Sandi Durell's Theater Pizzazz. Review by Michael Tingley
A tall, wooden sailboat sits on the coffee table of a meticulously well-furnished apartment in the Upper East Side. The sailboat signals to us to get ready, the calm before the storm will not last long. On some wall of this apartment, we will play the fly. What we will see unfold will leave us disturbed, passionate, empathetic to all who enter – but certainly for some more than others.
The play begins with a laugh outside the closed door of the apartment, and then they stumble, still laughing, inside. Reg Ambrose (Kamal Bolden) cuts a striking figure. He is young, black, self-assured; he flirts easily with Ginny Pleasance (Alexandra Neil), and though this is her apartment, the ease with which he moves through it is the first indication Reg is not all that he seems. On the other hand, Ginny Pleasance is nervous, almost skittish with anticipation. She is white and older; she is ready to sleep with the first man since her husband’s death, 7 months prior. But she is, almost needless to say, not prepared for Reg.
A writer eager to publish his first detective novel, we see what initially drew Ginny to him, his conviction, his passion for Africa, his deep belief in justice – in getting what is deserved.
Flirting abounds, but it’s flirting with an edge. We see that Reg is something of a moral detective, asking just the right questions that reveal Ginny’s social, economic, racial beliefs – and that flirting edge sharpens until Reg eases up with a kiss that results in a night of passion.
The morning after is something of a jubilation, however, quickly, the two are back at their impasse from the night before. Ginny purports a school of thought that just comes off as naïveté in the face of Reg’s flare. Ginny asks, “Why do we have to keep putting everyone into these neat little boxes? Blacks in this one, gays in that. Transgenders here, Muslims there. And don’t forget the white working-class — they want their own little identity box, too.” Yes,” Reg practically replies, isn’t it pretty to think so? And from the towering apartment in Upper Manhattan, even we in the audience can almost forgive Ginny, it must certainly look that way from up there.
As you’ve guessed, Reg isn’t what he seems, and he reveals a secret so insidious it had a few in the audience laughing out of sheer pain – like Ginny – and the rest of us burying our face in our hands.
In the second act, the couples double, and so does the squirming tension, introducing the gripping Millie Jacobs (Lisa Arrindell) and the magniloquent Alistair Jacobs (Gys de Villiers) into the fray. Alistair, for better and for worse, embodies the British Empire, from his stiff upper lip to the stiff drinks he relies on to drown his secrets. Millie is more complex – hard-hearted when you’d expect tenderness, and as tender as can be when you’d expect to be put to the nails. Reg, the roguish detective of other’s pasts, keeps digging. As in all good plays, what comes to light is what was never meant to reveal.
Directed by the exceptional Michele Shay, who has pulled off some masterful blocking. She was nominated for a Tony in her 1996 performance of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars.”
I’m told Reparations is a first for the Billie Holiday Theater, in that it is the first play in the venue’s 47-year running written by a writer of non-African descent. Playwright James Sheldon seems to deliver – the audience was on their feet and clapping before the first bow.
By the end of the play, I couldn’t tell you where they hid the wooden sailboat – which is fitting; it’d been sunk.