'Pipeline': Theater Review

Pineline Production Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel
Feels more like a sociology thesis than a play.

A teacher at an inner-city school struggles with personal and professional problems in this new drama by Dominique Morisseau, author of the acclaimed 'Skeleton Crew.'

Dramatic incidents abound in Dominique Morisseau’s new play receiving its world premiere at Lincoln Center Theater, but the show has little dramatic urgency. That’s partly because the eventful moments mostly occur offstage in this work about a dedicated inner-city schoolteacher and her troubled teenage son. But it’s also because the playwright strains too hard for a poeticism that feels unearned and unnatural to a majority of the characters. While there are some powerful moments, Pipeline overall fails to come to life.

The play’s central character, Nya (Karen Pittman), has sent her son, Omari (Namir Smallwood), to a tony private school rather than the urban high school where she teaches. Separated from her husband after she had an affair, Nya tries to quell her mounting depression and anxiety with cigarettes and booze. Her work environment provides little comfort, as evidenced by her colleague Laurie (Tasha Lawrence) having recently endured reconstructive facial surgery after being slashed by one of her students.

Despite his comparatively peaceful academic environment, Omari has recently gotten into serious trouble. He’s facing possible expulsion after assaulting a teacher — he claims he merely pushed him — in an incident that was captured by cellphone cameras and threatens to go viral. His father, Xavier (Morocco Omari), still bitter over Nya’s infidelity, thinks the answer is for Omari to withdraw from the school and come live with him.

This fairly standard-issue domestic drama plotline constitutes the bulk of the play; the most dramatic incident we actually witness is Nya suffering a debilitating panic attack. The rest of the play’s 90-minute running time is largely taken up by digressive monologues, including ones inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry and Richard Wright’s classic novel Native Son. There’s also a rage-fueled encounter between Omari and his father, who he blames for the divorce, that comes across as utterly generic save for one darkly hilarious line.

Morisseau, whose play Skeleton Crew crackled with narrative urgency and pungent dialogue (she’s also a writer-producer on the Showtime series Shameless), seems to be reaching for a profundity that Pipeline never attains. The stylistically awkward drama works best in its quieter, smaller moments, such as the brief, amusingly tension-filled encounter between Nya’s ex-husband and the school security guard (Jaime Lincoln Smith) with whom she had her dalliance; and the confrontation between Nya and her son’s self-possessed Latina girlfriend (Heather Velazquez) after he temporarily goes missing.

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz provides an effective, streamlined staging on the mostly bare set, with Hannah Wasileski’s video projections of schoolrooms and corridors adding suitably gritty atmosphere. Less effective are the moments in which the house lights go up and the audience assumes the role of students in Nya’s class, although it does provide the opportunity for a nifty stage effect in which words appear magically on a blackboard.

Despite some casting missteps — Smallwood appears far too old for his teenage role, for instance — the ensemble delivers first-rate performances, led by Pittman’s compelling turn as the emotionally desperate Nya. But their efforts are not enough for Pipeline — which is dedicated to the playwright’s mother, who taught public school in Michigan for 40 years — to smack of little more than well-intentioned seriousness.

Venue: Mitzi E. Newhouse, New York
Cast: Tasha Lawrence, Morocco Omari, Karen Pittman, Namir Smallwood, Jaime Lincoln Smith, Heather Velazquez
Playwright: Dominique Morisseau
Director: Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set designer: Matt Saunders
Costume designer: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting designer: Yi Zhao
Sound designer: Justin Ellington
Projection designer: Hannah Wasileski
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater