Thursday, June 20, 2019

32 (2019-2020): Review: THE GREAT NOVEL (seen June 19, 2019)

"Some Plays Are Born Not So Great"
Amina Henry’s The Great Novel, a 95-minute play in the Flea’s Siggy space, directed by Sarah Norris, is the latest project from the New Light Theater Project (Breeders). Henry, a product of Brooklyn College’s highly lauded MFA Playwriting program, has written what is, in essence, a conventional play that she and her director have gussied up with unnecessary, pseudo-absurdist distractions. These provide an artistic gloss that does little to elevate its style or substance.
MaryKathryn Kopp, Tabatha Gayle, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Bertha (Nikki E. Walker) is a Jamaica-born, New York-raised black woman who has been working for ten years as a maid for the Brennans, a privileged Upper East Side white family. This includes the businessman father, Dick (Joshua Bermudez); his teenage daughters, Charlotte (MaryKathryn Kopp) and Anne (Tabatha Gayle); and his 23-year-old son, Saul (Michael Aguirre).

To represent their home, scene designer An-Lin Dauber has filled in the spaces between the brick pillars, which form a permanent backdrop on the Siggy’s wide, shallow stage, with sheer, white curtains. The set itself is little more than posh-looking, antique furniture, a fireplace with a mantel, and a mirror-like, lozenge-shaped wall decoration on which scene titles are projected. Near the play’s end, tropical vegetation (lushly lit by Christina Tang) can be seen when the curtains are pulled aside.
Tabatha Gayle, Joshua Bermudez, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Dick, whose name probably is intended as a jokey slur on his vacant character (it’s his disaffected son’s preferred salutation, rather than “Dad”), is mourning the loss of his wife, who died a year earlier. He’s content to let Bertha handle the parental care of his kids, as well as every trivial household chore (like winding the clock, despite references to today’s world), while ignoring her as a human being.
Michael Aguirre, Joshua Bermudez. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Seventeen-year-old Charlotte, an obnoxious, spoiled, drama queen, turns everything into a melodrama about herself. Anne, the most normal child, is a 13-year-old suffering from an insistent cold; she serves mainly as a convenient target for her selfish sister’s rants. Like her sister, she traipses through the play in a white peignoir (costumes by Mari Taylor), regardless of the time of day.
Oghenero Ghaje, MaryKathryn Kopp. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Saul is a substance-abusing, self-hating, feckless loser. Apart from Bertha, the only other family outsider is Potter (Oghenero Gbaje), Charlotte’s British-accented boyfriend and schoolmate, whom she, romantic to the point of delusion, considers her “lover.”
Michael Aguirre, Tabathat Gayle, MaryKathryn Kopp. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Bertha, burdened by her six-days-a-week job and the numerous responsibilities it entails, wants more time to write what she believes will be a great novel, although she hasn’t a clue about what its subject. When we first meet her, she’s struggling not only to jot down the first sentence, she doesn’t even know who her characters will be, what they look like, or what their story will be. From what we’re shown, Bertha seems to have neither the imagination, knowledge, nor skill to write even a short story, much less a novel; on the other hand, she’s familiar with the stereotypical tropes of classic British literature. She thus settles for writing about the Brennans, noting, to our incredulity, how “interesting” they are.
Madeline McCray, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
But then a ghost appears to tell her otherwise. This is her late Granny (Madeline McCray), a colorfully overstated, Jamaican-accented woman in Caribbean garb, who watches over and disapproves of Bertha’s choices, insisting that she must write a novel about her own family in Jamaica. She herself keeps providing anecdotal and atmospheric background. How lucky to have a dead amanuensis available to do all one’s research, wouldn’t you say?
Madeline McCray. Photo: Hunter Canning.
There’s nothing especially ghostly about her (aside from no one but Bertha being able to see her) and, for some reason, she often says her lines directly to us as well as to her granddaughter. Granny is a clumsy device for expressing Bertha’s internal thought processes, giving her someone other than the Brennans with whom to examine her options and to offer advice, such as that she make money by stealing an objet d’art favored by Dick’s late wife.
Joshua Bermudez, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Ultimately, Bertha has had enough. A climactic scene at the end with Dick allows her to get everything off her chest so she can return to her cultural roots (and accent) and write the novel Granny has been insisting on all along.
Nikki E. Walker, Madeline McCray. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Perhaps to pump some blood into this rather anemic tale, director Norris has the actors play everything in a heightened style that attempts to comment on their characters but that results in what could most politely be called overacting. Very little of what they do helps the audience make an investment in the basic reality of the action, since it’s hard to care about cartoons. Here and there something truthful emerges. I also guess you could say that Kopp’s Charlotte accurately limns the nasal tones of what resemble those of a vapid Valley Girl, even with the occasional vocal fry. Charlotte, of course, is a New Yorker, but one takes what one can get.
Tabatha Gayle, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Just as disturbing is the choice to have the multiethnic cast wear partial whiteface makeup. Henry explains in the script that race and ethnicity are social constructs, so she’s inspired to make an experiment “to draw attention to the social construction of race by having all actors, except for Granny, in white face.” This is intended to underline the irrelevance of race in the casting and signify “the diverse racial and ethnic tapestry of the world.”

This may be a noble ideal but, in practice, it only works against itself. The Great Novel is a play in which a black woman works for a white family but it actually never specifically introduces the issue of race; with some slight revision, it could as easily be about a Polish maid. And it certainly doesn’t need this annoyingly distracting “Day of Absence” convention, which draws attention to something outside the play’s scope.

When you see a multiethnic cast—apart from those playing Bertha and Granny—with the upper half of their faces painted white (the white actors included), you see actors who look like clowns, their already exaggerated acting even further reduced to caricature, and the reality of what they’re expressing seriously compromised.

Add it all up and, I’m afraid, The Great Novel becomes anything but a great, much less a good, play.

Flea Theatre/The Siggy
20 Thomas St., NYC
Through June 29