Also see Bob's review of The Bomb-itty of Errors
CAUTION: Theater this good may make you want to throw out your television set.
But it does happen here, in Thomas Gibbons' play about museum politics, and it isn't pretty. There are plenty of comforting moments between some of the black and white characters But it all comes down to two stiff-necked men, and some extremely unfortunate talk that normally wouldn't get said at all in polite society. Director Bill Grivna leads us gently into the well-landscaped minefield of racial attitudes in America, and yet we are completely surprised when the explosions begin: shocking, blatant and perfectly real.
Sterling North (played by Ron Himes) opens the show with a fanciful, but ghastly, recounting of his upbraiding of a white policeman, after being stopped for "driving while black." The policeman backs off this case of racial profiling, and the triumphant Mr. North is sent on his way to a collision with the American white elite, in his new job as curator of a private art institute.
John Pierson is Paul Barrow, the soft-spoken white man passed over for promotion to the top post at the museum, who's eventually thrown into intellectual exile after the two have aired their grievances in the press. Both men are equally terrific, shipped off to a kind of Siberia in the land of politically correctness. Each is consumed by his private sense of betrayal and loses touch with his civilized self. From awkward pauses to elegant staging, it's all beautifully balanced, and briskly humiliating to watch.
Kine Brown is endearing as North's assistant, giving us hope for something better than what those two raging bulls have to offer, and Donna Parrone is tantalizingly coy as a trouble-making reporter who fuels the controversy by coaxing each man to ruin. And Fannie Lebby is remarkable as the woman who keeps the museum's corporate memory.
Kevin Beyer plays the god-like ghost of the museum founder, smiling down on the trap he's set for the arts community after his death. And whether his Doctor Morris is a god or a devil is impossible to say: he's amassed a huge collection of African treasures and hides them in storage. He then arranges (posthumously) to have an African-American come see the artistic segregation, and then run the place as-is, after more than 50 years of peace and quiet. In any case, Dr. Morris is keen to provoke a disastrous confrontation and, like everyone else here, Mr. Beyer is perfectly cast in the role.
Daniel Lanier's set is another lively character in the story: lovely Cezannes are projected into one white frame on a faux-marble stage, and another car-load of white frames remind us what kind of people are really in charge and how every argument is to be properly set and viewed. Cezanne and other European Impressionists are also cleverly contrasted with equally impressionistic African sculptures, which gain well-deserved prestige as a result.
Through December 2, 2007 at the Art Loft Theater, 1529 Washington Avenue, in downtown St. Louis. For ticket information, call (314) 289-4063 or visit them on-line at www.hotcitytheatre.org.
*Denotes member of Actors Equity
Photo by John Lamb