Off Broadway Reviews
I survived the Great Blackout a few years back with what I thought were no long-lasting effects. But now I'm starting to question my perception and memory of August 14, 2003, when New York and most other cities along the Eastern Seaboard lost power for well over 12 hours. On that day, I thought the citizenry of New York was uncommonly helpful and understanding, but now I can't help but wonder if I just didn't notice them all transforming into James Baldwin-quoting Christianity repudiators.
Such a metamorphosis, from mild-mannered urban dwellers to oh-so-clever, ill-tempered discontents, is the palpitating heart of Blackout, Michael I. Walker's improbable and unpleasant play that The Cell Company is currently presenting at the Kirk Theatre. The graciousness and humanity New Yorkers tend to display in crises is of minor concern to Walker and the five main characters he's created to experience the blackout and stumble through the aftermath like the living victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For Walker, at least judging by what he's written here, kindness and compassion shown in the darkness can be as devastating as a nuclear strike once the electricity returns: What we find in ourselves and in others when we're at our best can't survive the rigors of plain-old everyday life. Okay, it's something of a downer as far as messages go, but it's ultimately hard to argue it's not true, as much as we might prefer to think otherwise. And holding a mirror to the audience, reflecting their own imperfections back at them, is one of the most important parts of the playwright's job.
But Walker's knack for rendering the audience's onstage representatives as waxy, complaining mannequins does his message no favors, and the overly considered dialogue they spew only makes matters worse. After the butter-smooth opening sequence, in which everyone meets while congregating outside a Hell's Kitchen bar, the contrasts start flying fast enough to spin your head and even knock you over entirely. The way the good Samaritans of the blackout hours become the ugly caterwaulers roaming about in the light might leave you wondering if you dozed off and missed a crucial scene; if not, something is still certainly lacking.
Alex (Teddy Bergman), an almost-30 gay writer who earns his living by scripting letters for Seventeen magazine, seems almost endearing early on, but soon becomes an unlikable bundle of neurotic neediness. It doesn't take long for the defiantly devout Maggie (Kate Goehring), a country woman who's just moved to New York, to give up God in favor of the writings of black writer-philosopher Baldwin. There's no question that the sexcapades between wanderlust-stricken white boy Collin (Ryan Patrick Bachand) and black businesswoman Lena (Almeria Campbell) won't end happily, though the rancor with which they eventually dissolve is somewhat surprising.
Walker rearranges all the pieces in multiple, messy configurations, as if to underscore how everyone is blind to how his or her words and actions influence the greater community. But no games of musical beds, no tense confrontations about racial obligations or expectations, no amount of soul-searching and confessing real or imagined sins can make these people or their troubles feel organic. Their speeches, peppered with more Baldwin quotes and references than would be advisable for a biography of him, are arch, windy, and (like most of their lines) unconvincingly acted. Only Campbell finds some recognizable truth in Lena's struggle to progress in a white man's world, and she projects a sensuality that lifts all but a few of Lena's most overripe racial-posturing moments. (Yes, the "black" in "blackout" can be far too easily misinterpreted.)
But there's always posturing of some sort going on, which makes the final scenes depicting the collisions of reality and illusion especially preachy and painful. Director Kira Simring has nicely staged the show on an evocative, downtown unit set by Gabriel Hainer Evansohn, but can't process the lumps she's faced with. Nor can Darnell Williams, who strains in trying to play the sixth and perhaps most important character, Levi, a homeless man who believes he finds his purpose directing traffic when all the signals stop working and who doesn't stop once the power is back.
He has a number of monologues that establish some clear-eyed context the other characters simply can't provide: He's found his purpose in life, which is more than anyone else in Blackout can say, but it's a twisted irony that Levi also gets progressively more insane once the blackout ends. He can only be trusted or taken seriously except when preaching Baldwin - apparently, the cure for any and all ills here. Blackout itself, however, might fare better with less input from him and more from the playwright when it comes to shedding light on the world he obviously finds so incredibly dark.