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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Marin Hinkle, Okieriete Onaodowan and Neal Huff.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
"He said, she said" is bad enough when it's just between ordinary men and women—but what if another layer of power is involved? Say, a teacher with an agenda (or two) and a student who has an impeccable record but a checkered background. If they're talking alone in a room together and each comes out claiming something entirely different happened, whom should you believe? This is the underlying question of Luce, the intriguing new play by J.C. Lee that just opened at the Claire Tow Theater as part of Lincoln Center's LCT3 program.

The teacher in question is Harriet Carter (Sharon Washington), who heads the World Cultures class in a tony charter high school. She feels a strong connection to the student, Luce (Okieriete Onaodowan), who like her is black and (unlike her) has survived some serious strife: He was born in the war-torn Congo, but adopted into an American family when he was still quite young, and although there were initially some fears he'd be volatile, he's mainly turned out spectacularly. An honor-roll student and quarterback on the football team, he's more than exceeded everyone's expectations.

Maybe. He believes, you see, that Harriet wants him to be a symbol of his race—he just wants to be an ordinary teenager, go to an ordinary college, and live an ordinary life. And both Luce's and Harriet's goals are jeopaardized when she calls a meeting with Luce's mom, Amy (Marin Hinkle) to inform her that not only has Luce written a troubling paper in which he imagined himself as a bloody Eastern-European nationalist, but that she also found a bag full of illegal fireworks—serious ones, not plain bottle rockets—in his locker. When confronted with this by mom and dad Peter (Neal Huff), he insists there's another explanation.

Whether there actually is, and whether his version is necessarily more believable than Harriet's, is the crux of the play, and a big part of what makes this such a fascinating work. We see a couple of Luce's interactions with Harriet, and Lee has written them to be absolutely clear in the moment, but foggy in retrospect. I was positive, for example, that one of Luce's allusions to the fireworks was intended one way, but after hearing Harriet's explanation I started wondering whether maybe I'd remembered it incorrectly. And in the stunning penultimate scene, the facts about something Harriet experienced were absolutely inconclusive—until Luce had his full say.

Marin Hinkle and Sharon Washington.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Another exchange between Amy and Luce's ex-girlfriend, Stephanie (an endearing Olivia Oguma), similarly underscores this theme: Did the events that led to their break-up really happen the way either said? Complexities and uncertainties pile on top of one another until it's no longer possible to tell what the truth about anything is, and both Lee and director May Adrales exploit that to its full dramatic effect as long as the central disagreements are the focus.

When they're not, Lee has more trouble maintaining narrative energy. Amy and Peter fretting over what they don't know about their son, and whether they've made mistakes along the way, is integral and deftly handled; but they're not well drawn otherwise, and the few details Lee provides (Peter smokes, Amy used to, they like eating curry for dinner, and so on) are too half-hearted to provide much of a third dimension to these people. And things are a little too structurally tidy and familiar: We hear more than we see of Luce's gregious brilliance, and his Culture Month Assembly speech consumes more of the characters' minds than it should and basically stops the show dead when it occurs.

But the performances are stellar and keep you engaged even during the rougher spots. Hinkle etches every line of maternal and societal worry onto Amy's face, and conveys a permanently stunned attitude that's a sobering reminder of the cascade effects children's choices can have on their parents. Huff's stiffer, more businesslike take makes a fine counterpoint to Hinkle's approach, and his outbursts are even more affecting. If Onaodowan reads a shade too old to convince as a high-schooler, he masterfully blends Luce's placating and mischievous sides into a single personality that keeps you guessing throughout. So does Washington, who projects a crisp elegance and self-assuredness that anchor her within her world, but tinges her portrayal with just as much vagueness about her intent as Onaodowan does.

I have my suspicions about what really went down between the two and you may have yours, but there's no way to know for sure. Wondering about this and the related issues casts new light on both Lee's characters and the world we live in, and that's enough to make Luce work. But Lee's ability to proffer, and maintain throughout 100 intermissionless minutes, the terrifying possibility that both Luce and Harriet are crusader and tormenter at the same time is what makes the play a success.

Through November 14
Claire Tow Theater (Lincoln Center Theater's newest stage), 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge