Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Book of Lambert

Photo/Joe Bly

Given that Leslie Lee is an OBIE-winning playwright whose First Breeze of Summer was just very well received at Signature, let's just call this passion project of his a Wesley Willis moment. Not to be dismissive, but there's a reason this play hasn't been produced in its thirty-year life.

As for other reasons: the narrative device of a memory play crouched in realism doesn't work. Even if the five strangers who live on dilapidated mattresses on an abandoned mid-station subway platform were simply figments of Lambert's (Clinton Faulkner) imagination, created to deal with his identity issues after losing his beloved Virginia (Heather Massie), The Book of Lambert would still have a long way to go. But as is, or at least, as directed by Cyndy A. Marion, it's all actually happening this way, from Bonnie (Joresa Blount), the pregnant woman, to the sex-starved Priscilla (Sadrina Johnson), who can orgasm from train vibrations alone, thanks to Jesus. There really is an old blind man, Otto (Arthur French), who remarries his needy wife, Zinth (Gloria Sauve), every day. Worst of all, Clancy (Howard L. Wieder), who calls himself a member of the "obstacles squad," and goes about ticketing objects and people that disturb beautiful vistas, has memories of his own. Given that, it matters very little to one's sanity that he only seems to recall his love for Miss Wambaugh (Omrae Smith) when he is shot, or when he shoots other people.

It wouldn't be so terrible, either, if these characters just existed to provide a physical context for his memories of Virginia, a rebellious young girl who wants to experience black "culture" from the inside out, appropriating Lambert's slang while entirely missing the point. Instead, each one of them takes a turn staring out at the audience, explaining themselves with a wide-eyed hunger that makes no sense from moment to moment. For some reason, Priscilla starts singing an old kid's song and then, for some other reason, wonders aloud why she did so. Says the wise Lambert: "Because it's in there. And once it's in there, it's always going to be in there, waiting its turn."

Of course, just because it's all in there doesn't mean that it all needs to come out--in fact, what most gets in Lambert's way are the implausible moments and ridiculous characters, all the laborous distractions of a younger playwright desperately trying to find a way to deal with racial issues on the page. Instead of looking to salvage the voice of a younger self, Lee would do best to simply start a new book, not a hasty revision of an old, dusty chapter.

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