Regional Reviews: Boston
Well, the makeup of the unusual trio and the juxtaposition of two divergent genres of music establish the framework for The Purists, the boundary-stretching new play by Dan McCabe now having its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company's Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. Adding to its aura, Tony and Grammy Award-winner and Emmy-nominated Billy Porter (Kinky Boots, "Pose" on FX) is onboard as director, his third time at the helm at the Huntington (Topdog/Underdog, The Colored Museum).
It is likely that many patrons of the Huntington will identify with Gerry Brinsler (John Scurti), the queer, white musical theater aficionado who staunchly defends the traditional roots of the art while he openly expresses his dislike of rap. Yet, it is difficult to dismiss the passionate arguments of Lamont Born Cipher (Morocco Omari), a hip-hop purist who laments what has become of the art form that brought him his now fading fame. Although neither man can understand the allure of the other's obsession, they share a grudging respect for the depth and breadth of their knowledge and the love they feel. Falling somewhere in between is DJ Mr. Bugz (J. Bernard Calloway), a renowned radio personality who shares Lamont's love of hip-hop, but is open to experiencing new forms by new artists, as well as giving a listen to some of Gerry's show tunes.
While the three men negotiate a cultural divide, enter two young women who represent a generational divide and, arguably, a gender gap. Val Kano (Analisa Velez) is a talented emcee struggling to gain a foothold in the male-dominated, often misogynistic world of rap. When Gerry introduces a member of his sales force to her idol Lamont and the others, Nancy Reinstein (Izzie Steele) takes the opportunity to share some of her original creation about Amelia Earhart (!) and enter into a friendly rap battle with Val. Every battle must be judged, and because neither woman dominates, Gerry is forced to break the tie when Lamont and Bugz split their votes. Their difference of opinion in this instance is only one of many between the two old friends, with the stakes becoming more personal and potentially more damaging to the relationship.
The plot of The Purists is slender, but the conflict is character driven, and McCabe has drawn complex, interesting characters who are brought to life by a cast that is outstanding across the board. Porter has molded them into a cohesive, organic unit, with everyone fully inhabiting their roles and relating naturally with each other. There is a lot of comedy that comes from their human foibles, and some of the laughs are self-deprecating, but they don't laugh at each other. Even when they are struggling to understand or connect with one another, they all come from a place of decency, and I must admit that it is sometimes unexpected, especially in light of our divisive national climate. McCabe doesn't shy away from tough issues like racism, homophobia, and misogyny, but he trusts his characters to tackle them with openness and respect, showing us a pathway to conciliation and resolution.
Clint Ramos' scenic design is a highlight of the production, providing a realistic stoop and the apartment building rising above it. Gerry's cluttered apartment is revealed by cutting away the front wall, and partial scaffolding (where Lamont does pull-ups) off to one side of the set imparts a sense of a neighborhood in transition. Lighting designer Driscoll Otto and sound designer Leon Rothenberg add dramatic effects, coordinating with original music by Michael Sandlofer, and Kara Harmon's costume designs employ colors, styles, and fabrics that give further definition to the characters.
These days we hear a lot about how divided we are, yet many proclaim that there is more that unites us than divides us. Still, it is a difficult challenge to figure out how to come together, how to connect with those with whom we have differences. In that regard, The Purists is most definitely a play for our times. If these disparate souls can make peace and find their way to friendship, across racial, cultural, and gender lines, there's hope for the rest of us.
The Purists has been extended through October 6, 2019, at Huntington Theatre Company, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston MA. For tickets and information, call the box office 617-266-0800 or visit www.huntingtontheatre.org.
Written by Dan McCabe, Directed by Billy Porter; Scenic Design, Clint Ramos; Costume Design, Kara Harmon; Lighting Design, Driscoll Otto; Sound Design, Leon Rothenberg; Original Music, Michael Sandlofer; Production Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle; Stage Manager, Sam Layco
Cast (in order of appearance): Morocco Omari, J. Bernard Calloway, John Scurti, Analisa Velez, Izzie Steele