nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
February 17, 2008
Brett C. Leonard's UNCONDITIONAL certainly starts with an arresting sight—a white man stands on a chair, a noose about his neck and a gag about his mouth, as a black man sits, simply watching him. Taking his time, the black man first burns a flag in front of him, then threatens him with a gun. Not a word is spoken in the scene—it's all a series of powerful images. I just wish that kind of attention was paid to the look of the play throughout.
After that opener, the play jumps back in time to tell us more about these two men, Newton (Isaiah Whitlock) and Daniel (Trevor Long) as well as seven other characters. Newton, a middle-aged office worker, first meets Daniel when Daniel is firing him; Newton suspects his race is a factor, and over the course of the play his threats against the company grow more stringent. But their story also intersects with that of Newton's wife Tracie (Yolanda Ross), growing increasingly unhappy with Newton; urged by her best friend Jessica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), she begins an affair with Gary (Kevin Geer), who is in his own crumbling marriage to Lotty (Saidah Arrika Ekulona). Lotty is having an affair with the shady Keith (John Doman), who picks her up in a bar. Keith is an extortionist working with Spike (Chris Chalk), a young man who's turned to crime out of love for his girlfriend Missy (Anna Chlumsky), who struggles with a meth addiction.
Leonard can be wonderfully detailed. He has an ear for how people speak (Missy and Spike's "sweet nothings" are especially telling), and he also understands the power of silence. But the scenes themselves are so disjointed, with such abrupt shifts from one set of characters to the next, that it's hard to follow the plot. Leonard may have also given himself a few too many plot threads—we're reduced to seeing stories in brief glimpses, and fine though those glimpses are, some tales simply need more back story. All we see of Tracie and Gary's first date is some awkward discussion about their spouses and an even more awkward attempt on Gary's part to talk "street"; as charmingly silly as it may be, it just doesn't explain Tracie's later feelings for him. Nor do any of their other scenes. But any time that could be spent fleshing their tale out is instead spent on glimpses of scenes with Spike yammering to Keith about Tiger Woods, or on Lotty smashing Gary's computer keyboard to shards, or even on Jessica meeting Daniel on an adult chat line. Individually, they're all fine scenes, but they distract from each other rather than supporting each other.
The staging is even more damning. Mark Wendland has a genius idea for dividing up the tiny space in the Public with a series of rolling walls, creating smaller playing spaces as needed; but Leonard often calls for multiple scenes taking place simultaneously, and the stage is simply too small to keep each scene isolated enough for the audience to follow. Japhy Weidman's lighting is also sometimes too dark for some of the more subtle action – it's eerily moody in the opening scene, but in later scenes it actually hides some action (my companion was ignorant of Missy's addiction for a while because he simply didn't see her shooting up on the dark stage). Director Mark Wing-Davey's staging also proves a frustration—throughout most of the first scene between Keith and Lotty, they are seated at a bar, both facing forward as he speaks to her. But they are staged so their backs face an entire third of the audience.
A casting quirk also causes confusion—Geer is wonderful as Gary, while Doman does fine work as the oily Keith. However, the two look VERY similar to each other. The couple sitting behind me asked me during intermission if I was able to follow the plot, and were only able to make sense of things when I clarified for them that no, there were TWO middle-aged white men with thinning hair, not just one. Even more confusingly, Ross, as Gary's lover Tracie, also looks uncannily like Ekulona, playing Gary's wife Lotty; and Lotty is also involved with Keith. (I don't know if the couple behind me got that either.)
Leonard is trying to tackle a lot here—race, sex, class, power. He can say a good deal about his characters with a tiny snip of a scene. But putting this many of those small scenes together obscures the point rather than clarifies the picture.