, and Safreeta Mae, her lazy, hyper-sexualized daughter who can't speak three sentences without incriminating herself. They are both fictional slaves and appear in broad caricature.
Leslie is a fierce satirist who uses burlesque and the natural tensions of a courtroom drama to keep the audience engaged in a didactic discussion about history as it relates to some unflattering media-generated images.
Patricia Smith, wide-eyed and grinning like she was posing with a pile of pancakes, is fearless as Mammy Louise. She bounces around the stage like a Max Fleischer cartoon, although she's anything but two-dimensional. Nicole Wilbourn is titillating and tragic as the unrepentantly sensual Safreeta Mae. Nia Glenn-Lopez shows a flair for physical comedy as the show's rolling-pin-wielding judge, and Meghann Oglesby makes a formidable defense attorney. Bart Mallard gives a confident performance, nearly stealing the show as he plays a variety of white male (and occasionally female) stereotypes. Sadly, all of this good work is in the service of a play that just doesn't seem like it is ready to open. The set, which functions both as a slave ship and a courtroom, looked unfinished and unstable. The lighting was so erratic it seemed like the operator might be making his cues up on the spot.
Hopefully, the cast and crew will become comfortable with their lines and with director Thomas "TeKay" King's overly artificial staging, and future audiences will get to see something truly fantastic.
Through April 10th
Truth be told, I'm more fascinated by the public's obsession with the Beales and Bouviers of Grey Gardens than I am with Grey Gardens itself. The 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers was enough for me. I didn't need an HBO film and am still somewhat baffled by the appearance of a Broadway musical. What is it about this study in dementia and decay that keeps us coming back for more?
Appropriately, director Jimmy LeDuc treats this unusual musical's first act like some lost collaboration between Noël Coward and F. Scott Fitzgerald, documenting a time when the Edies of Grey Gardens were glamorous, eccentric examples of American royalty. The second act cleaves closely to the Maysles' grimy documentary but plays out like a more tuneful version of Samuel Beckett's Footfalls, as mother and daughter maintain a strained, complex relationship in the ruins of the family mansion. Circuit's cast is first-rate and includes Bates Brooks (the elderly Edith), Carla McDonald (the younger Edith/older Little Edie), and Emily Pettet (young Edie).
I didn't think I could sit through a Grey Gardens musical, but as with the original documentary, I couldn't look away. And if Saturday night's capacity crowd is any indication, the Playhouse on the Square family of theaters has another hit on its hands.
Through April 17th