Are we finally breaking through the color bar in American theater? Is the tokenism represented by theaters programming one “diverse” play during Black History Month giving way to broader representation and bolder casting choices? Judging from the area’s summer theater lineup, it just might be.
In late June, for example, three plays focusing on people of color opened in Western Mass. One of them stipulates only that its two characters be played by actors of different races; another has four different ethnicities in a cast of six; another casts an African-American woman in a role previously played by whites.
I and You, at Chester Theatre Company through this weekend, “is about death – and life.” Those are teenage Anthony’s words, but he’s talking about Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It’s the assigned text in a high school American Lit class, and he has shown up unannounced in Caroline’s attic bedroom. (Juliana von Haubrich’s set is suitably messy, strung with fairy lights and hung with Caroline’s close-up photos of “detritus”) Anthony presents himself with a self-conscious flourish and a line from the poem: “I and this mystery, here we stand.”
Caroline is home sick from school, which is why he has come over to collaborate with her on a Whitman report that is due, like, tomorrow. Anthony is enthralled by the poet’s ecstatic verse as only a teenager can be, but those life-affirming stanzas fail to thrill Caroline because she has a life-threatening disorder that makes her terminally pissed off.
Of course, she is ultimately won over, not least by Anthony’s gentle persistence and whimsical humor. But she’s puzzled by his presence, and so are we, until it all comes together in a surprising (to me, anyway) reveal that could be corny but feels right.
The script is peppered with Whitman’s words — which I’m enthralled by, too, as only someone who first read him as a teenager can be — but the playwright’s ear is equally attuned to the cadences of adolescent vernacular and culture. (“I emailed you,” says Anthony in defense of his sudden appearance, to which Caroline replies, “Who checks email anymore?”)
Gunderson’s script has too many awkward turns on the way to its finale, but the performances, in Kristen van Ginhoven’s penetrating production, are, well, enthralling. Lilli Hokama is an affecting bundle of hopes and fears, passions and snits, and Paul Pontrelli is as playful, disarming and poignant as Leaves of Grass.
Another two-hander, playing at Williamstown Theatre Festival, is Jen Silverman’s The Roommate (through July 16). It stars Jane Kaczmarek and S. Epatha Merkerson, both of them small-screen veterans taking a summer hiatus, like many of their colleagues here and elsewhere, to renew and stretch themselves in live theater.
Here, both of them play defiantly and delightfully against their TV types. Merkerson is hardly the no-nonsense Lt. Van Buren we know from her long run on Law and Order, and Kaczmarek is anything but the uptight suburban mom of Malcolm in the Middle. Merkerson’s Sharon is a staid, divorced middle-class matron who doesn’t even realize she’s bored and restless. That is, until Robyn shows up — a gay, pot-smoking vegan on the run from a perilous life in New York, who rents a room in Sharon’s Iowa City house. (There are lots of Iowa jokes.) To Sharon’s cloistered, cardiganed simplicity Robyn is a swaggering daredevil — and a revelation.
What begins as an odd-couple-ish sitcom shifts as Robyn’s shady past is uncovered, then spins off into a giddy caper comedy with a touching undercurrent. As in I and You, some of the plotting is awkward, but the dialogue is sharp and often funny, and these two consummate pros so clearly relish their parts and their partnership that we do, too.
The Model American (through July 9) is the first of five world premieres scheduled for Williamstown this summer. The work of Korean-born Jason Kim, it’s introduced by as cheerfully unsettling a moment as you’re likely to see.
In a downstage spotlight, the ever-smiling Jae Won (Han Jonghoon) regales us in Korean, a jovial address in which my Anglo ears picked out only “America,” “Eldorado” and “Hah-vahd.” Then, just as we’re congratulating ourselves on getting the melting-pot point, he keeps going, and going, testing the limits of our multicultural patience till we finally get that point, too.
Gabriel (Hiram Delgado) is a newly arrived Latino immigrant, drawn by a glossy image of the American Dream and a burning drive to succeed. (His ambition: To become CEO of Coca-Cola, “because it’s the most American company.”) He lies his way into a job in a Dean’s Beans-like startup headed by Emmett (Maurice Jones), an idealistic entrepreneur who wants to help Third World craftspeople reach the First World market. Emmett’s sister Cora (Sheria Irving) is a recovering drug addict saved by religion.
Gabriel advances through hard work and bright ideas, especially after Emmett’s company is acquired by Tina (Laila Robins), a wry, vulpine venture capitalist. On his way up, he befriends fellow immigrant Jae Won, starts a romance with Jude (Micah Stock), sheds his accent, changes his name and sharpens his corporate shiv.
The Model American is not so much a drama as a fable of vaulting ambition, in which loyalty and betrayal, idealism and capitalism vie for the young man’s soul. Kim’s dialogue lacks depth and flair, and he tries to hit too many hot buttons at once, but the piece moves at a headlong pace fueled by Danny Sharron’s fluid direction. And once again, a flawed script is galvanized by pitch-perfect performances. All six cast members have created deeply etched characters who transcend their types and give the piece freshness and vitality.
Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and valleyadvocate.com/author/chris-rohmann.