Closely Related Keys: Theater Review

Fast-track young litigator collides with her past trauma in this thoughtful if conventional family drama set amidst recent current events. 

In the long shadow of 9/11, a corporate attorney and her newfound Iraqi half-sister struggle to construct a relationship together.

An interesting story told with intelligence and sensitivity, if not quite command and control, Closely Related Keys is poised precariously on the cusp of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a moment in time when residual paranoia remained as raw as the vulnerability suppressed by its protagonist, an avidly ambitious black corporate litigator, Julia (Diarra Kilpatrick). Julia enjoys what she believes to be a no-ties sexual relationship with Ron (Ted Mattison), a white junior partner in their posh firm. He informs her that she has been given the plum opportunity to be his assisting counsel in a major upcoming trial.

Oblivious to this portent of future discomfiture, Julia is more thrown by a surprise visit from her estranged father Charlie (Brent Jennings), who rather bluntly reveals that she has an unknown adult Iraqi younger sister from his relationship when working there as an engineer in the 1980s, long presumed dead along with her mother, yet with whom he has just made contact on Facebook. Skeptical, Julia is convinced he is being played by an imposter, possibly a terrorist. Nevertheless, unbidden, the hijab-clad Neyla (Yvonne Huff) arrives on the doorstep of her Gramercy Park apartment, violin case in tow, seeking not merely asylum and refuge but also pursuing an obscure agenda. Working under intense round-the-clock pressure, Julia remains warily put-upon, almost hostile, determined not to let herself be associated with the frankly Islamic figure who has entered her life under mysterious and threatening auspices.

As any lawyer might advise, it is the cover-up, as it were, that is her undoing, as her strenuous efforts at secrecy compromise her job, her personal life and even her own tenuous sense of self, so sturdily propped up by her professional commitments. Julia and Neyla slowly come to realize they have so much in common as sisters, from their acute hurt and grievance as much as their shared paternity.

Playwright Wendy Graf (Leipzig, No Word in Guyanese For Me) has proven herself quite accomplished at tackling issues within a solid dramatic context, and she is working here with important issues of identity, guilt, tolerance in both a political and psychological context. She has a deft way with delineating how people relate with one another (the scenes between the lovers could especially have been fraught with uncomfortable writing but are instead redeemed by delicate twists of character). Her narrative builds up a rather bracing head of suspense as circumstances are gradually revealed. She can even write scolding speeches without untoward didacticism.

Nevertheless, though director Shirley Jo Finney keeps the pace brisk, ultimately neither she nor Graf can sustain the play past its eventual accumulation of right-thinking blatantness. There’s very little surprise or satisfaction in the denouement of revelation and reconciliation, as the plot devolves into the most obvious of culminating arcs. On balance, Closely Related Keys would have been the jewel of the season had we still had the benefit of Playhouse 90 styled television plays, and if it contemporizes that template extremely well, it does not transcend it.

The solid actors can only help so much. Kilpatrick, so indelible under Finney’s direction in In the Red and Brown Water a year ago, reveals her considerable range and legitimate star quality throughout the first act, but as Julia’s distinctiveness becomes blunted in the second, she becomes perceptibly uncertain in the role as it begins to lose specific plausibility. Huff’s messenger from America’s misadventures avoids stridency largely because she adds a delicately disingenuous touch to her passionate and manipulative deceptions. Mattison finds refreshing grace notes in what might have been a stock character, and Jennings remains the reliable pro, having been onstage since his yeoman years with the original Negro Ensemble Company. 

Venue: The Lounge Theatre (through Mar. 30)

Cast: Diarra Kilpatrick, Yvonne Huff, Brent Jennings, Ted Mattison, Adam Meir

Director: Shirley Jo Finney

Playwright: Wendy Graf

Set & projection designer: Hana Sooyeon Kim

Lighting designer: Donny Jackson

Music & sound designer: Peter Bayne

Costume designer: Naila Aladdin Sanders

Producer: Racquel Lehrman

Associate producer: Victoria Watson

Presented by Hatikva Productions

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