nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 19, 2009
Slave Shack, a new play by Mike Folie, pits a hugely successful white male corporate executive against a younger female African American novelist-turned-speechwriter. They turn out to be evenly matched, which we anticipate right from the get-go. What we do not always see coming are the various twists and turns of Folie's narrative, which ends up touching on a range of hot-button issues from sexual harassment to racism to the rather horrifying disconnect between morality and expeditiousness in the high-powered world of international business.
Jack Blake, portrayed here with a layered complexity by Michael Gnat that makes him surprisingly likable and sympathetic, is the son of a West Virginia coal miner who clawed his way to the top of the corporate ladder through guts, nerve, charm, and savvy. He is the senior VP of international development at the unnamed monolithic conglomerate where he works. Or rather, he was: when we meet Blake, he is in the process of preparing a sort of "farewell address" that he will deliver at his retirement party in just a few hours. We discover that Blake has been forced out of the company, due to an indiscretion that appears to be racially motivated.
Janice, the young black woman who is alone with Blake in his office, is a speechwriter who has been hired to help him craft his parting remarks. The two start off at odds, what with Blake having essentially been fired and well aware of the irony that a black woman is helping him with a speech that has been prompted by a supposed anti-black slur. The balance of power between them shifts over and over again during the course of Slave Shack, as we discover unsavory and/or surprising details about each of their lives that have brought them to this particular moment. One such detail concerns the book "Slave Shack," a novel written by Janice that gives the play its title. (A slave shack, she tells Blake, is the place where new slaves were held and "broken" until they were fit to work without resistance in the fields.)
Folie's plot hinges on several unexpected turns so I don't want to give away much more about what happens. I was sometimes distracted by implausibility of the central framing device—i.e., the circumstance that has led to Blake's dismissal. But the place where Folie eventually takes the piece is as important as it is disturbing, and the end of the play, though far from conclusive, is satisfying.
Gnat does a fine job as Blake. Unfortunately, although Janice is posited as being very much Blake's equal in terms of forcefulness and gutsiness, Candice LaGia Lenoir doesn't always achieve that parity in her performance. Her Janice feels tentative and overly emotional next to Gnat's measured manipulator. Jeffrey Plunkett completes the onstage cast as Blake's soon-to-be-successor.
The production moves briskly yet tautly under the direction of Debra Whitfield. Staged in the very intimate Dorothy Parker space at the Algonquin Theatre, the show has been given exceptional production values, including a well-crafted, very detailed set design by Natalie Taylor Hart that neatly conveys the luxury of Blake's office even though it's been furnished on an indie theater budget and the stage is probably quite a bit smaller than his actual office would be in real life. The uncredited costumes are also effective, as is Rod Kinter's exciting and vivid fight choreography.