By Harry Forbes
Andre (Alan Cumming), an older wealthy English art collector, smitten with Franklin (Ronald Peet), a young black aspiring visual artist, clashes with the latter’s zealous Christian mother Zora (Charlyane Woodard) when -- after her son never answers her calls -- she decides to leave her Virginia home to visit the collector’s luxurious glass house in Bel Air.
Danya Taymor’s striking production of Jeremy O’Harris’ lengthy -- partly realistic, partly surreal -- three-act play, subtitled “a melodrama,” is certainly classy. Matt Saunders’ art-dominated set design includes an onstage swimming pool (those in the front row should prepare for a bit of residual splashing), with spot-on costumes by Montana Levi Bianco, astute lighting capturing the varying times of day by Isabella Byrd, and arresting sound design by Lee Kinney, the last dominated by the tones of Franklin’s ringing cell phone. Taymor’s clever directorial groupings suggest visuals from iconic artworks.
Kinney also composed the original music and arrangements with Darius Smith, who did the vocal arrangements for the three-member gospel choir (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, and Onyie Nwachukwu) who appear, Greek chorus-like, throughout the play.
Performances are outstanding, starting with the three leads Cumming, Peet, and Woodard, who steals every scene in which she appears with her sassy, all-knowing, sardonic delivery.
Providing colorful support as Franklin’s self-absorbed (but loyal) friends are Tommy Dorfman as out-of-work actor Max and Kahyn Kim (very funny) as his best friend, the superficial but ultimately sensitive Bellamy, and Hari Nef as Alessia, the enthusiastic curator and gallery owner mounting Franklin’s first show, a collection of so-called “coon baby” dolls, with which she hopes to make her mark.
Nudity is pretty fearless here, with Cumming and Peet baring it all, but it’s not exploitative, and it seems part and parcel of a play that deal so forthrightly with hot-button issues, starting with the interracial, intergenerational central relationship.
The most vital part of the drama involves the conflict between Andre and Zora. One can’t help feeling that, in reality, a man in Andre’s position would probably not be so welcoming of his lover’s mother under his roof, nor that Zora, so obviously critical of their lifestyle, would last more than a couple of minutes there. But without her staying, of course, there’d be no drama.
Young playwright Harris writes very well indeed, with some deliciously lively exchanges, and dialogue that rings true. But despite the artful symmetry of the three-act structure -- each with its own mood and perspective on Franklin -- the basic dramatic arc doesn’t quite earn its three-act, two-hour and forty-five minute running time. The last act especially, though the most extravagantly theatrical of all, doesn’t ultimately offer a satisfying payoff.
Nonetheless, this is, for the most part, a highly absorbing evening, and a work of quality from a playwright to watch.
(The Pershing Square Signature Center, The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street; TheNewGroup.org. Or 212-279-4200; through March 31)
Photo by Matt Saunders: Front L-R: Alan Cumming, Ronald Peet, Charlayne Woodard; Back L-R: Onyie Nwachukwu, Denise Manning, Carrie Compere