Sunday, March 15, 2015

Off-Broadway Reviews—"Rasheeda Speaking," "Abundance"

Rasheeda Speaking
Written by Joel Drake Johnson; directed by Cynthia Nixon
Performances through March 22, 2015
The New Group @ Pershing Sq Signature Ctr, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Written by Beth Henley; directed by Jenn Thompson
Performances through March 28, 2015
TACT @ Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Pinkins and Wiest in Rasheeda Speaking (photo: Monique Carboni)
Joel Drake Johnson's Rasheeda Speaking tries to be provoking and honest in its look at racism through Ileen and Jaclyn, co-workers in a doctor's office. At the beginning, Ileen and Dr. Williams are worried about how Jaclyn will behave when she returns to work after bouts of anxiety attacks and other seemingly fabricated excuses for not performing her job.

The doctor's latent racism comes out in his comments about how Jaclyn (who's black) has a bad attitude and how the hard-working Ileen (who's white) deserved a recent promotion to office manager. When Jaclyn returns, she uses their obvious discomfort to her advantage: finding out that Ileen is keeping tabs on her behavior for the Human Resources Dept., she quickly turns the tables, transforming the normally competent and calm Ileen into a bundle of nerves. (The play's title comes from Jaclyn's way of unsettling jittery white people—including an elderly patient who cavalierly speaks racially charged comments—by answering the phone as Rasheeda, a "scarier" name.)

For a tight 90 minutes, Johnson's slick but glib comedy alternates salient points with more contrivances than his transparent play can hold, with the many implausible goings-on showing  the playwright's puppeteer strings. Far more believable, in novice director Cynthia Nixon's adroit staging, are the excellent performances of Tonya Pinkins (Jaclyn) and Dianne Wiest (Ileen) who, by avoiding caricature, make Rasheeda Speaking seem a truer statement on an incendiary subject than it really is.

Kelly McAndrew and Tracy Middendorf in Abundance (photo: Marielle Solan Photography)
In her 1989 play Abundance, Beth Henley—whose earliest works Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest remain her best—travels the Old West to introduce Bess Johnson and Macon Hill, who become mail-order brides to a pair of frontiersmen, Jack Flan and Will Curtis. Over the years, the women learn to live off the land while discovering that the difficulties of prairie life can scar them physically and psychologically to the point of madness, as Macon finds when Bess disappears for several years after being taken away by local Indians.

Henley, whose unique voice comprises a dazzling way with words, transplants her homespun Southern-bred poeticism a century earlier and further west. The opening, when the women meet at a train station awaiting their husbands, includes pearls of offbeat wisdom: 

BESS: I—I'm just hoping my husband ain't gonna be real terrible ugly.
MACON: Well Bess, I hope so too.
BESS: It don't mention nothing about his looks in the matrimonial ad.
MACON: Well, now that ain't good news. Folks generally like t'feature their good qualities in them advertisements.

Unfortunately, Henley's initial invention and astute observation peter out quickly; her hackneyed plotting overtakes her quirky characters so much that, by the end, Abundance has turned tedious. The director of this revival, Jenn Thompson, can't make Henley's episodic script cohere; neither can the game cast, except for Tracy Middendorf, as the charmingly goofy Bess, who has a real freshness that brings to mind the young and enchanting Annette Bening.

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