nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
July 14, 2005
If you read the description of Brother, a new play by Lisa Ebersole at the Paradise Factory, you’ll know exactly where it’s going as you’re watching it and that makes the tension in the room so thick you might find it hard to breathe.
Other than the tension, the two most appealing elements of Brother are the acting, which is completely devoid of any affectations whatsoever, and the clever, often funny banter. The dialogue is at times so crisp and real that I got a sense of déjà vu, like I’d had these very same conversations with my own friends and/or family. This, coupled with acting that is as natural as I’ve ever seen on stage, made me feel like I was sitting in someone’s living room (almost literally—the audience is seated on all four sides of the space) listening to their dysfunctional relationships form an elephant in the room that is packed with explosives and could blow any moment.
However, despite the excellent banter and acting, the pacing of the show is tedious and slow. There are moments when you feel the action rising and the pace begins to pick up but these moments are abruptly cut off and the show falls back into its sluggish pulse. Also, though I truly liked the dialogue I could not get a firm grasp on what the playwright is trying to say because the plot leaves so much open-ended and/or unexplained.
The plot goes something like this. It’s Jamie’s birthday and she’s invited a handsome black man named Carl up to her apartment for some drinks and a little sex. (At least I thought they had sex, but my companion didn’t get that.) Jamie’s sister, Margeaux, who is the black sheep of the family, has recently been evicted from her apartment and has showed up at her sister’s to crash on her couch. The three of them talk and drink and there is a bit of flirtation bounced around until Jamie’s husband Kevin comes home from his nighttime job and the tension in the room skyrockets. Naturally, Kevin questions why Carl is in his house at that hour (and wearing his clothes) and he makes his sheer hatred for Margeaux well known. Kevin leaves to buy Jamie a grocery store birthday cake and when he returns he seems even more determined to uncover the truth about what has been going on. Lies, half-truths, and false confessions begin to pile on top of one another, pushing the already volatile Kevin to his breaking point.
As I was watching the plot unfold I began to think that a search for the truth about (and from) these characters was the theme of the play, but as I began to reflect on the evening I came to think instead that Ebersole is trying to make a statement about dysfunctional relationships. However, there is too much uncertainty for me to make an accurate assessment. Ebersole reveals very little about these characters’ pasts, the nature of their relationships, and what they want at this moment in life. There is no character transformation and no resolution. The surfaces of several subjects are breached, race issues in particular, but Ebersole never takes the time to really delve into any of them. The play is only an hour long. This gives the playwright some writing room to answer the unanswered and to delve where she skims the surface.
It is perhaps Ebersole’s artistic vision to leave so many questions unanswered. After all, life doesn’t always answer our questions nor does it always have a resolution. Brother is merely a slice-of-life’s birthday cake and it makes one wonder what the rest of the cake looks like. (In fact, it may have been an interesting metaphor for this show had Kevin brought Jamie only a single slice of birthday cake instead of a whole cake.) Still, there is something unsatisfying about walking out of a play thinking more about plot questions than plot points.
Ebersole also stars in and directs the production. As an actor she is quite talented and is certainly as natural as the rest of the cast. As a director she uses the open space in an intimate manner and she keeps her actors on the same page stylistically. However, perhaps an outside eye could have recognized (and fixed) the problems with pacing.
The one actor who comes the closest to picking up the pace is Haskell King. King as Kevin delivers an extraordinary performance. The energy he brings to the room made my heart race, as if I were watching a late-night thriller. Stephanie Sanditz is utterly unaffected in her role as the contemptible Margeaux. Her use of a little laugh to show her disgust and vulnerability in a manner that is almost indistinguishable is a thing of beauty. Orran Farmer is excellent as the soft spoken stranger, Carl. He brings an appealing dynamic to the cast.
In the end, it is hard to say whether I’d recommend this production. There are elements that make for a great theatre experience but there are others that are unsatisfying. With a little bit of development, I think Brother (and its creator, Ebersole) will be something to look out for in the future.