Wild and Wacky Sunrise at Monticello
Also see Bob's review of Move It and It's Yours
Salvador, a young Puerto Rican writer, has been hired by the major television network to create programming for its “Minority Stuff” unit. The network is not looking to increase the minority presence in its programming, but has established the unit as window dressing to placate the NAACP (at one point, referred to as the NAAPC). He has written a pilot for a soap opera involving Thomas Jefferson, his wife Martha and her half sister, his mistress to be Sally Hemings.
That evening, home alone in his tiny Brooklyn apartment, Salvador magically conjures up the flesh and blood presence of a resurrected Thomas Jefferson, and we are off to the races.
Cultural references abound. Salvador, not wanting to be pigeonholed into writing only Puerto Rican material, is told musically to “stick to your own kind, one of your own kind.” Of course, Jefferson runs into cultural shock. As to the 9/11 terrorism, Jefferson asks, “Did the British burn us down again? ... What do our closest allies (the French) think about this?” Salvador responds, “Dude, don’t even go there!.” He is sickened by those poor, starved Ralph Lauren fashion models seen on TV, and (someone) “promoting an extremist government run by hate-filled religious zealots” (“Yeah, Fox News”). And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Dan Domingues delivers the smooth, fluent, free-wheeling performance that the role of Salvador requires. Jake Speck feels too young and modern for Reyes’ Jefferson. Still, his performance is thoughtful and captures the right tone of light earnestness. Joy Jones plays Maya, Salvador’s African-American head of Salvador’s unit and eventual girlfriend. She performs capably in a role that needs some re-thinking. At first, Maya seems an affirmative action second-rater with an MBA from Brown (”It’s an Ivy League school, nobody goes there for the learning.”) (“I’m your boss, sucka”), but displays smarts later on. She also is listed as playing Sally and Harriet Hemings, but these are roles in Salvador’s script which Maya performs.
The other three cast members play all the other roles, crossing over race and gender lines. All of these roles are heavily caricatured, and most of the crossovers are amusing and support Reyes’ theme that we are all in some manner related. However, in the case of two major roles, where casting across racial lines is dictated by Reyes' dialogue (which has Salvador seeing them as we do), the device proves more distracting than amusing. When, at the end, it turns out that both are not exactly what they appear to be, the switcheroo is less effective because it has been foreshadowed.
In the first of these roles, Michael David Gordon is outstanding as Van Dorphen, a white network executive courting Maya. Gordon performs with a great deal of brio as a swell-headed son of privilege brimming with empty bonhomie. In the other, Prentiss Benjamin is on target as Professor Emily Rawlings, the head of a University African-American Studies Department who wants to test Jefferson’s DNA to prove that he is the father of Sally Hemings' children (Jefferson: “ ... I never had sex with that woman, Ms. Hemings”). The bearded Brendan Patrick Burke brings a delightful impish quality to his several roles which makes him a joy to watch.
James Glossman directs at a fast clip and creates a nice ensemble feel. At the finish, both the script and direction are imprecise and lacking in focus. The set design provided by Nora Chavooshian is egregious. Drab and uninteresting is the least of it. It is unaccountably unplayable. It cannot even provide needed seating for four at a restaurant table. Those who are seated find themselves atop a series of steps covered by a foldout board. They are required to contort themselves to do so. Bettina Bierly’s costumes are attractive and appropriate.
While further developmental work will be required to bring this new play to its full potential, here and now, Playwrights Theatre’s Sunrise at Monticello with its farcical complexities and clever dialogue is a very entertaining and thought provoking evening of theatre.
Sunrise at Monticello continues performances (Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun 3 p.m.; Thurs. 11/3–5 p.m. ; 11/10–3 & 8 p.m.) at Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, P.P. Box 1295, Madison, NJ 07940) Box Office: 973-514-1787, ext. 30; online: www.ptnj.org.
Sunrise at Monticello by Guillermo Reyes; directed by James