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The Brothers Size

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Elliot Villar, Brian Tyree Henry, and Gilbert Owuor.
Photo by Michal Daniel.

The unrelenting drums infuse the air with such a piercing ritualism that you at first feel you're about to witness a sacred scene no other outsider has been allowed to witness. Yet when the supposed sages step to the center of a circle of sand to act out their drama, they're not wearing elaborate regalia, and the tale they have to tell is about not gods and kings, but laborers and ex-cons. The disconnect is dizzying.

For about a minute. It doesn't take much longer than that for Tarell Alvin McCraney's new play The Brothers Size, which just opened at the Public Theater's Shiva Theater, to prove that the three common men at its core are worthy of this deification. As written by McCraney, directed by Tea Alagic, and performed by Gilbert Owuor, Brian Tyree Henry, and Elliot Villar, their everyday apotheosis is an joy to behold.

Much of it is due to the drums (played by Jonathan M. Pratt) and the sand circle, which elevate brothers Ogun and Oshoosi Size (Owuor and Henry) beyond their fraternal bickering. They might appear to be only a car mechanic and a recently released inmate, but they're also part of a centuries-old tradition of rhythm that links them as much to their ancestral African homeland as to each other.

As tribal pounding gives way to hip-hop and even slavery work songs (is that a mouth harp echoing in the background?), it becomes clear that the present cannot be ignored, even if the feud between brothers is, in a way, eons old. That present focuses on Oshoosi's returning from prison to resume an ordinary life, working in his brother's auto-body shop, and resisting the advances of his friend Elegba (Villar), whose drug dealings landed them behind bars in the first place and who seems determined to drag him back down into the mire.

McCraney derives an astonishing amount of suspense from Ogun and Elegba's tug-of-war for Oshoosi's soul, providing so much detail into the hearts, libidos, and consciousness of the three men that the feeling is often more of a stylized documentary than a play. (There's a lot of "talking to the camera," as it were, including the reciting of stage directions, which suggests their faltering attempts to maintain a distance from their own lives.)

He does not avoid cliché entirely: One scene, a flashback that sheds some crucial light on the evening that united Oshoosi and Elegba, into what is otherwise timeless storytelling. But with the help of Alagic, who transforms that sand circle (along with some crates, a bucket, and the Shiva's architecture the whole of Peter Ksander and Douglas Stein's set) into a boxing arena, a junkyard, and a virtual disco, you're kept guessing about the nature of everything and everyone until the final scene.

The actors are vital for helping sustain that mystery, and all three are excellent. Villar has a slight edge about him the other two lack, giving his scenes a dangerous energy that heightens the sense of the unknown about him. (His most haunting moment is a late-show speech delivered while angrily prowling the borders of the circle —he's a full-on vulture in human form.) Owuor brings harrowing undercurrent of loss to the otherwise helpful Ogun, so that even at his lightest moments he seems to bear a great weight.

In the central role, Henry seems to be two wholly different actors: one thoroughly ingratiating as the early Oshoosi, and another who's reintroduced to the harsh realities of the world when it becomes clear he can't avoid falling downward yet again. It's a given that no one stays up forever, but other things in life are just as certain: "There is no escaping you," Ogun tells Oshoosi, and he's right. Family, like legend, lasts forever. The Brothers Size engrossingly gives both their due.

The Brothers Size
Through December 23
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The Public Theater