Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
We first meet Jeff (Justin Withers), who addresses the audience through a short, clipped monologue. He speaks from a time in the future. Askari, having hooked his audience, now moves a little closer to the present day for the rest of the production. The scene is the interior of a modern South Florida home. Mariana Sanchez's scenic design includes bright furnishings which are inviting and comfortable. Jeff has come home from college. His father Rog (Alan H. Green) is African-American and his mother Anna (Natascia Diaz) is Latina. Her parents were immigrants. She is a librarian and her husband a college professor who teaches anatomy and physiology.
Jeff and his parents talk and talk and talk. He speaks of a disturbing circumstance at the nearby mall. Rob (especially) and Anna continue to converse either with one another or with their son. American Underground has a running time of 85 minutes or so and too much of it feels expository. Characters are introduced, have the opportunity to explain a bit, and the dialogue continues. Yes, family interface is fitting but not so much. As Rog, Green's delivery (during the initial portion of the presentation) seems forced.
Things pick up when someone knocks on the sliding door leading to the backyard. The fourth member of the cast is Sherri (Rasha Zamamiri), who is Muslim, American, and in flight. This is the future and Rob informs Jeff that significant financial rewards await individuals who find and turn in Muslims. Sherri is in hiding for a time as Rob and Anna, as members of a network, seek to expedite her journey away from America. A while later, Kourtney (Kathleen McNenny) enters the house. She says "I'm from security" and is actually a government agent.
The play has become fully intriguing. The playwright provides speeches every so often as a character explains purpose, motive, and further thoughts. Director Julianne Boyd creates a fitting balance so that no one persona is more important than another.
Some editing could be done with the play. The setup portion is far too lengthy, even if some early dialogue is, for certain, in order. Smaller talk, though, has its limits, as Rog and Anna seek to project an all-normal atmosphere as Jeff re-enters the household after having been away. The play catapults forward after Kourtney shows up. The action grips and startles as the entire tenor of the piece pivots with heightening intensity. Askari escalates the drama and Boyd's direction accelerates. The play's climax is, alas, not unthinkable.
Rasha Zamamiri fully realizes the character of Sherri, a young woman on the run who is separated from her loved ones and cognizant that her life is threatened. Kathleen McNenny, playing Kourtney, is persuasive and disciplined. The young actor Justin Withers, as Jeff, is convincing and does well to not overplay his character.
This is a new play and one with promise. Tightening would encourage even more striking final moments.
American Underground runs through October 20, 2019, at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield MA. For tickets, call (413) 236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org.