Thursday, February 22, 2007

PLAY: "Neglect"

Not much has changed since I first covered Neglect last October. What few tweaks there are, are almost all for the better. Playwright Sharyn Rothstein has made her already compact work even tighter by strengthening the parallels between the polite young schemer, Joseph, and the pushy, self-centered matriarch, Rose Anne Hayes. Director Catherine Ward has succeeded in focusing our attention on the "safety" of one's home by cutting away the outer world (in the original production, the hallway was visible), and making the space even smaller. Although the final minutes of Neglect still seem a bit forced, they've increased the stakes by removing a gun (which cheapened Joseph's sincerity and remorse) and revising the fight choreography to more resemble the height of pathos rather than violence bordering on absurdity. In other words, Neglect is as well-worth seeing now as it was last year: it is a brilliant slice of racial relations, social struggle, and the plight of the poor.

The play is a natural tale of depression, but without the bogging politicizing of other social writers; as a result, Neglect seems more immediate and pressing than similar works like Raisin in the Sun. There's only one scene, cramped into a small inner-city slum apartment during a Chicago heatwave, and the show is only an hour long. More than enough time for a talented young playwright like Rothstein to paint a vivid picture: you can even see the sharp edges of the facade melting in the unrelenting heat and pressure of the show. While the characters may start with nothing -- lumps of coal, really -- by the end of the show, they've developed, at least for the audience, into diamonds in the rough.

The greatest asset of Neglect, however, is its talented performers: William Jackson Harper and Geany Masai. Their reprisal is so perfect that it's hard to image any other actors ever playing these parts. Geany Masai is a full-bodied woman and she's got the full-bodied voice to go with it, from the deep commands and questions of a stern woman, to the clucking uh-huhs of a rumormonger and storyteller, all the way to the high-pitched squeals of a delighted little girl (despite her age). She moves with a heaviness I wouldn't wish upon anyone, rocking several times in her seat before getting the momentum to stand, only to shrivel up with suspicion and fear. As for Harper, you can see his mind constantly in action: his role is like that of an urban Hamlet, a gentle intellectual who is forced by circumstance to do something he does not wish to do. It also gives him a real arc, going from a patient, smiling worker to an anxious, scowling thief. His performance is instantly accessible and his choices are neatly motivated and driven completely by his interactions with Masai: the two are completely in sync.

Neglect is impressive not just for its actors, direction, or smart writing, but for the poignancy of the piece. My heart goes out to these characters and their situation, and I think the newly staged end of this play is an absolutely perfect statement of our isolated states of America: togetherness found in loneliness.

No comments: