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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Trevor Long and Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Sex, violence, and racism - what more could power the most trenchant, controversial drama of the early 1970s? But in 2008, those topics alone aren't much of a raison d'ĂȘtre for a two-hour play about interlocking lives in the temple of social denial that is present-day New York City. That hasn't, however, stopped Brett C. Leonard from building his brutally uninvolving new play UNCONDITIONAL on them, and saying a painfully resounding nothing in the process.

This production of the LAByrinth Theater Company at The Public Theater once again demonstrates the troupe's commitment to diversity of thought and its knack for hiring terrific actors skilled in the communication of the gritty realism of an urban existence. But the whole affair is so antiquated in its worldview and so clumsy in its presentation that it might as well have never happened at all - and while you're watching it, you may find yourself wondering whether it really is.

It all begins with an appropriately jolting bang: a hanging. A noose-bound man standing on a chair, his captor circling like a vulture planning a carrion attack and burning a Confederate flag, is a heart-grabbing opening image. But once that chair is kicked away and the man is left hanging, we are too —the meaning of this is tabled so that Leonard can cycle through the events of the days and weeks leading up to the murder, exposing not only the specific anger that inspired it but also the teeming underbelly of discontent bubbling away beneath our noses.

Tied up in the terror are nine New Yorkers who mistakenly believe the problems they're experiencing with sex and discrimination are theirs alone. They are, in fact, inextricably bound to the world and the people around them, in ways that most soap opera writers would find too convoluted to bother with.

Flowcharts and multipage diagrams are the best way to deal with UNCONDITIONAL, as any synopsis of who's doing what and whom must quickly degenerate into unintelligible silliness. But in brief: The black Spike (Chris Chalk) is dating the white Missy (Anna Chlumsky), but tangled in shady business dealings with the white Keith (John Doman), who's just bedded the black Lotty (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) after meeting her in a bar; Lotty is married to the white milquetoast Gary (Kevin Geer), unaware that he's been seeing the black Tracie (Yolonda Ross), who's married to 25-year HR veteran Newton (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.); Newton lost his job three months shy of earning his full pension, and blames his young boss Daniel (Trevor Long) on grounds of racism and expediency; Daniel's a habitual caller of telephone dating services, in which he's recently hooked up with Latina Jessica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), who... you get the idea.

The underlying message that emerges from all this is that there are no coincidences, that nothing in the self-contained ecosystem of Manhattan truly happens in a vacuum. But whatever else Leonard may have wanted to say about extant racial tensions wreaking havoc on the supposedly tolerant United States is lost in the torrent of rapid-fire scene shifting and labyrinthine plot complications. Before long, it ceases to matter who's sleeping with whom, who's angry with whom, or who is upset about what, because everyone is everything at everyone else, and with nine characters vying for attention, there's not enough time to justify anyone's reason for being.

Director Mark Wing-Davey and set designer Mark Wendland only make bad matters worse: Both have conspired to make sure that no one in the audience ever sees anything. There's seating on four sides of the high-walled playing area, and scenes are staged in every nook, cranny, and extreme of the set, frequently behind walls and sliding panels, and even more frequently with the actors' backs to one side of the house for upwards of five minutes at a time. Following what's happening in the characters' lives is hard enough; trying to figure out which actor is saying what and where onstage they're located is an extra, unnecessary headache.

Kudos to the actors, though, for bucking the odds and making these people interesting enough to warrant navigating this madness. Ekulona milks her (numerous) silences to the utmost, saying far more with the few words she's allotted than many actresses manage with entire speeches; Geer brings plenty of lovable hopelessness out of his conflicted Gary, and creates the best emotional justification on the stage for all the bed hopping; Long and Doman bring out captivatingly small doses of sympathetic menace into their characters, making even their modern-day monsters somewhat likeable.

Whitlock makes what he can of the plot's most familiar and tired strain, the underdog taking on the establishment, even if his performance does eventually degenerate into untethered rage. But so does the writing - even with a number of significant twists in Newton's story, there's an inescapable feeling of "been there, done that, bought the ticket" to it. You may (and do) hear shouting, crying, or even laughter, but the best way to deal with them in UNCONDITIONAL - as in New York itself - is just to tune them out and pray you won't miss anything. Most of the time, you'll have nothing at all to fear.

Through March 9
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one Intermission
Current Schedule and Tickets online: LAByrinth Theater Company

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