Last week, it was Judd Hirsch in Art; this week, it’s Phylicia Rashad in Blue. If one more TV star comes to town in a stage sitcom, I’m going to have to stop congratulating myself on having a better gig than television critics.
After all, having sat through Charles Randolph-Wright’s cute but almost belligerently insubstantial domestic dramedy, Blue, at Arena Stage, I now have to spend several hundred words telling you about the Clarks, the funeral-home-owning South Carolina family who will reside for the next six weeks in the house the Tyrones and the Vanderhoffs built with all those long day’s journeys you can’t take with you.
The Clarks are distinct from their celebrated theatrical predecessors in two significant ways: they’re African-American, and they’re populating a script that really belongs on the Fox network. We meet them on a Friday, which is evidently the day Samuel Clark Jr. (Randall Shepperd) always invites his cranky mother, Tillie (Jewell Robinson), over so she can complain about his wife’s cooking. They both know that Peggy Clark (Rashad) doesn’t actually touch the food she serves until after some local restaurant has prepared it—she’s too busy listening to her favorite jazz vocalist on her stereo—but, to preserve domestic tranquility, they play along as she takes them on a supposedly home-cooked journey to a different country each week.
So do her sons, Sam III (Howard W. Overshown), whose puffed-up Afro and platform shoes (it’s the ’70s) give him a 6-inch height advantage when he sasses his parents, and Reuben (Brandon Troy McMickens), who converses intermittently with his spectral adult self (Michael Wiggins) for reasons best known to the playwright. There’s one other spectral presence on the premises: singer Blue Williams (Arnold McCuller), a honey-voiced, Al Jarreau-like crooner who materializes in an azure spotlight whenever Peggy puts one of his records on the turntable.
The cuisine on this particular Friday is Italian, but the word “country” is uttered only as a reference to the less-than-affluent girlfriend young Sam has brought home to dinner. Peggy thinks sweet but gawky LaTonya (played with a broad, character-defining drawl by Messeret Stroman) is way too country for her son, and she asserts in a line that pretty much sets the tone for the evening that “someone must de-tramp this family.” But when LaTonya turns out to have every Blue Williams album ever released, the two instead become bosom buddies, with Peggy taking the younger woman on as a sort of pet project and showing her how to class up her act. Later they have a falling-out for reasons it would be unfair to reveal, because so much of this sitcom’s com is sit-dependent. Suffice it to say that Act 2 leaps forward 15 years and explains everything in a series of confrontations between the adult Reuben and his mother.
Randolph-Wright has been saying in interviews that he wrote Blue in response to a fairly specific challenge from his manager—”you need to write the Neil Simon black family”—and I suppose he’s met that challenge, if what his manager meant was the cardboard-thin family in Barefoot in the Park.
I’m not sure, however, why ersatz-Simon should appeal to Arena’s powers that be. The theater—which was founded 50 years ago to provide an alternative to the commercial drivel Broadway sent on tour, while Simon was cutting his teeth as a playwright—has never offered its subscribers an actual Simon play. The theory has always been that such shows as The Odd Couple and Come Blow Your Horn are perfectly appropriate in commercial theaters, but that audiences go to regional stages looking for something a tad more substantial.
What makes Blue an appropriate choice for Arena, according to the troupe’s program notes (which mention Randolph-Wright in the same breath as Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Ibsen, incidentally), is that the thriving family being depicted is African-American. This fact, says the program, makes the play “a lesson in cultural preservation” in a dramatic landscape where Americans of color are rarely depicted as prosperous or as being at the center of a community’s life.
Point taken. That premise is undeniably valid, even if it seems undercut somewhat by the star’s familiarity to millions as the matriarch of a prosperous black family on TV. Not that the existence of The Cosby Show in any way diminishes the underlying cultural disparity. There is such a dearth of films, TV shows, and stage plays reflecting the lives of African-American audiences that a case could be made that anything that attempts to do so deserves production.
Still, ideas and execution matter, and Blue isn’t what most Arena patrons probably expect from the nation’s most prominent regional theater in terms of either. It’s a commercial comedy at heart and in method—a few steps up from Shear Madness, but only a few. To go back to the playwright’s manager’s comparison, the play is like very early Neil Simon. By the beginning of the ’70s, he had stopped writing joke-strewn dialogue of the sort trafficked in here, and I don’t recall that there was ever a point in his career when he would have stooped to having an elderly character say “fuck” in front of her grandchild to get a laugh.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that a substantial portion of Blue’s opening-night crowd guffawed at granny’s cussing and behaved throughout the evening as if it were auditioning to record a laugh track. On occasion, this raucous response seemed justified by the events on stage, but not as often as one might have wished, and almost never by actual cleverness in the writing. Fortunately, Randolph-Wright has a director’s sense of situation (he staged Arena’s sharp, motivation-savvy Guys and Dolls earlier this season), so the quandaries in which his characters find themselves are frequently funny even when his writing isn’t.
Blue’s actual director, Sheldon Epps, likes to keep things moving, including the turntable that whisks the characters from living to dining room and from front steps to funeral parlor. He has encouraged his actors to give splashy performances—which is perfectly appropriate, broadness being precisely what the material calls for (at least until the grown-up Reuben has a second-act crisis, which Wiggins is required to play as a full-fledged emotional meltdown).
Epps doesn’t, however, make much sense of the spectral characters who are the play’s trickiest conceit. Their presence doesn’t affect the action in any dramatically useful way, and his staging doesn’t help matters by initially being cagey about whether they’re really there.
Even after you realize that the guy no one but the 12-year-old Reuben sees is the older Reuben, he never tells his younger self anything terribly trenchant. Frankly, if he did, it’s hard to know what we could make of it. Similarly, the title character’s abrupt vocalizing whenever Peggy’s stylus touches vinyl registers as a mere staging device. Blue’s songs (written by Nona Hendryx and Randolph-Wright) are pleasant enough, but if their lyrics connect with the dilemmas the characters are facing, their relevance slipped right by me.
On the other hand, McCuller sells them to the rafters in a voice that’s as sexy as it is assured, and he’s equally persuasive when allowed to interact with another character in the second act. Rashad’s bossy matriarch is regal and vibrant, and has priceless comic timing; Stroman’s “country” interloper is trashy and vibrant, and has priceless comic timing; their scenes together are a hoot. Shepperd’s patriarchal rectitude anchors the evening, and the rest of the cast is pretty sharp as well.
But the evening is going to be a letdown for audience members who think that shelling out upward of $30 a ticket entitles them to expect some intellectual content even in light comedies. And although dissenters from the standing ovation on opening night appeared to be in the minority, they were definitely present.
How else to explain that the best and least disputable line of the evening was uttered not by an actor, but by a guy tending bar at intermission? He still had plenty of soft drinks and juices as the lights blinked to send us back to the auditorium, but the counter in front of him was littered with empty one-shot bottles, and he had to apologize for being completely out of bourbon.
“It’s a real hard-liquor night,” he explained, inadvertently summing up the whole experience in six words. CP