Sunday, February 22, 2015

159 (2014-2015) Review of RASHEEDA SPEAKING (February 19, 2015)

"Pinkins and Wiest: A Provocative Odd Couple"

If the amount of hilarity generated in an audience were any indication of its success, the New Group’s production of Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson’s RASHEEDA SPEAKING—originally seen at the Windy City’s Rivendell Theatre—would qualify as the laugh riot of the still young year. Although this icy-hearted viewer was an infrequent participant in the evening’s jocularity, he nevertheless found himself rather taken by Johnson’s often penetrating, if also occasionally implausible, depiction of racial tensions simmering under the surface of a mundane workplace situation.
Tonya Pinkins (rear), Dianne Wiest. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The New York production, given an acutely observed staging at the Pershing Square Signature Center by well-known actress Cynthia Nixon, making her directorial debut, benefits from an exceptional ensemble led by Tony Pinkins and Dianne Wiest. Pinkins plays Jaclyn, a prickly African American lady with a towering hairdo and a shoulder chip to match who’s been working in the office of Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein), a surgeon, for the past six months. Wiest plays her coworker, Ileen, who’s been there eight years.
Darren Goldstein, Tonya Pinkins. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Early one workday morning, prior to the arrival of Jaclyn, who’s been on sick leave for five days, Dr. Williams asks Ileen—whom he’s promoted to office manager, despite there being only two employees—to keep a record of Jaclyn’s behavior, which he needs as documentation; he’s dissatisfied with Jaclyn and wants to fire (actually, “transfer”) her. This, of course, is not such a simple thing in a world where Human Resources vets every such request for evidence of bias, especially when minority employees are involved. The timid, naively agreeable Ileen is very uncomfortable with the request, which is tantamount to spying on her friend, but she allows her attractive boss to manipulate her into acquiescing. Thus begins a tense cat and mouse game forcing her to behave deceptively in the face of Jaclyn’s rightfully suspicious and deliciously devious retaliatory reactions.
Dianne Wiest, Patricia Conolly. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Jaclyn gives Ileen plenty of fodder for her notebook (which Jaclyn surreptitiously examines); Jaclyn’s behavior, as with her officious treatment of an elderly patient named Rose (Patricia Conolly), will not endear her to most audience members. But she’s a complex person, with engaging qualities that partly mitigate her unpleasant ones. And her various takes on being black in white America sting like a bee.

Despite convincing-sounding dialogue, however, some moments seem forced for the sake of stirring controversy or getting a laugh, as when Rose politely tells Jaclyn that her behavior comes from her desire to take revenge for slavery. Rose may be an old biddy, but there’s nothing about her to suggest a total idiot. Another frisson-inducer is when the mousy Ileen agrees to carry a gun as protection from Jaclyn, whom her family has warned her may be dangerous. And the name in the title, explained as a common reference by middle-class white men for a type of working-class black woman, came as a big surprise to this middle-class white man, although it does set the stage for a funny tag line.

That the cast—performing on Allen Moyer’s perfect rendition of an office/waiting room, realistically lit by Jennifer Tipton, and appropriately clothed by Toni-Leslie James—manages to overcome the play’s shortcomings and make what transpires both believable and funny is a tribute to their talent and Nixon’s guidance. Goldstein underplays his supercilious, egotistic, I’m- not-a-racist doctor with a laidback vibe suggestive of comedian Louis C.K., while Conolly brings her veteran comedic chops to the elderly Rose.

Of course, the show belongs to Wiest and Pinkins, the former playing a somewhat ditzier version of the vulnerable, verge-of-tears hummingbirds at which she’s so adept. She’s wonderful in the early scenes, especially when faced with the dilemma of being asked to spy, but the way the play forces the character to evolve isn’t totally convincing. Pinkins steals the spotlight, making Jaclyn—with her workplace grievances, such as complaints about toxins in the air—a completely recognizable pain in the butt, but she’s still able, despite being so annoying, to find the human being inside and make you empathize with her.

After ninety minutes with RASHEEDA SPEAKING’s thought-provoking office politics, racial grumbling, and employee-on-employee espionage you’ll be glad to get back to your own job where, surely, nothing faintly like this ever happens.

The Pershing Square Signature Center
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 22