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Driving on the Left Side

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Is it good or bad when the sole, indisputable star of a show doesn't appear until after the beginning of the second act? For the audience, the axiom of "better late than never" usually applies, but the star isn't always so lucky: The people who should see his or her performance might not return from intermission.

That's the problem Sharon Tsahai King will face for the next few weeks in Driving on the Left Side, Amy Merrill's Reggae play that's now deafening and bewildering audiences at the TBG Theatre. King is doing noteworthy work as Celia, a Jamaican Earth Mother straddled with the seemingly irreconcilable problems of bearing the burden of her country's unique history, putting up with her unruly adult son and the tourist he's fallen in love with, and hopefully falling in love herself.

It's not just her clothes, rendered (by costume designer Ali Turns) in the brightest of yellows and pinks, that make Celia stand out. It's her bowlegged stride, her rugged beauty, the way she'll take grand offense to a decades-old slur of Marcus Garvey one moment, then rollick in laughter the next. She's part life-worn matron legendary around Jamaica for her curried goat, half excitable young woman who'll never accept that life has its share of pain. King's act of balancing these contradictory elements is already one of the season's most impressive feats.

It's a shame, then, that so few people might see her; the first act of Driving on the Left Side is such an explosive waste of time that even the staunchest, most battle-scarred theatregoers might not return for the second. The plot, as such, is some intractable nonsense about a Buffalo woman named Serena who's left at the altar and runs to Jamaica, where she falls in love with a Reggae singer named Cowboy (Celia's son). They wander around on the beach, in a cave, and on the beach again until Serena's father shows up to... Oh, forget it. Trust me, it doesn't matter.

Merrill's cloying, plodding writing is made more interminable by director Florante Galvez's deadly pacing, which languorously caresses each minute of the show's running time (perilously close to three hours). Worse still are the half-dozen or so original songs performed by Cowboy and the onstage band (Reggaelution) - they might be decent, but it's impossible to tell, as they've been amplified so much that every lyric - without exception - is unintelligible. The constant feedback from the speakers and a number of botched sound cues make a bad situation worse; if transgressions like these were punishable by law, sound designer Andrew Fremont Smith would be Public Enemy Number One.

This continuous assault on the mind and ears will prove too much for some; I certainly wasn't surprised to see a number of people (including some of my colleagues) flee the instant the first act ended. I can't say the thought didn't cross my own mind, but working under the assumption that, if I made it through The Gathering, Prymate, Good Vibrations, and Granola! The Musical, I could probably survive this, I decided to stay.

Ultimately, I'm glad I did - King's performance really is that good. She's a welcome ray of life-affirming light, and there's not a word she says, a pose she strikes, or a smile she flashes that ever seems less than revelatory. She does so much to resuscitate the decaying play around her that she almost makes it seem that, with the right cast, Driving on the Left Side might actually play well. That cast, alas, isn't this one; I won't divulge the names of her co-stars, whose careers can only be helped by as little association with this play as possible.

What good King's appearance will do for her, I won't dare to predict - there's only ever so much cachet associated with being a fantastic performer in an awful, low-profile show - but she deserves everything she can get and then some. If, in the final analysis, she doesn't derive much benefit from her work here, the audiences who get to bask in her talent undoubtedly will. Assuming, that is, they can last until she finally appears onstage.

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Driving on the Left Side - a Reggae Play
Through July 31
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission
Barrow Group Theatre, 312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix