The Picture Box
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
January 15, 2012
It’s an evocative idea, going through a shoebox full of old photos and remembering each moment, good or bad. Cate Ryan’s new drama The Picture Box, a production of The Negro Ensemble Company directed by Charles Weldon, finds a young-ish woman going through this box of memories with her dearest friend, the significantly older gentleman who raised her practically from birth.
Ryan’s protagonist is Carrie (Jennifer Van Dyck), a woman with no discernible background except that she was reared by Mackie (Arthur French), her family’s black steward and caretaker, as she was growing up on Long Island. Mackie and his wife Josephine (Elain Graham) have retired to Florida, still looking after Carrie’s now-deceased mother who also moved there, becoming her closest friends, and living right down the road from one another. With the death of her mother comes the selling of the house, and Carrie has found seemingly eager buyers, a wealthy and prejudiced, vaguely Midwestern couple (Malachy Cleary and Marisa Redanty), who are even more eager to knock the property down and build from scratch, including a large fence that will keep the unwanted riff-raff (read: non-Caucasians) away.
It’s the introduction of the box of photos that allows Carrie and Mackie to reminisce, together and when they think they’re alone, through heavy-handed and exposition-laden monologues and dialogue that never quite ring true. Familial relationships and issues of race are explored at a glance—for example, it is set on Election Day, 2008, and the characters are voting—though not in depth. Even the riper plot points are disregarded, mentioned once and never again over the play’s 60 minutes. Perhaps intentionally, Ryan doesn’t address Carrie or Mackie’s feelings on their own relationship, and that just seems like a missed opportunity.
Weldon guides the five actors to provide intelligently understated performances, but their realistic, human-sized emotions don’t match the juicy melodrama Ryan seems eager to evoke. In that case, only Cleary comes the closest, spewing, at the top of his lungs, ugly hate speech that functions as the only real bit of conflict. Yet the text is so by the numbers, we can predict the outcome from the start.