Animals

by Adam Cohen

Pork is on the menu along with race, identity, and personal history, insecurity, money, sex, love, jealousy, wine, and pot are explored in this taut tight-rope audio play by Stacy Osei-Kuffour.   This dinner party from Hell, co-produced by Williamstown Theatre Festival and Audible, is akin to watching a mixed doubles tennis match with the partners in round robin.  There’s tension aplenty amid these so-called friends.  With friends like these, Henry, Yaw, Lydia, and C pounce on one another at the slightest provocation. 

If your theatrical taste leans toward a modern day “Virginia Woolf”, Animals is a fine production.  This dinner party features tons of aggressive recriminations which quickly boil over along with credibility.  One wonders why any of these people would be friends, let alone in one another’s company for more than five minutes. 

Osei-Kuffour explores the four-dinner party attendee’s personal history, career choices, travel to Africa, adventure with a steady array of jibes and insults.  Pretension rages with Yaw and his resistance to meat, television, and cell phones, defense at teaching NYU.   

The evening begins with a proposal between Henry (Jason Butler Harner) and Lydia (Aja Naomi King).  She and Yaw (William Jackson Harper) have been friends for 15 years and celebrate their friendship anniversary with a dinner party.   Yaw brings Colleen (Madeline Brewer ) his latest girlfriend with a name beginning with “C.” The men definitely don’t like one another, and Henry’s timing and taste may well be suspect.    

Yaw, formerly Jason after a life-changing trip to Ghana, forsakes his Bed-Sty roots and potentially Lydia. He’s a philosophy professor at NYU, while Lydia teaches at City College, a clear flashpoint of professional jealousy. 

The verbal pyrotechnics – well-handled by the assured cast – ultimately turn a bit tiresome.  Our investment in the characters is somewhat sacrificed by the audio nature of the play – without seeing the actor’s faces and physicality…the play holds the same level of interest of overhearing a cell-phone conversation on the street.  There’s a line or two of intrigue but spending 90 minutes with the folks is ultimately intense and frustrating.   

Each couple is interracial, allowing the writer to explore cultural differences and jealousy.  The company changes in light of one another’s presence as Henry remarks that Lydia becomes “blacker. You exclude me around Yaw.” There’s a fragility to each character that could easily be explored but the director keeps the pacing frenetic, and the script jars beats with a frantic staccato.   

The benefits of the cast must be remarked upon for they are a highlight. King’s Lydia bravely flails with self-reconciliation while Harper has an astute arrogance and self-defense.  Their past relationship is believable and more palatable that either of their current paramours.  Brewer is a quiet force, steady, funny, realistically smitten with Yaw’s pretension.  Harner gracefully leans into the futility of the evening, bravely digging himself in deeper and deeper. 

White’s casting is the best part of an evening that may be better served with less frantic pacing.  There’s an art to the pause, but Osei-Kuffour has much to say about the tension of these relationships and their boiling points. 

The play can be heard via Audible at http://wtfestival.org

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