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Blood Knot

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Scott Shepherd and Colman Domingo
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Even if it's frequently obscured, history is always lurking around the Signature Theatre's production of Blood Knot. The first show to open in the intimate Alice Griffin Theater at the company's elaborate, Frank Gehry–designed new home on 42nd Street, it bursts with the unique voice and latent emotional pull of its writer, and also this incarnation's director, Athol Fugard. Yet something is wrong: What should sear barely smokes, and most of what ought to arrest inspires, at most, a series of blinks. Though what you see launched one of the modern theatre's most fascinating playwriting careers, as well as a leading anti-apartheid voice that can resonate yet today (as the current Broadway revival of The Road to Mecca attests), it seems determined to prove how unnecessary it's become in a world where tolerance has become more, well, tolerated.

Yet the play itself never falters. Though it doesn't pack the same immediate punch it must have when it premiered in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1961, its depiction of two brothers, one light- and one dark-skinned, facing the rigors and the restrictions of their separation-dictated stations, still stings. Beginning apparently innocuously, with the light stay-at-home brother, Morris, preparing the end-of-day footbath for his working sibling, Zachariah, and living by the piercing buzz of an omnipresent alarm clock, the work sneaks through everyday situations that test the duo's reactions, and ours, to a world at war with itself. Both dream of owning a farm, and a desire for a (willing female) pen pal afflicts Zach; but when it turns out the object of his affection is white, problems arise. And when he buys a stylish new suit for the reluctant Morris to meet her in his stead, both men's inner hellishness breaks free.

At least in theory and word. In practice, however, the result is something lesser. One should not expect any pair of performances to ring with quite the authenticity of the still-whispered-of work of Fugard and Zakes Mokae, who respectively originated Morris and Zach in South Africa and recreated them on Broadway in 1985. (For the work's Off-Broadway bow in 1964, the stars were J.D. Cannon and James Earl Jones.) But it doesn't seem unfair to at least presume that in a major Manhattan mounting, appropriate performers will fill these imposing shoes. And that has not happened. Neither Scott Shepherd, who plays Morris, nor Colman Domingo, who plays Zach, owns the power, the passion, and most of all the sense of danger these razor-edged roles require.

The more successful is Shepherd, who's best known for his work with the Wooster Group and starring in Elevator Repair Service's marathon-length Gatz. He first appears linked to that alarm clock as if tied by an invisible string, fastidiously preparing the cramped and cluttered (almost surrealistically so) hut for his brother's arrival. He fusses over the pan that produces the hot water for the footbath as a painter might the tiniest scenic detail, and soon is seen doting on Zach's every need, from food to reading and writing (Morris is the only literate one of the two). It's clear that this is a man who has sincere affection for his family, and Shepherd wisely displays them as cloaked beneath a veil of acquiescence to the truthful existence he could not live while trying to "pass" as a white man.

But the lack of deeper drives, particularly of resentment for the world he should ostensibly be able to enter but can't, makes this Morris a muddle. Shepherd commands nothing, whether as major as Zach or as relatively minor as our attention, in his quest to reveal his inner self. When he dawns that spiffy suit, complete with hat and umbrella (the electrifying work of costume designer Susan Hilferty), even that looks like an ill-fitting disguise and not his rightful skin returned at last. Shepherd and Morris both cower within it, failing to assume the size, stature, or authority required to make the final complex scene, a vicious role-playing game in which the men switch off controlling one another as owner and property and then aggressor and victim, anything but a foundation-free fantasy.

Domingo isn't simply less centered, he's centerless. Nothing about his performance makes sense: He hasn't decided whether Zach is slow, introverted, needy, greedy, cagey, or some combination thereof; what comes across is nothing more than an effortfully smiling stereotype not far removed from the minstrel show end man he played last season in the musical The Scottsboro Boys. Every bug-eyed glare, consonant-sucking line reading, and strained attempt at dopey physicality brands Zach as utterly false, and that's disastrous for a character who must be reality's figurative slave. Without a trace of something honest, whether desire for romance or escape or advancement or even world-weariness at falling short of these goals earlier, our final vision of Zach as the representative monster of a kept people unleashed is so tainted that it's not terrifying but laughable.

How and why Fugard allowed these implosive interpretations is left unexplained. His staging of the starker, more sober dialogue scenes is effective if unremarkable, a playful yet rather pedestrian look at a robust but uneasily familiar adult rapport. But this also develops into nothing tangible. As if to verify that this particular world has collapsed into its own void, Fugard even has his actors literally deconstruct Christopher H. Barreca's set by throwing mattresses, tables, and even wall segments from the elevated playing area and into the no man's land separating it from the audience. Sapping the room of its claustrophobic clutter, and thus the very elements that have always defined them as individuals separated by a deceptively wide gulf, only further diminishes the impact of the brutal conflict yet to come.

When that finally occurs, as each brother fulfills the role society has decreed from his own limited perspective, Blood Knot approaches something akin to the devastating conclusion it's capable of delivering. Even if the actors don't believably inhabit the brothers, watching them exchange barbs, experiences, and positions as the underdog in their relationship hauntingly underscores that though apartheid and many forms of racial prejudice have been eliminated, the demons within the human soul are much harder to eradicate. Unfortunately, it's so difficult to pierce the over-veneered surface to see any of this that you may find yourself fighting the all-consuming impression that the majority of this once-breathtaking chronicle is better left unread.

Blood Knot
Through March 11
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer Avenue & 10th Avenue
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