Monday, March 29, 2010

A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick

You know how some hyperbolic critics insist that certain performers are so good that they'd be happy just listening to them recite the phone book? Well, it's simply not true. Because even though William Jackson Harper is one of those actors who is easily convincing and charismatic, listening to him level out-of-the-blue accusations about the poor processing practices of Nestle and other water bottlers isn't as enjoyable as Kia Corthron wants it to be. In fact, A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick is so all over the place, that I don't blame director Chay Yew for trying to turn some bits into pure fantasy--he needed to escape the show-killing agitprop.

In the first act, things run fairly smoothly. Abebe (Harper) has come from Africa to pursue an education in America, though we ironically first meet him in the middle of a drought in the US. (The smile on his face as he flushes the toilet--what a convenience!--is priceless.) He's been taken in by Pickle (Myra Lucretia Taylor), a boisterous woman given as much to her widowed madness as her religious squeals. He's also frequently at odds with Pickle's stubborn, atheistic daughter H.J. (Kianne Muschett), who cares little for his ecologist protests against the wasteful industrialization of what should be a free resource (well, it creates jobs for her community) and even less for his missionary preaching (well, her brother and father died because of Katrina, so where is God?). We even see Abebe care for a young, violently orphaned boy named Tay (Joshua King), to whom he has become a sort of big brother.

Everybody is so delighted to be there, especially the infectious Harper, that they gloss over the silliness of some of the scenes, like the way H.J. agrees to let Abebe practice baptisms on her in the bathtub (no, there's nothing sexual about it). But by the end of the first act, things are so weighted with false significance that Corthron essentially reboots for the second: skipping seven years ahead. However, in doing so, she cuts the good parts--the interactions between Abebe's naive high-mindedness and H.J.'s desperate practicalities--and focuses on shallow critiques of the industrial complex that are justified in their accuracy, but dramatically unjust. H.J. is religious now, which seems to have sapped her of her opinions, and Pickle isn't crazy with grief, so there's no more faces popping out of cabinet walls (a neat effect with Kris Stone's set). As for Tay, he's gone, which tells you how important he was in the first place. Instead, we get Keith Eric Chappelle, first as Abebe's dead brother, Seyoum, floating in a symbolic African river straight out of The Lion King, and then as H.J.'s ex-husband, Tich: in both parts, he's just going with the flow.

There are still charmingly clever bits, with Abebe scaring everyone with his driving skills en route to a baptismal spring, or with his buried missionary spirit, flailing a basketball around as he tries to repair what should be an eternal union between Tich and H.J. But--ironically for a play about water--they're drowned under Corthron's unsubtle significance: that spring has dried up because of the evil bottlers; instead of setting up Tich and H.J., Abebe rails against the man for doing the inventory at the Nestle plant, and even simple comic scenes in which Pickle keeps sneaking Abebe slices of cake are interrupted by the sound of tractor trailer horns pulling in and out of the industrial plant. We get it, we get it: the shadow of industry looms darkly over everything, even when we don't realize it, and we may never realize how valuable water and other natural resources are to us until they're gone (or far more expensive). But if the only way you know how to demonstrate is to pollute your own show, to create a dramaturgical drought, then you're not part of the solution--you're part of the problem, and it's a shame, because there is so much that's otherwise good in A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick.