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Here’s a question: What do the Jim Crow South, Nazi Germany, Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 Elizabethan drama The Massacre at Paris and the 1940 film adaptation of Noel Coward’s operetta Bitter Sweet have in common?
Playwright Adrienne Kennedy certainly knows the answer, because those elements all figure prominently in her first new play in 10 years, receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Theatre for a New Audience. Unfortunately, theatergoers are likely to remain in the dark even after seeing He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box. This brief, poetic effort must have great personal resonance for its 86-year-old playwright, but it’s the sort of willfully obscure drama that should be accompanied by a syllabus.
Kennedy, who came to fame with her 1964 absurdist one-act Funnyhouse of a Negro, once again explores themes of racial identity and the lingering trauma of slavery and segregation. The play features a linear narrative of sorts, concerning the romance between Chris (Tom Pecinka) and Kay (Juliana Canfield), who meet in 1941 when both are 17. Chris, white, is the son of rich businessman Hawthorne Aherne, the “architect of the segregation” of their small Georgia town. Hawthorne had several children with three different black women whose graves are located in the “colored cemetery” he established; their headstones are the only ones allowed there. Similarly, the mixed-race Kay attends the school he built: one for children sired by wealthy white fathers.
After their initial meeting backstage during a student production of Marlowe’s drama, Chris and Kay go their separate ways. The rest of the play is composed of separate monologues in which they recount painful memories of their family history. For Chris, that includes an account of traveling with his father to Germany, where Nazi leaders were eager to absorb the details about segregation to help them refine their own nefarious plans. Kay describes how her 15-year-old mother may or may not have been murdered by her white father who, her grandmother believed, kept her heart in a box.
Director Evan Yionoulis certainly stages the opaque, dreamlike proceedings gorgeously, using Donald Holder’s shadowy lighting, Austin Switser’s video projections and Justin Ellington’s music and sound effects to hauntingly surreal effect. Christopher Barreca’s striking set, dominated by a tall staircase leading up to closed wooden doors and props evoking the segregated South, adds to the spooky atmosphere, as does the suit-wearing male mannequin who at one point figures prominently in the action. Pecinka, who briefly doubles in the role of Hawthorne, and Canfield, a newcomer making her New York theatrical debut, give affecting performances, delivering the heightened language in powerful fashion.
But even running a mere 45 minutes, which includes songs from Coward’s operetta, the fragmented work is for the most part tedious and uninvolving. Its allusions will mostly be lost on those who haven’t had the opportunity to read the script (and even then, it’s tough going) and who don’t know that The Massacre at Paris and Bitter Sweet both encompass themes of star-crossed lovers affected by violent events.
Designed more to be studied than appreciated in performance, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box will undoubtedly be dissected by academics and students in theater-history classes, but it feels destined to be rarely produced. And from a purely consumerist point of view, it’s more than a little expensive. Outside of student prices and under-30 deals, general tickets range from $90-$125, which means audience members will be paying upwards of $2 a minute with little more than confusion to show for it.
Venue: Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn
Cast: Juliana Canfield, Tom Pecinka
Playwright: Adrienne Kennedy
Set designer: Christopher Barreca
Costume designer: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Music and sound designer: Justin Ellington
Video designer: Austin Switser
Presented by Theatre for a New Audience
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