By Samuel L. Leiter
When’s the last time you saw 15 talented actors doing a nonmusical show on a tiny Off-Broadway stage? For me, it was last night at The Barrow Group, where an exceptionally well-acted, theatrically satisfying, and thematically pertinent series of nine playlets opened under the title Awake. The versatile playwright is K. Lorrel Manning, who also directed and stars in one of them.
Most of these 10-15-minute pieces, which fill a program that runs two hours with a single intermission, wouldn’t qualify as complete one-act plays. They tend to be sketches or vignettes, highlighting a particular issue—racism, white privilege, and immigration among them—three being monologues and the others focusing on two characters, with a third person sometimes peripherally involved. Just enough information is provided to establish the situation, and the endings are usually left more or less vague.
The overall approach borrows strongly—whether consciously or not—from the Neil LaBute playbook, with recognizably contemporary young people engaged in naturalistic conversations that explore the fissions and contradictions roiling our social consciousness. None of the material is especially explosive but it’s sufficiently thought-provoking, the dialogue sounds authentic, and, despite a generally serious tone, a satirical undertone helps prompt more than a few laughs.
Chika Shimizu’s simple set—excellently lit by Daisy Long—is a wood-planked platform backed by a translucent, latticed screen. When the audience enters, the platform is filled with an artfully arranged pile of steel chairs that look like they’ve been assembled from spare pipes. Then the team of actors rushes in through the audience, disassembling the pile, and setting the chairs up on either side of the platform, where each takes a seat, watching the scenes go by.
In “The ‘N’ Connection” two adoring lovers, Matt (Michael Giese) and Melanie (Madeleine Mfuru), he white and she black, get testy when she overhears someone he’s on the phone with use the “n-word” and he doesn’t upbraid the caller for doing so. In response, he wonders why she doesn’t call out her friends for their “white people this” and “white people that” remarks.
“Saving Souls,” one of my two favorite scenes, takes us to the office of a charter school administrator, Mrs. West (Julia Ryan), who confronts Bertina (Nelly Saviñon), a Latino mother, about a class project Bertina’s son has done on Hitler. Despite the excellence of the project and its apparently objective approach, its subject nonetheless triggers strong enough reactions to threaten the son’s academic status, forcing the mother to fight back. The piece would make an excellent companion to LaBute’s “The Fourth Reich,” in his currently running LaBute New Theater Festival, where a man attempts to rationalize Hitler’s behavior.
“Carlos, The Protector” is a monologue in which a Latino cop named Carlos (Jose Eduardo Ramos) is being interrogated for something he’s done. His words express the difficulty even the most decent officers face when forced to make split-second decisions, especially in a confrontation with someone black.
“The Date,” the other most notable entry, takes place at an expensive restaurant where a well-dressed Wall Street type, Martin (Garen McRoberts), meets the luscious redhead, Susan (Anna Russell), for a date. It doesn’t take long for the conversation to seriously disturb her as Martin, for all his smilingly confident offhandedness, betrays his racist attitudes. The patient presence of a black female server (Madeleine Mfuru) only intensifies the situation.
The final scene before the break is “A&J Rule the Universe,” in which crudely juvenile high school losers, Alex (Vinny Baierlein) and Jeremy (Trey Santiago-Hudson), riff about various things, sex included, as they head somewhere in a stolen car. What happens afterward is left to our imagination, but we know they’re planning something terrible.
Act Two begins with “Flowers,” a monologue in which Cynthia (Sandra Parris), a black woman in her 40s, having been sentenced by a judge to an anger management group, explains the circumstances that brought her here. They’re related to the notion of liberal tokenism that arises when Cynthia’s white girlfriend insists that she join her all-white movie discussion club.
“The Interview” features a young black man, Eddie (Eddie K. Robinson), encountering Brandon (Manning, the playwright/director), a noted black pastor and city council member, in a café. Eddie insists on interviewing the busy man for his school paper, then uses the opportunity to berate him for his hypocrisy regarding homosexuality.
In “Hands,” another monologue, a South Asian immigrant, Aaleyah (Nandita Chandra), honored with a Helping Hands Award, delivers a charming acceptance speech in which she makes a plea for universal tolerance.
Finally, in “The Future?,” an 18-year-old Latinx girl, Jennifer (Ana Roshelle Diaz), and her 14-year-old brother, Max (Luka Kain), are driving somewhere and talking about things like pop songs and their sexist and feminist subtexts, climate change, and God. Soon, though, we discover that what they’re planning is related to the mass roundups being conducted against undocumented immigrants.
As usual in such programs, the writing varies from piece to piece. Holding the thing together like Gorilla Glue is the collectively high quality of the ensemble, in which each role is perfectly realized. K. Lorrel Manning deserves much credit for pulling everything together. He clearly knows how to write scenes. I anxiously wait to see what he can do with a full-length play.
Awake. Through February 8, at The Barrow Group (TBG) Theater (312 West 36th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). www.barrowgroup.org
Photos: Edward T. Morris