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Suzan-Lori Parks’ new play, receiving its world premiere at the Public Theater, deals with many important issues about race relations. You know this because the characters in this complex drama frequently stop to address the audience and lay them out for you. Like so many new works these days, White Noise feels like a series of themes in search of a compelling play.
The central characters are Leo (Hamilton discovery Daveed Diggs), an artist suffering from chronic insomnia and creative block; his girlfriend Dawn (Zoe Winter), a lawyer to whom he’s planning to propose marriage; Ralph (Thomas Sadoski, TV’s The Newsroom and Life in Pieces), the heir to a fortune left to him by an abusive father, struggling in his university teaching career; and Ralph’s girlfriend Misha (Sheria Irving), who hosts a live-stream web show called Ask a Black.
Leo and Misha are black, Dawn and Ralph are white, and all have been friends since college. Their current romantic relationships are reversed from earlier days, when Leo was with Misha and Dawn was with Ralph.
The plot’s catalyst involves Leo being physically accosted by the police while he’s taking a walk around the block during one of his sleepless nights. The altercation leaves him with bruises and cuts, and Dawn urges him to see a lawyer and sue. Leo settles on another solution, one that comes to him in a “Eureka moment” in the shower. It’s at this point that you’re forced to seriously suspend your disbelief.
Leo decides that self-responsibility is too much of a burden, leaving him with uncontrolled anxiety. So he asks the well-heeled Ralph to purchase him, meaning Leo will become his property. In effect, he wants to be Ralph’s slave. Lest anyone think Leo has lost his mind completely, he stipulates that the arrangement, to be sealed with a contract, last for only 40 days (it has a nice biblical ring to it). And in return for the loss of freedom, Ralph is to pay him $89,000, the amount of debt Leo has accrued.
This latest effort from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such works as Topdog/Underdog and Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), as well as the screenplay for the recent Sundance premiere, Native Son, strangely enough is the second drama in just a few months dealing with modern characters playacting slavery. And like its predecessor, Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, it sacrifices credibility, coherence and a compelling narrative in favor of didacticism. Parks doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with her provocative premise once it’s been established. The idea is impossible to take seriously, but the play treats it in mostly realistic fashion. It’s also not hard to see where the action is going, with Ralph eventually settling into his “master” role all too comfortably while Leo becomes increasingly discomfited.
Parks seems strangely restrained here, as if afraid to go too far in dramatizing her themes. There are uncomfortable moments to be sure, such as Ralph forcing Leo to don a horrific shackle around his neck dubbed a “punishment collar.” But the arrangement also seems to help both men: Leo, taking to wearing a “Slave” t-shirt, is finally able to sleep through the night. And Ralph, who’s been passed over for a promotion because of his inability to get anything published, manages to get a short story into The New Yorker, although he appropriates Leo’s childhood experiences in order to write it.
The play feels bloated, padding out its brazen concept with numerous unnecessary subplots, including unexpected romantic liaisons, to the point where it runs over three hours. The narrative momentum stops cold every time one of the characters steps forward to deliver a lengthy monologue that feels designed to be performed in an acting-school course. The evening seems to lose focus the more it goes on, with the playwright struggling to deal with every aspect of the current and past state of race relations.
That’s not to say White Noise isn’t engrossing at times. The drama makes many incisive points, and the dialogue frequently rings true even if the characterizations and situations don’t. Enough intellectual ideas are floated to fill a graduate-level sociology course, and some of them inevitably stick.
The play has received a loving production from Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, although it might have been even more loving if he hadn’t so fully indulged its excesses. Diggs and Sadoski are compelling as the two men caught up in a bizarre fictional construct, their natural charisma and likability helping us sympathize with their troubled characters. Irving and Winters are fine as well, although their roles feel comparatively underdeveloped. And Clint Ramos’ set design is ingenious, at several points turning the playing area into a working approximation of a bowling alley.
It’s certainly heartening to see a talented playwright grappling with weighty themes. But it’s hard not to wish that White Noise had pinned them down more effectively.
Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Sheria Irving, Thomas Sadoski, Zoe Winters
Playwright: Suzan-Lori Parks
Director: Oskar Eustis
Set designer: Clint Ramos
Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting designer: Xavier Pierce
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Projection designer: Lucy Mackinnon
Presented by The Public Theater
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