We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
First John Q., now Tommy J …One more and we can call this gun-toting-good-terrorist-with-initials thing a trend.
Mark Medoff’s ferociously well-meaning hostage drama, Tommy J and Sally, takes the same tack as the Denzel Washington hostage movie—and is approximately as overwritten and implausible. The issue is different—race relations rather than health care—and the hero more articulate, but in most other respects, the two works are remarkably similar.
Both feature decent, put-upon, socially conscious African-American men who resort to hostage-taking to get the attention of the tight-lipped but ultimately empathetic Caucasian women who hold power over them. Both men have been reduced to this tactic by the System—which may be why both have been given initials by their authors that substitute for names (Quincy and Jefferson, respectively) associated with the revolution that established that system. Both men are first-time hostage-takers who exhibit a precocious flair for outsmarting the law over the phone. Both talk tough but are pussycats at heart. And both prolong their debacles well past the point of diminishing returns for an audience.
In Medoff’s play, currently premiering under the joint auspices of Woolly Mammoth and Theater J, the iconically named Tom Jefferson (Craig Wallace) is posing as a grocery delivery boy when he first cases the apartment of the equally iconic Sally Hemmings (Sue-Anne Morrow), a white pop singer whose consciousness-raising ditties apparently have critics calling her the next Joan Baez. Tommy’s overly familiar banter strikes Sally as annoying, but she regards him as harmless until he notes that the multiple locks on her door are all pickable—something he proves as soon as she ushers him out and steps into the shower. Emerging sopping wet to find him inside the apartment again, this time with her pistol in his pocket, she initially thinks he’s an unbalanced fan bent on rape, but his designs on her turn out to be more complex.
Tommy is convinced that he knows Sally, but by another name, with a different nose, and with a background that’s not in the bio on her Web site. It seems that Tommy spent his final year of high school living in the home of a Jewish classmate named Maddy, whose parents took him in and treated him as a member of their family until an incident on graduation day estranged them. Tommy ended up in jail and lost touch with the family and now has all sorts of unresolved issues relating to their time together and the way they parted.
Tommy asserts that Sally is Maddy, and, hoping to calm him, she plays along. For the rest of the evening, he badgers her about apparent connections between her career trajectory and the past they supposedly shared, and she responds by trying to imagine what Maddy might say. At least that appears to be what’s happening—the playwright wants us to be as much in the dark about whether Sally is really Maddy as Tommy is, so he peppers their sparring with lines (“Certain things from the life you didn’t live, you do recall”) that keep the issue ambiguous.
All of this, though, is really window dressing, designed to maintain audience interest in an earnest discussion of racism, classism, and the heartbreak of fame. By the middle of the second act (Sally now has the pistol, but Tommy still has the upper hand for reasons I stopped trying to comprehend when the playwright engaged them in an entire scene of mushroom-stuffing at gunpoint), the premise has worn decidedly thin. Medoff’s heart is so firmly in the right place that there’s never much threat to the threats uttered by either character. From the first, it’s clear that the evening is heading toward a song in which Sally will sweetly urge patience and understanding, and in a blunt little anthem that I think she said was called “One by One,” she does just that as the lights dim, trilling the refrain: “Heal us all.”
Theatergoers know Medoff chiefly for his tartly observed Children of a Lesser God, but he also does saccharine pretty authoritatively, as evidenced in his screenplay for the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Clara’s Heart, and notwithstanding guns, knives, and talk of rape, it’s toward the sweet end of the spectrum that Tommy J and Sally leans. The author’s comments about race, discrimination, fame, Jewishness, celebrity, and the importance of precise language in framing the national debate regarding all of those subjects are perfectly cogent and intelligent, but they don’t add up to drama.
The playing also isn’t particularly persuasive, though it’s hard to blame that on performers who labor mightily to bring conviction to epigrams (“I have been affected by nothing except my affectations”) and absurdities (“A lie in the syntax of truth”) that director Bob Devin Jones encourages them to spit out at a rapid clip. Morrow has a lovely voice—her singing brings to mind Tori Amos—and if her character’s behavior made any sense, she’d doubtless make a bigger impression. Wallace projects vulnerability even when he’s glowering, but he, too, can do only so much with the material.
The evening might play better if it weren’t produced on so naturalistic a set (a pleasant brick loft by Daniel Ettinger, atmospherically lit by Jay A. Herzog) and if its characters didn’t keep issuing time bulletins (“He’ll be here in 10 minutes”) that don’t jibe with the actual passage of time in the theater. Freed from realistic constraints in a more stylized mounting, the author’s arguments could bounce around brightly, suffused with all the writerly aphorisms he could pack into them, without courting disbelief. Alas, at Theater J, surrounded by real-world detritus, the lines just sound unlikely.
I confess I was skeptical about Contact, the Tony-winning musical that’s taken up residence at the National Theatre. Three short tales accompanied by recorded pop and classical ditties didn’t sound like a full Broadway evening. But I hadn’t reckoned on the Girl in the Yellow Dress.
I’d heard about her. All the New York reviews went on and on about the cathartic effect she has on a suicidal ad exec in the story that gives Contact its title. He spots her across a crowded dance floor, and it’s instantly clear not only that she’s his dream partner—statuesque, gorgeous, commanding—but that she’s as drawn to him as he is to her. All he has to do is ask her to dance. Now, if only he didn’t have two left feet.
In the person of Holly Cruikshank, the Girl in the Yellow Dress is pretty damn magnificent at the National—alluring, slender, with legs for days. I have a vague idea how a combination of costuming, lighting, and physique might combine to create a vision so erotically charged, but I’d never seen it all come together onstage the way it does on her first entrance. All she does is stride into a spotlight, shift her weight to one hip, and unwrap a scarf from her neck. Breathtaking…and I’m not even heterosexually inclined.
The story of which she’s a part is a mere trifle, as are the two that precede it. The curtain-raiser involves nothing more than an 18th-century aristocrat, a servant, and the Girl on the Swing. They flirt, swing, then flirt some more. The middle tale finds a giddy ’50s housewife daydreaming at a restaurant as her brutish husband wanders off in search of dinner rolls. The headwaiter becomes Nureyev to her Fonteyn. Not a dime’s worth of substance in any of them. But Susan Stroman’s staging imbues them with enormous humor while giving the women at the center of each tale an erotic power that is not dependent on their being either helplessly in love (the Michael Bennett approach) or slatternly (think Bob Fosse). Perhaps it just takes a woman choreographer to make women the power figures in Broadway dance. (Certainly there are few male choreographers who would indulge in quite so many face-to-groin maneuvers.) Whatever.
As I say, I was skeptical about Contact, but you shouldn’t be. It may not be a conventional musical—no throughline, little dialogue, pop and classical recordings rather than an original score played by an orchestra—but it sure as hell is more entertaining than most Broadway song-and-dance extravaganzas. And did I mention? It’s seriously sexy. CP