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Suzan-Lori Parks’ profanely titled 2000 play delivers a theatrical riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, throwing in elements of Jacobean revenge tragedy and the plays of Bertolt Brecht for good measure. All this should be enough to create an engaging theatrical experience, but F—ing A never manages to transcend its derivative, ersatz feel. Instead the work comes across like the thesis playwriting project of a zealous grad student as it dutifully recycles theatrical tropes. It may occasionally succeed in its goal of shocking the audience, but for long stretches this play just never comes to theatrical life.
Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre is presenting the play concurrently with yet another Parks variation of The Scarlet Letter, 1999’s In the Blood (you’d think one would have been enough). This suitably visceral production directed by Jo Bonney features Christine Lahti in the central role of Hester Smith, whose letter “A” branded on her chest stands for abortionist, not adulterer. Desperately yearning to be reunited with her son Boy, Hester saves up the spoils from her illicit business in order to have enough money eventually to purchase his release from prison. She also plans on taking revenge on the First Lady (Elizabeth Stanley), the wife of the local Mayor (Marc Kudisch), whom she blames for reporting her son to the authorities for committing a petty theft.
Unfortunately, just as Hester thinks she has enough money saved up, the Freedom Fund Lady (Ruibo Qian), whose motto is “Freedom Ain’t Free,” informs her that the price has doubled. Meanwhile, Hester’s best friend, Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango), a prostitute and the Mayor’s mistress, becomes involved with Monster (Brandon Victor Dixon), a dangerous escaped convict being pursued by three bounty hunters who want to capture and torture him.
Got all that? Because it gets even more complicated. Hester strikes up a friendship with the local Butcher (Raphael Nash Thompson), who helpfully demonstrates the best way to slit an animal’s throat. And when Hester does finally scrape up the money to enjoy a picnic with her incarcerated son, she discovers to her horror that the young man, Jailbait (Ben Horner), turns out to be a different prisoner who proceeds to rape her.
Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Topdog/Underdog and such other acclaimed works as Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), occasionally delivers here the sort of virtuosic writing that rouses our attention. The Butcher’s increasingly hilarious recitation of his daughter’s seemingly endless crimes and transgressions, for instance, offers an unforgettable high point. But F—ing A becomes bogged down in borrowed stylistic devices, such as characters occasionally bursting into song, or women reverting to using an invented language, labeled TALK, when discussing matters of female sexuality (English supertitles are helpfully provided.) While the play traffics in important, urgent themes, its affectations prove its undoing.
The scripts’ gimmicks, however, are not an obstacle for the performers, who tear into their schematic roles with energy and conviction. Lahti is the standout with her fiercely commanding turn as the beleaguered heroine who resorts to horrific violence to achieve her ends, and the rest of the ensemble, especially Kalukango, Thompson and Dixon, provide exemplary support. Bonney infuses the proceedings with intense theatricality, with Rachel Hauck’s sets and Emilio Sosa’s costumes perfectly appropriate for this drama set in “a small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere.”
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: J. Cameron Barnett, Brandon Victor Dixon, Ben Horner, Joaquina Kalukango, Marc Kudisch, Christine Lahti, Ruibo Qian, Elizabeth Stanley, Raphael Nash Thompson
Playwright, music & lyrics: Suzan-Lori Parks
Director: Jo Bonney
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Projection designer: Rocco Disanti
Presented by Signature Theatre
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