Friday, March 15, 2019

185 (2018-2019): Review: SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY (seen March 14, 2019)

“Do unto Others"

Even if you’re not religious, these often-quoted words from Psalm 23. 6 will likely sound familiar: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” They certainly provide an ideal inspiration for the title of Chisa Hutchinson’s slim, clumsily constructed, but ultimately heartwarming new play, Surely Goodness and Mercy, the Keen Company’s latest offering.
Jay Mazcyk, Courtney Thomas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The importance of goodness and mercy is embodied in a play about Tino (Jay Mazyck), a black boy, 11 going on 12, who has been living in Newark, NJ, with his stingy, physically abusive aunt, Aineesa (Sarita Covington); his mom was killed in a shooting and he has no idea who his dad is. A star pupil gifted with a photographic memory, Tino has taken an interest in religion, studying the bible and attending a local Baptist church, where he finds encouragement in the charismatic but unseen preacher’s (Cezar Williams) sermons.
Jay Mazyck, Sarita Covington. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Though unpopular with other kids at school, the introspective, nerdy Tino befriends Deja (Courtney Thomas), cute, smart, and sassy. He also finds a modicum of relief from his pressures in the kindness shown him by Bernadette (Brenda Pressley), the curmudgeonly middle-aged mother figure who runs the school cafeteria. Tino’s sense of goodness and mercy kick in after she’s diagnosed with MS and needs help to cover her medical costs.
Jay Mazyck, Courtney Thomas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
While Tino (with Deja) is engaged in doing something to help Bernadette in her hour of need, so is she on his behalf, neither of them aware of the other’s actions. Thereupon, Hutchinson, abruptly ends her play, having neatly tied together her tale about people who need people (and do something about it) being the luckiest people in the world.
Brenda Pressley, Jay Mazyck. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Surely Goodness and Mercy plays out like an after-school special aimed at kids from 10-16. However instructive its lesson about goodness and mercy may be, the play can’t escape feeling like a morality play packaged in giftwrap designed by O. Henry.
Brenda Pressley, Courtney Thomas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The use of amplified offstage voices for some scenes, like Williams’s for both the preacher and the school principal, and Thomas’s for Tino’s teacher, works well, especially as both actors make their every word count. 

But the teacher has a scene that, while one of the best acted in the show, got under my former educator’s skin, the wrong way. In it, Tino and his teacher engage in a debate over whether the word “group” takes “is” or “are” in the sentence, “The group of girls (blank) laughing too loudly.” The erring teacher is unwilling to accept Tino’s correction of her mistake. Because of the school’s zero policy for disrespectful behavior, he gets punished by the principal.
Jay Mazyck, Courtney Thomas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
While similar miscarriages of educational justice occur daily, it seems highly unlikely that any teacher, even one not wishing to be embarrassed, would argue as this one does with a star pupil who gets every question right (to her annoyance), without first checking another source (may I suggest her smart phone?). It’s also debatable, given the reasonableness otherwise displayed by the principal, as to whether so stellar a student, with such a clean record, would be thus punished without even a hearing involving the teacher, who herself deserves a reprimand. The situation is simply too contrived to be convincing.
Courtney Thomas, Brenda Pressley, Jay Mazyck. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Hutchinson’s 90-minute play, which includes an unnecessary 10-minute intermission, is broken into many scenes, some only a few seconds long. This requires well over a half-dozen locales to be present simultaneously. Set designer Lee Savage, is forced to use minimal means on several levels to show two bedrooms, a living room, a church, a hospital room, a classroom, a cafeteria, an office, and so on, to prevent tempo-retarding shifts. With so much furniture cluttering the stage, we get an inescapably amateurish, on-the-cheap look, more like a high school production than an Off-Broadway one.

Nor does director Jessi D. Hill’s direction help. Pacing, timing, and interpersonal dynamics are off, with perhaps the biggest problem being how dully flat are the many scene transitions, something even the final moment can’t escape. So soft is it, in fact, that the audience needs a moment to realize the plane has landed.

While the ensemble’s acting ranges from acceptable to excellent, the casting of 19-year-old Jay Mazyck as Tino and MFA-holder Courtney Thomas as the kids seriously dilutes the play’s impact and distracts from what they’re saying and doing. There are shows whose styles allow for adult actors to play much younger characters because they’re able to establish a dramatic convention the audience knows it’s being asked to willingly accept. No such convention is at work here, so when we hear how old Tino is—his geekiness brings Steve Urkel to mind—it’s hard not to hear Urkel saying, “Whoa, Mama!” 
Sarita Covington, Jay Mazyck. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As I wrote this review, I spotted Hutchinson’s brief program note: “This play is my answer to the White Savior narrative, a simple assertion that you don’t have to be a particular race—or age or class, for that matter—to be a blessing to someone else. That’s all. Enjoy.” I watched the play, sometimes enjoying it, sometimes not, without any awareness of her socio-political position. Nor need you be. Surely Goodness and Mercy may be contrived and sentimental but it has a human heart that beats for itself, kind of making Hutchinson’s comment moot.

Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through April 13