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“There is a certain kind of bad play,” wrote the London reviewer Bernard Levin about a particular Paddy Chayefsky show, “to which critics are supposed to be kind because it is what is known as ‘well-meaning.’”

There is, it turns out, a play, in a world-premiere production at Arena Stage, that means to celebrate the collective cultural wisdom of African-American men and the singular atmosphere of the barbershops in which they congregate. Also there is a play, in its Washington premiere at the Signature Theatre, that means to celebrate the distinct otherness of a storytelling style shared by a dirt-poor Caribbean dreamer and the playwright who’s put his legend onstage.

You see, I trust, where this is going.

To Levin’s list of “plays about religion, plays about Jews, plays about mental illness”—all of them targets at which an observer takes critical aim with profound trepidation—let us add plays about gays, plays about women, plays about African-Americans or the Irish or immigrants legal and illegal alike; plays about anyone or anything, in fact, beyond the ken of those notorious dead white men we all have so little patience for. Send critics to see what turns out to be a thoughtful, well-built show about something “other,” and we shake the heavens with our huzzahs—having first heaved a sigh of collective relief that we’re able to avoid doing otherwise. Send us to the opening of a thoroughly softheaded, crushingly middlebrow, transparently commercial enterprise on such a topic, and we stare at our shoes, mumbling feebly about good intentions and might-have-beens.

You see, I trust, the difficulty.

Let’s start, shall we, by admitting that audiences generally couldn’t care less about the critics’ woeful musings. They’ll turn out in their hordes to see a Sound of Music star make handsome declamatory noises in an otherwise inert historical pageant or to watch a sextet of reasonably well-built young men sing sans culottes about the poignancies of being lonely and gay in the big city. And if opening night at Cuttin’ Up is any indication, Arena patrons will be cheering Charles Randolph-Wright’s play well into the New Year.

You see, I trust, the futility of my position.

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And yet: Cuttin’ Up rots. Not Arena’s staging, which is superlatively upholstered and even entertaining, often as not. And not Arena’s cast, which manages to do some honest, unshowy work in a play that hardly wears subtlety as its hallmark. No, it’s the play itself. It’s derived, like last year’s runaway Arena hit Crowns, from a book of oral history by Craig Marberry, and as theater—well, it’s a fine book of oral history, a series of frequently charming vignettes linked by the feeblest of through-lines.

In a D.C. barbershop, conjured cozily by set designer Shaun L. Motley as a kind of checkerboard-floored sanctuary, three generations of barbers tend to the ’fros and the dreads and the processes and the braids of a dizzying parade of customers, sharing stories and cracking wise along the way. “More black history gets passed on in barbershops than in schools,” somebody observes, and in Cuttin’ Up the chief lecturer is Howard (Ed Wheeler), the joint’s avuncular proprietor, who’s grooming 40-something Andre (Peter Jay Fernandez) and “youngblood” Rudy (Psalmayene 24) for tenure. The coursework ranges from the nominally sacred—two competitive neighborhood preachers launch into a bout of testy testifyin’, throwing down cadences James Brown wouldn’t be ashamed to deploy—to the distinctly profane, though the sight of three customers anxiously improvising a kind of culinary code for their bedroom bragging, so as not to offend the lady waiting for her man, isn’t as funny on the stage as on the page.

That’s as rough and rowdy, by the way, as Cuttin’ Up gets. The earthier passages in the reminiscences of septuagenarian shop owner Alexander Parker, for instance, get lost on the way from Marberry’s book to Randolph-Wright’s play—and some of Cuttin’ Up’s texture gets lost with ’em.

The trouble, of course, is that Cuttin’ Up is a play the way Smokey Joe’s Café, that slapdash assemblage of Leiber & Stoller songs, is a musical: It’s an idea, not a story. Only the venue connects the various home truths that emerge in Marberry’s anecdotes—the venue, and the cultural commonalities that make it such a comfortable place for men to hang out and shoot the shit. That’s fine for a book, and maybe it’s even OK for a jukebox musical, but a play needs more connective tissue—it needs characters, and conflict, and a story arc—and Randolph-Wright’s efforts in that direction prove workmanlike at best. A half-cooked plot, superimposed gracelessly on Marberry’s collected yarns, digs perfunctorily into Andre’s troubled past, from his failed marriage to an R&B diva (Marva Hicks) to his tortured relationship with his mother, who turns out to be something less than the solid rock that cultural convention would make of the black matriarch. None of it’s remotely convincing, let alone moving—and while Hicks sounds smooth enough as Andre’s crooner ex, her occasional drifts through the scene smack more of authorial desperation than of dramatic necessity.

None of this would be especially objectionable were Cuttin’ Up playing out on the stage at the National Theatre, where with Mamma Mia and Movin’ Out and Disney on the Record it would be in good, if unchallenging, commercial company. But it’s onstage at the Kreeger Theater, one of two major houses at Washington’s major resident theater company—a distinguished nonprofit institution with half a century of history to live up to, a company whose “core purpose,” reprinted proudly right there in the Cuttin’ Up playbill, is “to produce huge plays of all that is passionate, exuberant, profound, deep and dangerous in the American spirit.”

You see, I trust, how well this trifle of a play, this tame compromise of a Cosby Show retread, serves that mission: Cuttin’ Up becomes Arena Stage like a bad weave.

Out at the Signature Theatre, meanwhile, director Rick DesRochers has taken what might have been a swift, kaleidoscopic tale about an island orphan and made a molasses mess out of it. Inspired perhaps by the surreal poetic shadings of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ fable—goddesses dance on city sidewalks, a bereaved villager finds communion with his wife’s spirit in a bowl of rice, an ice-cold Coke burns a fierce longing permanently into a boy’s soul—DesRochers lets Yemaya’s Belly drift off into a fog-shrouded otherworld. It’s enchanting for maybe 15 minutes, after which it’s entrancing, in the way of all things hazy and dreamy and numbing.

Jose Aranda is Jesus, a wide-eyed waif on a nameless Caribbean island, whose parents die in a fire that consumes his home village one day while he’s visiting the big city with his uncle. His imagination alive with the stories of Santería (Yemaya, the deity of the title, is the mother goddess who rules the sea in the Yoruba tradition), his ambition sparked by the noise and the colors and the pace of the metropolis, he’s quick to bury his grief under dreams of escape—to the swank urban hotel whose gates no farm boy has ever passed, even to the land of plenty across the ocean where, he imagines, the rivers run Coca-Cola and the houses are all swank urban hotels.

Hudes’ play is exactly the sort of risky undertaking any self-respecting theater might be proud of mounting. It’s full of bright imagery and bleak honesty; it’s generous of spirit—and sensible, too, as it goes about wryly weighing the purity and the limits of the life uncomplicated against the compromises and the wide-open horizons of a life lived in a wired consumerist world. In a first-class staging, with a director alive to the quickness of its imagination and the texture of its contradictions, it might be magic.

In Signature’s staging, with DesRochers laying on the atmosphere as if it were an evening with Cirque du Soleil, it’s just twee. The smoke machines are working overtime, lighting designer Jason Thompson paints the permanent miasma with sea-foam greens and wildfire reds, and Stephanie Nelson’s set unfolds its weathered-plank platforms to suggest the rolling swells of the ocean that Jesus and his dangerous muse, Maya (Saskia de Vries), will traverse to reach the promised land of America—and it all might be happening up the road at Imagination Stage, so thoroughly does the earnestly saccharine flavor of children’s theater pervade it.

Clifton Alphonzo Duncan, Joseph W. Lane, and Tuyet Thi Pham contribute supporting performances, each marked by its own particular style of uncertainty and unevenness. Aside from Aranda’s winning Jesus, the strongest personality onstage is David Maddox’s vibrant soundscape, whose eloquent, expressive drums and gourd-rattles and suchlike often make the proceedings seem almost alive.

But a sound design cannot a show save, and by the time Jesus and Maya have survived a shipwreck and a waterlogged drowning dream, by the time they’ve found comfort in each others’ arms and made peace with the uneasy spirits of their departed families, by the time they’ve nearly died, lost at sea—well, you’ll begin to think you have, too. The truest emotion Yemaya’s Belly inspires comes when its wandering hero spies a speck of green on the horizon, and the audience’s spirits lift as one, recognizing with him that his long drift in the direction of the future has at last, blessedly, come to its end.CP