Tuesday, February 23, 2016

149. Review: DOT (seen February 17, 2016)

“A Mind O’erthrown”
Stars range from 5-1.

Colman Domingo’s DOT, a serious comedy that premiered last year at Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, is painful. Not in an artistic sense, although the work is certainly problematic, but in regard to the difficulty—for anyone who’s gone through it—of contemplating the onset in a friend or family member of dementia. Regardless of all the warm-blooded talent involved in putting over Mr. Domingo’s patchily entertaining comedy, watching its charismatic central character deteriorating before your eyes as her loved ones attempt to deal with a foregone conclusion is far from easy, even when the play—loudly directed by Broadway A-lister Susan Stroman—is smothered in the feel-good bathos of a family Christmas gathering. (Another play opening this week, A ROOM OF MY OWN, looks at a dysfunctional Italian-American family during the holiday season.)
Marjorie Johnson, Finnerty Steeves. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
No one can dispute the topicality of a play dealing with dementia/Alzheimer’s—especially as mirrored in stories of adult children faced with a failing parent and worried about how to deal with her; films aside, the past few theatre seasons have demonstrated clearly how deeply writers have been affected by the problem. Related plays I’ve reviewed include IN MY FATHER’S WORDS, MY MOTHER HAS 4 NOSES, IT HAS TO BE YOU, TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY, THE LAST SEDER, and THE OUTGOING TIDE, not to mention works in which the subject is part of a subplot. Recent plays I haven't seen yet that treat dementia include THE HUMANS, HER REQUIEM, and SMOKEFALL. You could say a genre has been formed.
Sharon Washington, Stephen Conrad Moore. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The gathering in DOT is at the home of an African-American woman, Dotty Shealy (Marjorie Johnson), a doctor’s white-haired widow, who resides in the West Philadelphia home in which she raised her three children. She’s a feisty, intelligent woman, who cautions her kids against cussing but isn’t averse to the occasional profanity herself (including the “n” word) or even to asking someone if they have any “weed.” We meet her daughter, Shelly (Sharon Washington), a sharp-tongued attorney and the single mom of a nine-year-old boy, who has spent all her free time with her mother ever since her symptoms began accelerating; the blatant blast of blond (later changed to red) on her bob elicits a string of wisecracks, including Dotty’s calling it a “mean pineapple.”
Sharon Washington, Marjorie Johnson, Finnerty Steeves. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Then there’s Dotty’s son, Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore), a gay man married to a handsome, sweetly accommodating, white guy, Adam (Colin Hanlon), and struggling to survive as a freelance music writer in a field overtaken by online bloggers. Donnie and Adam squeeze a few big laughs from Adam's suspicion that Donnie is cheating on their juice cleanse regimen. Finally, we have Averie (Libya V. Pugh, greatly overdoing it), a would-be actress whose 15 seconds of fame was inspired by a YouTube video; loud and brassy, she wears a wavy, blond wig, dresses like a streetwalker, and seems more like the sistuh from another planet than a member of Dotty’s family. 
Sharon Washington, Libya V. Pugh, Colin Hanlon, Stephen Conrad Moore. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
DOT is basically a two-act, two-hour situation in search of a plot: Dotty’s symptoms worsen as her family considers her problem. As Christmas Eve morphs into the following morning, we observe her shift from what seems moderate short-term memory loss to seeing people who aren’t there or confusing those who are with others. Meanwhile, her children bicker, revealing their own frailties, as Shelly, fearing that Dotty may be contemplating suicide, works to bring them together with a plan to place their mom in an assisted living facility and to come up with a way to pay for it.

Additional color arrives in Jackie (Finnerty Steeves), a 40-year-old white neighbor and childhood friend of Shelly’s whose family refused to join the neighborhood’s white flight; she happens to have just returned to the vacant house she still owns after getting pregnant by a married man and quitting her New York job. Nostalgic humor arises from Jackie’s having been Donnie’s high school sweetheart before he came out, although she still has a thing for him. Least well-written (and least well-acted) is Fidel (Michael Rosen), a Kazakhstani refugee, with little English (or so we’re led to believe), paid to care for Dotty several days a week.
Stephen Conrad Moore, Colin Hanlon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The play’s two halves make uneasy stage fellows. For each act, designer Allen Moyer has created a substantial, realistic set—a 1950s-style kitchen for act one, a conventional living room for act two—both nicely lit by Ben Stanton. In act one, the exposition spills out amidst fast-paced, comic energy, with characters often speaking and shouting over each other and creating a heightened but often funny sitcom atmosphere. 

Act two, though, despite its occasional theatrics—including a romantically fantastical dance sequence with Dotty and Adam (Stroman specializes in musical theatre, after all)—is more straightforward, generally duller, and, increasingly, sentimental. Tom Morse’s sound design fills the air with pop standards by the likes of Streisand and Garland, played on the stereo (vinyl rules here), and Donnie “tinkles” the keys on the grand piano at length, playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with the cabaret-style touch of a Bobby Short, even though he claims he hasn’t played in years.

Marjorie Johnson’s strong yet subtle performance as Dot, who tries to resist submitting to the fog enveloping her, is the acting highlight; Ms. Johnson created the role at Louisville but was to be replaced in New York by Leslie Uggams until the latter was forced to leave by a TV commitment. The other memorable performance belongs to Ms. Washington, who plays the urgency of a daughter fighting to control the uncontrollable with comically fierce but spirited determination.

Even after it becomes clear that the play has nowhere new to go, Mr. Domingo pushes it along, including the introduction of a new subplot about Fidel within the final 20 minutes, which take place as five a.m. approaches. At that late/early hour the family appears as wide awake as if they’d had a good night’s sleep but I suspect the audience would have preferred the play to have ended at 4:40 a.m. stage time.


Vineyard Theatre
108 East Fifteenth Street, NYC
Through March 20