“You ask me one more question, I’m gonna light myself on fire,” complains a daughter to her dementia-addled mother in Colman Domingo’s new comedy-drama, Dot. It’s a sentiment that may well be shared by audience members, although the play’s title character is actually the sweetest and easiest to take. It’s rather the members of her extended family that make this over-the-top, sitcom-style effort so wearisome.
Dementia seems to be the topic du jour on New York stages these days, with elderly characters suffering from the affliction in such current plays as The Humans, Smokefall and Her Requiem, among others. It’s naturally a growing concern among baby-boomer playwrights, many of whom are no doubt coping with the situation firsthand. But in this work, previously seen at last year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., the provocative subject seems merely an excuse for a dysfunctional family comedy that feels all too familiar.
Taking place over several days before Christmas, the play is set in the West Philadelphia home of African-American Dot (Marjorie Johnson), who sometimes seems perfectly normal and other times hopelessly confused, believing that her late husband is still alive. She’s being taken care of by her beleaguered daughter Shelly (Sharon Washington), resentful of the lack of help from her siblings.
They are the flamboyant Averie (Libya V. Pugh), a walking exclamation mark of a woman whose tough financial circumstances have led her to live in her mother’s basement; and Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore), an unemployed “musical archivist” who shows up for a holiday visit with his white husband Adam (Colin Hanlon) in tow. Other characters floating in and out of the scattered proceedings are Shelly’s white childhood friend Jackie (Finnerty Steeves), who dated Donnie in high school before he came to terms with his sexuality; and Fidel (Michael Rosen), Dot’s Kazakhstan-born “Illegal caregiver.”
Composed largely of one-liner-laden shouting matches among the various characters, the play also features such running gags as Donnie’s surreptitious efforts to gorge himself while pretending to adhere to the “juice cleanse” that his husband pressured him to go on. We also learn that the 40-year-old Jackie is pregnant by her married lover and is agonizing over whether or not to keep the baby; that she still has a thing for Donnie; and that Donnie and Adam are having marital problems. Oh, and there’s Shelly’s adolescent son Jason, who remains unseen.
Playwright Domingo, whose previous works include the acclaimed Wild with Happy and the one-person play A Boy and His Soul — and whose extensive acting credits range from Broadway’s The Scottsboro Boys to Selma to the AMC series Fear the Walking Dead — sacrifices the play’s emotional impact in favor of broad humor, much to its detriment. Even potentially powerful scenes — such as when Donnie, at his mother’s insistence, goes through an elaborate exercise simulating the devastating effects of old age — are rendered kitschy.
Encompassing themes of sexuality, family and race — “I’m a black man in America, I own trauma,” Donnie exclaims at one point — the play is too wildly uneven to have much of an impact. Director Susan Stroman (The Producers, Crazy for You, The Scottsboro Boys) does little to help, her over-emphatic staging reflective of the musicals that are more in her wheelhouse.
The performers frequently get laughs, to be sure, but it’s only Johnson, quietly dignified and restrained, who comes across as vitally real. Her mentally-impaired Dot seems the sanest person in the room.
Venue: Vineyard Theatre, New York
Cast: Colin Hanlon, Marjorie Johnson, Stephen Conrad Moore, Libya V. Pugh, Michael Rosen, Finnerty Stevens, Sharon Washington
Playwright: Colman Domingo
Director: Susan Stroman
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Kara Harmon
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Tom Morse
Presented by the Vineyard Theatre