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The Brother/Sister Plays

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Brother/Sister Plays
Marc Damon Johnson and Kianné Muschett.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

In the theatre, invention is perhaps a dish best served in limited quantities. On the basis of his two plays heretofore seen in New York, Tarrell Alvin McCraney could justly be considered a young playwright who’s capable of anything. But with The Brother/Sister Plays, which just opened at The Public Theater, McCraney and his writing are proving that sustaining themselves over an extended evening are abilities that are currently just millimeters beyond their grasps.

This, for the record, is as easily correctable as it is unfortunate. Part of the problem with this ambitious production of the trilogy, on which The Public is collaborating with the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, is that it hasn’t been translated to the stage with the coherent vision needed to smooth over the repetitious bumps in the writing. If one director had staged all three plays, the links and themes between them - aside from their single setting of San Pere, Louisiana, over 16 years or so - might have been more readily apparent.

But because Tina Landau directs the first and longest play in the chronology, “In the Red and Brown Water,” with a restless urban urgency, and Robert O’Hara tackles “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet” as though they were a college Eugene O’Neill marathon, you can’t instantly accept all three shows as part of the same universe. And that makes the differences between them so jarring that what in a shorter or more unified outing might seem charming or unique here seems unhinged.

Landau is by far the more successful with her portion, because she finds sharper ways to mate her conception with the writing. She’s envisioned the story of Oya (Kianné Muschett), a young black girl who becomes a woman without realizing it, as sort of a Yoruba fever dream. People pass into and out of her life as if hallucinations, often to the accompaniment of drums or surprisingly undulating melodies. A track star who thinks she knows where she’s going, Oya learns that the future seldom becomes what it should be when she loses her mother, Mama Moja (Heather Alicia Simms); falls into a heartbreak-prone quasi-relationship with the ever-wandering Shango (Sterling K. Brown); and becomes closer than she should be to her friend, Elegba (André Holland), who can’t give her everything she wants.

Things are aided greatly by Muschett’s shimmering performance, which finds all sorts of infectious, uncertain joy in Oya. Because she never entirely hides either the girl or the woman, you get a complete picture of a passionate life in the middle of its evolution. Combined with swirling sets of supporting characters - such as Oya’s prophetic Aunt Elegua (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) or her sagelike adult friend, Ogun Size (Marc Damon Johnson) that flesh out Oya’s existence as an all-too-real one, the play packs a profound punch despite being almost entirely unrealistic.

O’Hara takes the opposite tack and, perhaps unsurprisingly, achieves opposite results. “The Brothers Size” tells an apparently mundane story about Ogun’s attempts to make a self-sufficient man out of his brother, Oshoosi (Brain Tyree Henry), an ex-con just released from prison, and rescue him from the free-wheeling clutches of the friend he met there: Elegba. One would imagine most directors would have a field day with Ogun’s preaching hard work and responsibility as the path to redemption on one hand, and Elegba more fleshly pursuits on the other - especially since Oshoosi isn’t quite willing to reciprocate them in quite the same way.

But in O’Hara’s hands, it all just collapses like a poorly made soufflé. When “The Brothers Size” was first presented by itself at The Public in 2007 (with Henry in his same role), director Tea Alagic highlighted its man-versus-boy story with a stark staging than put heavy emphasis on the men’s tribal and ritualistic heritage, forcing you to see ordinary events in miraculous new ways. Alagic and Landau both realized that staging the spirit behind the action would enhance the inherent (but hidden) realness of the text; O’Hara, by staging only the words, obscures his.

He fares somewhat better in “Marcus,” if only because it’s half the length of “The Brothers Size” and definitely the shallowest of the three. Set some 16 years later, the title character (Holland again) is Elegba’s son, who must come to terms with both his own homosexuality and the gradual disintegration of the life in the projects he’s always known. So much of the play is built around dreams - one of the plays’ uniting devices - and imagination that O’Hara isn’t able to flatten out things quite as much, so things skip more than they stumble. Holland is decent if unmagnetic as the lead here, but Johnson wrests control of the preceding work from Henry merely by being a more visible player in what ultimately becomes the Saga of Elegba.

Part of the trouble with The Brother/Sister Plays is that, in totality, they amount to little more than an elaborate gay parable. Two years ago, “The Brothers Size” felt timeless; now it just seems trite. Another issue is that McCraney’s specific style here, of having the actors speak almost all their stage directions, grows wearying after a while. Their saying what they’re going to do and then doing it is supposed to render a three-dimensional world out of the depthless construct of a play script, but it’s not a vivid enough idea to retain its initial magic over four and a half uneven hours.

Even the most accomplished playwrights - Eugene O’Neill with Mourning Becomes Electra, Tom Stoppard with The Coast of Utopia, Horton Foote with The Orphans’ Home Cycle (now in previews Off-Broadway) - wait years or perhaps decades to assemble their epics, so they can first fully develop their voices, points of view, and theatricality. McCraney is simply not ready yet for this mammoth an undertaking, gifted as he’s proven himself with snatches of individual writing here and his dazzling Wig Out! last year. But when he is, assuming he has the right help along the way, he could emerge as one of the most original playwrights of his generation.


The Brother/Sister Plays
Through December 13
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater