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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sharon Washington, Marjorie Johnson, and Finnerty Steeves
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Take cover! Outside of the David Mamet oeuvre, it is rare indeed to find a play that begins as speedily and forcefully as Colman Domingo's new piece for the Vineyard Theatre, Dot. The program may claim that you're ensconced in Philadelphia, and your eyes may tell you you're in just an ordinary kitchen, but your ears insist that you've entered a war zone.

The chief combatants here are the adult African-American woman Shelly (Sharon Washington) and her mother Dotty (Marjorie Johnson), who are—it would seem—just trying to pad through the mechanics of a normal morning.

"Today is Tuesday?" Dotty asks.

"Yes," Shelly replies, "today is Tuesday."

"Christmas is in two days."

"I know, Mom, I know."

"You getting the tree today?"

"Yes, I told you ten times, I'm getting the tree today."

Mundane dialogue? Perhaps. But when volleyed at warp speed, and peppered with interjections from best (white) friend, Jackie (Finnerty Steeves), and musings on the politics of everything from, well, politics to scrambled eggs to watermelon vodka, it takes on an ingratiatingly abrasive tone that instantly brands this household as one in which even the most basic of chit-chat is never half-hearted or in any way banal.

Sharon Washington, Libya V. Pugh, Colin Hanlon,
and Stephen Conrad Moore
Photo by Carol Rosegg

But as the exchange continues, minute after minute, the tension only increasing, you begin realizing something is wrong. Repetitions begin entering the conversation. Same territory, same wording, same result. For Shelly it's an everyday event and for Jackie it's a disquieting development, but for Dotty it's something even more terrifying: her mind, her memory, life and death itself.

Once Shelly's admits her mom has been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for a year, the tone and the tempo shift drastically. We're no longer in a comedic dream but a nightmare, and one from which neither Dotty nor Shelly, who's taken charge because she can't trust her siblings to do so, will ever awake.

Dot follows the three of them, plus Shelly's sister Averie (Libya V. Pugh), brother Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore), Donnie's (white) husband Adam (Colin Hanlon), and daytime Russian caregiver Fidel (Michael Rosen) across the Christmas holidays, which, it becomes increasingly clear, are the last Dotty will see. Everyone has problems, though, that make it difficult to focus on mom: Donnie, a music critic, has been out of work for a while, and there's real strain on his marriage; Averie's lack of ambition has relegated her and her son to Shelly's basement, and opened a rift in the family just when unity is needed most.

For all of the first act and much of the second, Domingo is in his finest full-speed-ahead form yet as a playwright. (His previous works include the solo play A Boy and His Soul and Wild With Happy.) He charges between insane comedy and gut-wrenching drama with gleeful abandon, but without ever diminishing the impact of either. Potentially eye-rolling scenes, such as Adam's ploys to smell Donnie's breath to detect food (they're doing a juice fast) and the circumstances surrounding a secret family meeting, are handled with deftness and originality that show Domingo is acknowledging and tweaking the clich├ęs on which his story is built. (That runaway opening scene exists primarily to establish expectations he then spends two hours demolishing.)

The second act, set in the living room (Allen Moyer did the attractive, slightly off-kilter sets) on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, is rockier, as Domingo gives in to the kind of moralizing he makes fun of earlier. The nadir is a game in which Dotty tries to teach her children what it's like living with her ailments, a rickety, flavorless wrap-up that forces down your throat in a minute lessons that should be developed, more subtly, over longer periods of time. And though the easy resolutions later hammer home the point that everyone is ultimately just disagreeing about the best ways to love each other, they have a deflated feel that's not a natural pairing for the high-octane treatment of the everyday that's on the menu at first.

Susan Stroman is an ideal director for the piece as a whole, bringing her Tony-winning eye for musicality to a play that really needs to sing and dance, and she's helped the actors pitch their performances perfectly. No one is better than Washington, who melds adoration and exasperation into a crisply caffeinated geyser of energy that's just looking for the right opportunity to boil over. But Pugh also puts a delicious spin on the urban girl archetype that can turn even the word "chitlins" into a lip-smacking symphony. Steeves puts a clever twist on Jackie's neurotic Jewish outsider, as Hanlon does on his easily excitable gay man. Moore and Rosen have darker, more laid-back characters that don't easily breathe in the more comic aspects of the atmosphere, but both shine as Dotty's sheen dulls.

Johnson must occupy both sides at once and does so admirably, even if she's defeated by the late-show turnaround that catapults the play straight into Very Special Episode territory. If Domingo was worried that Dot wouldn't be taken seriously without that redirection, he shouldn't have been—the early scenes show that crazy and sincere can coexist, and even amplify each other. These are real people locked in a sitcom world that's about to lose its laugh track. That they can recover from. Losing their verve is harder, and by the end that, like Dotty's previous self, is slipping away far too quickly for comfort.

Through March 20
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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