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Tambo & Bones

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - February 7, 2022

W. Tré Davis and Tyler Fauntleroy
Photo by Marc J. Franklin
So, back in the early 1970s there was this musical, Smith, in which Don Murray, of all people, played a man literally trapped in a preposterous musical comedy. Smith has its admirers to this day, but it didn't run long. I bring it up because when the press release for Tambo & Bones arrived, it sounded a lot like Smith. Dave Harris's new play, Playwrights Horizons' press release promised, was about its two title characters being literally trapped in a preposterous minstrel show. Sounds familiar, right? But as it turns out, Smith and Tambo & Bones don't have much in common. Except, perhaps, mediocrity.

Harris's effort does appear to have more on its mind: race, of course, and exploitation, and capitalism, and the military-industrial complex. But what Tambo & Bones more closely resembles, at least in the first of its three parts, is Waiting for Godot. Tambo (W. Tré Davis), a clown, enters Stephanie Osin Cohen's picture-book set, a cheerfully fake pasturage with a cheerfully fake sun suspended above it, and begins begging for loose change. (There's a lot of audience participation in this one: If you're not into responding to "Make some noise!" exhortations, or waving your arms in the air, or being hectored for applause, you'd best stay home.) He's then about to enjoy an afternoon nap when Bones (Tyler Fauntleroy) interrupts his reverie. They indulge in some existential chitchat before launching into an extended, no, very extended riff on pulling quarters out of the audience's pockets. It's a sort of comedy sketch, closer to vaudeville than minstrelsy, and it segues into a display of physical dexterity, with Bones pulling out a knife and amusing us with a game of Five Finger Fillet (to win quarters). Then it progresses into Tambo's "brief treatise on race in America," which is pretty much as advertised, with liberal doses of the n-word. (Over the 90 minutes, this word is uttered 129 times—I pulled up the script and counted—and the f-word isn't far behind.)

Then there's a large dose of meta, with the two realizing they're in a minstrel show, extracting a large Muppet-like dummy out of the auditorium meant to represent the playwright, and tearing him to pieces. Bones relates a heartrending story about his childhood that turns out to not be true, the two muse on how to lure dollars instead of quarters out of the audience, and that's the end of Part 1.

Tyler Fauntleroy and W. Tré Davis
Photo by Marc J. Franklin
Part 2 is, not entirely unpredictably, a rap concert, where our hapless duo has turned from Vladimir and Estragon into Jay-Z and Kurtis Blow. Several songs are unfurled, mostly about racism and power, and some of the lyrics are pretty clever: "I drive off/ Whip the Lamborghini/ Dollar bills y'all/ Greener than zucchini." The pair are mega-successful, it turns out, winning Grammys and Oscars, and launching a lucrative streaming service, plus Bones has become a war profiteer. Meantime, there's a montage of the America they're living in, including such tidbits as a nameless U.S. president shouting, "My fellow Americans! Racist shit, racist shit, racist shit, racist shit!" The republic collapses, Part 2 ends, and we're thrust 400 years into the future.

And then something imaginative and surprising happens. It's best not to reveal too much about it, but let's say that Harris concocts a scenario of the future in which Tambo and Bones are remembered as heroes, and two historians, played by these same two actors, are recounting their noble centuries-old exploits. To reenact these exploits, they bring on two more actors, Dean Linnard and Brendan Dalton. The less said about who or what they're playing, the better. But they're wonderful, exhibiting isolated movements that can't be easy and are, in context, hilarious.

Davis and Fauntleroy: These are difficult performances to assess. They're talented, but Tambo and Bones aren't very distinct characters, and the two haven't much to play beyond anger and outrage, while devoting so much energy to spitting out Harris's voluminous text that subtlety and depth just aren't going to happen. It's a loud evening, with Mikhail Fiksel's sound dialed up to 11, and unless you're expert at deciphering rap lyrics on first hearing, much of Part 2 will be lost on you.

The lighting, by Amith Chandrashaker and Mextly Couzin, is also loud, and Dominique Fawn Hill's costumes tend to disappear amid such busy sets and lights. Taylor Reynolds directs for boisterousness, with the protagonists given to exuberant, exaggerated body language—maybe an evocation of the minstrel tradition, or maybe just busyness.

In short, I found about three-quarters of Tambo & Bones unendurable, save for a few funny lines, and then came a rather brilliant finale that impelled me to forgive some of what preceded it. Harris has plenty of legitimate gripes about social injustice to unpack, but there are a great number of plays about race out there right now. And while it's high time more of these voices were heard, you have to wonder if the market isn't being over-saturated, and audiences won't be able to cope with the sheer volume, and the well-intentioned companies producing these plays won't be subverting their cause. Tambo & Bones, let's say, isn't among the more compelling of them. But the trapped-in-a-preposterous-entertainment motif is still pretty intriguing. Maybe somebody ought to revive Smith?

Tambo & Bones
Through February 27, 2022
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: