Intriguing Carnaval Premieres at Luna Stage
Also see Bob's review of Lend Me a Tenor
A close friend of two of the young men had died a couple of years before the Rio trip. Raheem and Demetrius then had vowed to make something of their lives and to take care of Jalani, their late friend's callow younger brother. Raheem has arranged the sex tourism trip to Brazil for the three of them to commemorate the anniversary of the death of the late friend. Unbeknownst to the others, it is also a business trip for Raheem who is a hustler involved in both the tourist sex business and drug trade in Rio. Demetrius, the only married man (and father) among them, is a New York City cop (a fact artificially and unnecessarily withheld from us until the end of the first act where its late revelation is awkward and off putting). Jalani is callow, foolish and, it would seem, unemployed.
When the men discuss their Brazilian activities (which include observations on a 12-year-old prostitute (female), a nine-year-old pimp, and a simpatico young woman prostituting with the approval of her husband), they recognize that if they had been born here, "we'd be them".
Things hit the fan when the immature Jalani, who fails to understand that his conduct must be circumspect, assaults a prostitute who has stolen his money, bringing the police to their door. In their room, the police find Jalani's cache of pornography. All three are arrested, facing the very serious charge of possessing pornography with the intention to sell.
All of the scenes depicting the Rio sex tourism trip contain realistic dialogue and strikingly insightful characterizations. From the last scene in the first act where we learn of Jalani's troubling behavior, and throughout the harrowing danger which they thereafter face, there is a pulse quickening excitement to the events in Rio.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for the scenes set in 2010 at Café Carnaval. These scenes are written and staged in order to hide a late, second act revelation about Demetrius that is heavy handed and unnecessary to any idea or character revelation of the playwright. Worse of all, I felt that I had been cheaply and dishonestly tricked rather than having been fooled by a clever and thoughtful playwright. Here, honest, straightforward drama has been sacrificed for a questionable theatrical moment. Furthermore, I did not believe the feelings which Raheem displays at the conclusion of the play. There is nothing substantive in the entire play to support them. Some, not all, of the above, could be ameliorated if all of the 2010 scenes were moved to an epilogue at the end of the play. At present, Carnaval suffers considerably from its gimmicky, split time structure.
Terrell Wheeler accurately projects the cold hearted, immoral and smooth operator Raheem whose one redeeming feature, his honest concern for his friends, does not run deep. Anton Floyd captures the frustration and inability to cope under pressure of the fundamentally decent, but muddle-headed Demetrius. Although he has the least showy role, Jaime Lincoln Smith impresses by finding a through line to link Jalani 1996 to Jalani 2010 with precious little help from the text.
In addition to eliciting strong performances from her cast, director Cheryl Katz has staged Carnaval at a good pace and makes effective use of an interesting, relatively spare two-level set in which one area (with the help of a minimal of set decoration and terrific lighting) evocatively becomes a nightclub office, airport lounge, hotel suite, and holding pen. This eminently playable set is the work of C. Murdock Lucas, and the evocative lighting is credited to Jorge Arroyo.
The schematic Carnaval ultimately fails to come together in a convincing manner. However, it is promising and well worthy of further development. In its world premiere production at Luna Stage, it already is taking audiences on an engrossing sex tourism vacation to Brazil with three intriguing young black men from New York City. I do find myself wondering if others who have expressed dismay at the eroticism and brutality of this play are aware of the raw and brutal sexuality found in contemporary literature, movies, and Off-Broadway plays. What is surprisingly exotic to me about the play is not playwright Nikkole Salter's mild descriptions of the off-stage sex trade, but the intimate knowledge which playwright Nikkole Salter conveys to us of the personas and interrelationships of her three protagonists.
Carnaval continues performances (Evenings: Thursday 7:30pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Matinees: Sunday 3 pm) through March 17, 2013 at Luna Stage Theatre Company, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, New Jersey 07052. Box office: 973-395-5551; e-mail: email@example.com; website: www.lunastage.org.
Carnaval by Nikkole Salter; directed by Cheryl Katz