nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 7, 2006
Lewis, the protagonist in Tanya Barfield's new play Blue Door, is a black mathematician stricken with insomnia. His white wife of 25 years has just walked out on him because he won't go to the Million Man March, and because he won't commit to doing housework. A devotee of Feng Shui, she says she's learned a lot from the ancient Oriental practice, telling Lewis "your house has to be in order." And Lewis's house is definitely not in order. The real reason his wife left is because Lewis has suppressed and denied his ethnic heritage. Compelled by a furious desire to leave his origins behind, Lewis went to college, became a professor, and got a job at a prestigious university. But now his denial has finally come home to roost, and in one insomnia-plagued night Lewis goes face-to-face with it, in the form of several deceased ancestors who want to set him straight.
Barfield's premise is ripe for riveting drama, but, somehow, Blue Door is almost devoid of any conflict or tension. Barfield's penchant for direct-address monologues overwhelms a play that could use more character interaction. Director Leigh Silverman's staging strands all the characters in their respective worlds, telling stories and dishing platitudes to the audience when they should be talking to each other. And, Reg E. Cathey's performance as Lewis isn't strong or believable enough to gain the audience's sympathy or interest.
As his sleepless night continues, Lewis is visited by the ghosts of his militant brother, Rex; his happy-go-lucky grandfather, Jesse; and Simon, his great-grandfather. All three take turns filling the audience in on their family's checkered past, and the thoroughly unpleasant deaths most of them met (Rex died of a drug overdose; Jesse was brutally slain by a white mob as he was trying to vote). Lewis's father, Charles, turned mean and spiteful after poor management and black-on-black violence closed his start-up business. "White people try," Lewis recalls his father telling him in the middle of a painful beating, "black people fail. So you best not try. You best do more than try." Lewis takes that advice, and his family's tragic history, so much to heart that he consumes himself with self-loathing. His assimilation into white culture is so complete (and obvious) that even his white colleagues don't respect him.
Some of Barfield's speeches are very effective, such as Simon's story about how he met his wife, and Jesse's funny re-telling of how he landed in prison. Unfortunately, though, Blue Door (which gets its title from an old superstition that a door painted blue keeps bad spirits out of a house and the good spirits in) suffers from too much of a good thing in Barfield's speechifying. By the time Lewis and the other characters begin really talking to each other, more than two-thirds of the way into the play, it's far too late for the audience to care.
The playwright also inexplicably stacks the deck against her protagonist. As written, Lewis is the least interesting and most unsympathetic character in Blue Door. If he's not interested in his own heritage, why should the audience give a hoot about him or whether he is or not? Lewis' relatives are far more profound, likable, and pleasant.
Unfortunately, Cathey does nothing to enhance Lewis from the page to the stage. He plays what's in the script, a choice that proves to be most unfortunate. Especially when the show's only other actor—newcomer Andre Holland, who plays Simon, Jesse, and Rex—not only has all the better roles, but is giving the better performance. Holland's work here is galvanizing and superb. His charm, skill, and talent are the high points of Blue Door.
Silverman confines Cathey and Holland to separate sides of the stage: whenever it's time for one of them to talk (which is, at least, more than half the play), the lights come up on him and go down on the other. Keeping them in such centralized areas conveys a false sense of two separate shows going on. Of course, the precedent is established so early on that whenever the characters do talk to each other, it feels equally weird.
Barfield wrestles with some intriguing ideas in Blue Door, but not successfully enough to make her play reach its largely unfulfilled potential.