Sunday, April 7, 2019

205 (2018-2019): Review: WHITE NOISE (seen April 6, 2019)

“It Ain’t Heavy; It’s My Collar”

For a white theatregoer, spending a weekend at the Public Theatre seeing White Noise by Pulitzer-winning veteran Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog, Father Comes Home from the War [Parts 1, 2, &3]) and Ain't No Mo'  by newcomer Jordan E. Cooper, is like being immersed in a cauldron of African-American identity politics designed to draw laughs, incite fears (not tears), and teach lessons regarding common white assumptions about American race relations. In particular, such visitors will encounter the increasingly familiar playwriting theme of white privilege. 
Daveed Diggs, Zoe Winters. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Both plays have satirically provocative premises, White Noise, the less successful of the two, being based on an educated black man’s request that his best friend, a rich, white man, sign a contract making the former the latter’s slave. (It’s a situation reminiscent of last fall’s Slave Play.) Even more preposterously, but with sharper theatrical effect, Ain’t No Mo’ displays America’s black population leaving to live in Africa.
Daveed Diggs, Thomas Sadoski, Zoe Winters, Sheria Irving. Photo: Joan Marcus.
White Noise has many interesting, even compelling scenes; it may even be the first mainstream play to include actual bowling. On balance, however, it’s overlong (three hours and 15 minutes), overwritten, and often preachy in its depiction of two interracial couples. One is the black Leo (Daveed Diggs, Hamilton), a studio artist, and the white Dawn (Zoë Winters, The Last Match), a lawyer. The other is Ralph (Thomas Sadoski, reasons to be pretty, TV’s “The Newsroom”), a white writer/college prof, and Misha (Sheria Irving), the black host of a live-stream web show, “Ask a Black.”
Zoe Winters, Sheria Irving, Thomas Sadoski. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Although Ralph and Leo are too hetero to make it with each other, Ralph previously was with Misha, Leo was with Dawn, and there’s a thing going on between Dawn and Misha. Leo, a champion bowler in college, where he befriended Ralph, suffers from insomnia; Ralph, who lives off a sizable trust fund, has writer’s block and can’t land a promotion (it goes to someone else for reasons of “diversity”); Dawn, who practices law (as a deliberate career move) for a second-rate firm, is sensitive to racial oppression, and is defending a black teenager accused of an unspecified crime; and Misha, hosting her show by affecting a broadly stereotypical African-American accent and gestures, takes call-in questions, many innocuous, related to being black.
Thomas Sadoski, Zoe Winters. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Once these things are established, Leo, who’s been beaten by the cops in an example of racial profiling, and whose painting is suffering, becomes convinced that the only way he can have peace of mind is by having Ralph sign a contract stating that, for 40 days and a student loan payoff of $89,000, he becomes Ralph’s slave. This, he's convinced, will give him a protective shield such as he believes old-time slaves enjoyed. Although everyone is repelled by the idea, Ralph eventually succumbs. Leo finds that he can now actually sleep, while Ralph becomes empowered, tightening his control over Leo (wait for that metal “punishment collar”) while simultaneously overcoming his writer’s block.
Thomas Sadoski, Daveed Diggs. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Despite such artificialities as lengthy, didactic monologues (especially Misha’s) delivered directly to the audience by each character, the acting in Oskar Eustis’s production is realistic. Clint Ramos’s set though, is minimalist even though it incorporates a partial bowling alley, ball return lanes included. (At the matinee I attended, a leg on one of the few pieces of furniture, a pink leather chair, collapsed, but the sharp-witted actors used it to get a couple of good laughs.) The Act One setup leading to the contract, while hardly credible, is believable enough within what’s clearly intended as a parable and not a slice of life.
Daveed Diggs, Sheria Irving. Photo: Joan Marcus.
But in Act Two, Parks diverges from her essentially straightforward narrative into too many side issues, failing to convincingly follow through on the slave-master story, while introducing distracting material such as the women’s lesbian attraction, Ralph’s (Chekhovian) cleaning of a pistol, or his joining a secret club of white men with vaguely noted, racially biased proclivities. Things get weirder, and more violent, as the play builds to a bizarre climax at the Spot, a bowling alley owned by Ralph, where bets have been placed by the club members on Leo’s ability to bowl a perfect game.
Thomas Sadoski, Daveed Diggs, Zoe Winters, Sheria Irving. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Each excellent actor works doubly hard to sustain interest in the characters, their relationships, and whatever Parks is saying, but there’s too much blah blah to succeed. We perk up, perhaps, when Ralph and Dawn hook up on the bowling alley floor (business must have been slow that day), or when the bowling itself occurs.
Zoe Winters, Thomas Sadoski, Daveed Diggs, Sheria Irving. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Those scenes, in fact, will be remembered long after the play’s rhetoric is forgotten, as the actors, greatly aided by Dan Moses Schreier’s authentic sound effects of unseen strikes, spares, and gutter balls bowl straight into a space beneath the seats, while video screens display graphics depicting the results. It seems, though, an unnecessary device that might have worked as well with mime, just as another play I saw several years ago created a convincing roller derby without actual skates.

Real bowling or not, however, White Noise comes nowhere near a perfect game.

Public Theatre/Anspacher Theatre
425 Lafayette Ave., NYC
Through May 5