'War': Theater Review

Courtesy of Erin Baiano
Charlayne Woodard, Rachel Nicks, Michele Shay and Chris Myers in 'War'
This unwieldly play is too thematically ambitious for its own good.
7/3/2016

Family tensions escalate after a matriarch suffers a stroke in the latest provocative drama by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, author of 'An Octoroon' and 'Gloria.'

It lost me with the ape. The new play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, about a family in turmoil after its matriarch suffers a stroke, once again demonstrates the talent of the rising young playwright behind An Octoroon and Gloria for thoughtfully tackling provocative themes. But by the time Alpha the ape arrives to communicate with the comatose mother in simian language translated via supertitles, it has become clear that this is the sort of unwieldly drama whose stylistic ambition exceeds its execution. There's no rule saying a play has to be neat and tidy, but War is too scattershot and unfocused to have the desired impact.

Receiving its New York premiere via Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 program after a 2014 production at Yale Repertory Theatre, the play begins in a hospital room in which the well-off Roberta (Charlayne Woodard) is lying unconscious in bed. Anxiously hovering over her are her son Tate (Chris Myers), a type-A political campaign worker intent on taking charge of the situation; his sister Joanne (Rachel Nicks); and her white husband, Malcolm (Reggie Gowland), a high school Spanish teacher.

Oh, and there's also Elfriede (Michele Shay), an elderly German woman who speaks only a smattering of English and suffers from early-stage Alzheimer's. It's revealed that she's Roberta's half-sister, conceived by their black serviceman father with a German woman while he was stationed there during World War II. She's soon joined by her hot-headed son Tobias (Austin Durant), who despairs over Roberta's condition because she was apparently just about to sign an agreement providing a generous financial settlement for these newly discovered relatives.

Roberta may be in a coma, but that doesn't make her any less talkative, as she periodically shows up, occasionally gliding across the stage in spectral fashion, to deliver lengthy monologues in which she relates her confused feelings about her condition. And that's where Alpha the ape (Lance Coadie Williams) comes in, along with some fellow gorillas (played by the other actors) with whom Roberta interacts in dreamlike episodes.

Much of the play revolves around the domestic disputes among the extended clan, with Joanne sympathetic to the two strangers and Tate deeply suspicious of their motives. The tiresome Act 1 is largely consumed by their heated arguments over such matters as Tate wanting to move their mother to a better hospital and Tobias angrily insisting that Roberta's children honor her intention to provide for him and his mother.  

The characters' interactions are no less contentious in Act 2, set in Roberta's apartment, when Tate bitterly confronts his sister over the choices she's made in her life, especially her marriage to Malcolm, whom he describes as a manifestation of her "internalized self-hatred." The heated encounter includes Tate pointedly attempting to get Malcolm to define his young daughter's racial make-up. When Malcolm haplessly sputters that she's "mixed-race," Tate pounces.

"Mixed race? What is that?" he demands, citing Barack Obama as America's first black president, not its first mixed-race one.

You can feel the playwright straining to inject so many themes and theatrical styles into the complicated mix. Veering uneasily between naturalistic drama and stylized surrealism, the work doesn't fully succeed on either level. And the frequent lengthy monologues, including one by the addled Elfriede about the elemental nature of motherhood, delivered in German and translated by Tobias, begin to try one's patience.

There's no denying the play's cerebral ambitions, even if the playwright is dealing with more themes — family dysfunction, race relations, the helplessness of a stroke victim unable to move or communicate, the heartbreak of Alzheimer's, the power of money — than he can comfortably handle. For every individual moment that registers with dramatic force, such as when Roberta's no-nonsense nurse (Williams) dresses down the impatient Tate, there's another that makes you throw up your hands in frustration.

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz wrestles with, but never pins down, the play's unruly disparate elements, and she's allowed several of the performers to be over-emphatic in their admittedly tricky roles. But she's also delivered a fluidly staged, visually imaginative production whose technical elegance provides an intriguing contrast to the messiness of the dramaturgy.

Venue: Claire Tow Theater, New York
Cast: Austin Durant, Reggie Gowland, Chris Myers, Rachel Nicks, Michele Shay, Lance Coadie Williams, Charlayne Woodard
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set designer: Mimi Lien
Costume designer: Montana Blanco
Lighting designer: Matt Frey
Sound designer: Bray Poor
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater

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