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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 22, 2016

"The Sandbox"
Ryan-James Hatanaka and Phyllis Somerville
Photo by Monique Carboni

What's the best way to celebrate a milestone birthday? Why, with a show packed with loss, decay, and death, of course! Party down!

Okay, okay, there's an additional little wrinkle here. The guest of honor in question is the Signature Theatre Company, which turned 25 during the 2015-2016 season, and, under the stewardship of outgoing Founding Artistic Director James Houghton, has chosen to commemorate the occasion with an evening it's calling—appropriately, if not creatively—Signature Plays. Comprising works from three of its Legacy seasons devoted exclusively to one playwright, it's sort of a "where we've been" look at a rich past and a promise for an equally compelling future, even if the individual entries themselves are not exactly of the cheery sort.

Not that they have to be, mind you. "The Sandbox" (by Edward Albee), "Drowning" (María Irene Fornés), and "Funnyhouse of a Negro" (Adrienne Kennedy) are all major pieces worthy of examination, and given thoughtful, well-considered mountings here under the direction of Lila Neugebauer, so they do not seem depressing per se. What you get instead is a potent, pungent look at how three different towering American theatre artists have approached the difficult subject of identity and conquered it on their own unique, highly theatrical terms.

Our relationship to mortality is the basis for "The Sandbox," a blink-and-you'll-miss-it play (it runs barely 13 minutes) that nonetheless runs surprisingly deep. Mommy (Alison Fraser) and Daddy (Frank Wood) bring Grandma (Phyllis Somerville) to the beach, where they deposit her in the sand and let her bury herself with toy shovels, until they depart and a hunky young Hollywood type (Ryan-James Hatanaka) steps over to puff into her the breath of death.

The vapid present, consuming a more storied and worthwhile past at the behest of the empty horrors who run it (Mommy also appears as the central figure in Albee's lacerating "The American Dream") is quintessential Albee territory; in fact, he's called "The Sandbox," written in 1959, the play he considers closest to being perfect. It's not hard to see why, as its tart writing and grinning brutality create a seamless blend between comedy and tragedy that critiques both the concepts of a corrosive nuclear family and the diseased world that gave birth to it.

Fraser, operating at full bore—and full bray—makes Mommy at once a fear-mongering powerhouse and a comedic grotesque you want to simultaneously want to applaud and shun, and Somerville unlocks a delicious mixture of sympathetic and crazy that lets you see, all too well, just where this Mommy came from. Wood's role is functional, essentially an intentional nonentity, but he plays it well enough; Hatanaka is quietly terrifying in the final moments, but a smidgen flimsy in the buildup, as he falls just short of crafting a believable character who's both an object of desire and the physical embodiment of earthly fear.

Sahr Ngaujah, Frank Wood, and Mikéah Ernest Jennings
Photo by Monique Carboni

"Drowning" (1986) pushes the envelope a bit further, documenting the genesis and aftermath of an impossible dream gone awry. Pea (Mikéah Ernest Jennings) and Roe (Sahr Ngaujah) are deformed, even shapeless human-like beings (the script compares them to potatoes), who mull over a picture in a newspaper of a lovely young woman Pea is determined to meet; he gets what he wants, with more or less the results you can imagine, and all but permanently submerges in the feelings that can never be shared and the longings that can never be realized.

Jennings and Ngaujah bring rich, sad warmth to their portrayals (Wood, in a bit part as a third creature, would match them if his character had more lines), and the script is an affecting wisp of commentary on just can (and should) be expected of others. But in performance here, given the most lugubrious treatment of the trilogy, it fails to satisfy, as though its limited scope and points aren't incisive enough on their own. They should be: After all, is there a more universal—and universally dramatic—source of heartbreak than this kind of rejection?

Longer than those two plays, plus their breaks (there's a nine-minute "pause" between them and a full 15-minute intermission after "Drowning"), "Funnyhouse of a Negro" is a more substantial, in-depth undertaking that receives the clarifying respect it deserves—and delivers the consummate greater jolts. First produced in 1964, it's a fiery internal snapshot of the Civil Rights era at its inception, viewed from the perspective of a woman named Sarah (Crystal Dickinson) who is trapped entirely within her own view of herself.

"Funnyhouse of a Negro"
Crystal Dickinson
Photo by Monique Carboni

She's a light-skinned black woman who's obsessed with whiteness, from her condescending boyfriend Raymond (Nicholas Bruder) to her statue of Queen Victoria Regina (anthropomorphized by April Matthis) and her cherished hobby ("I write poetry filling white page after with page with imitations of Edith Sitwell"), and will rip apart every stitch of blackness in her own personal history to pursue what she loves. She may see herself as imprisoned by her biology ("My one defect," she says, "is that I have a head of frizzy hair, unmistakably Negro kinky hair"), but she refuses to be its slave.

The irony, of course, is that Sarah's attempts to escape from it end up chaining her even more to that which she loathes until, ultimately, there is only one way out. Dickinson presents a powerful, unforgiving Sarah, which Neugebauer and her designers (Mimi Lien for sets, Kaye Voyce for costumes, Mark Barton for lights, Brandon Wolcott for sound design and music) have supported with an imposing production that reflects the darkness at work in both her mind and heart, plunging you into a torment that cannot easily be understood—but that, even now, can also not be dismissed.

Signature Plays, then, is every bit as vital and useful as a guidepost of where we're going as it is a reminder of where we've been. It shows that, although the languages and locales of our defining struggles may change, the underlying strife does not, and must continually be interpreted and explored if we're to elevate ourselves beyond it. We're not there yet, and we may never be, but we won't mind the opportunity for Signature—and the signature writers it's devoted to highlighting—to guide us ever closer during the next 25 years, too.

Signature Plays
Through June 19
Signature Center at Pershing Square, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
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