Friday, April 8, 2016

Theater Reviews—Two Plays by Danai Gurira, 'Familiar' & 'Eclipsed'

Written by Danai Gurira; directed by Rebecca Taichman
Performances through April 10, 2016
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Written by Danai Gurira; directed by Liesl Tommy
Performances through June 19, 2016
Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street, New York, NY

The cast of Familiar (photo: Joan Marcus)

It's rare for any playwright to have two plays running in New York simultaneously, but Danai Gurira—better known to some (not me) as an actress in TV’s The Walking Dead—has done it with Eclipsed on Broadway and Familiar off-Broadway.

Familiar, though the lesser work, is in no way negligible. Set in Minneapolis, the play concerns the Chinyaramwiras, a Zimbabwean-American family frenziedly making preparations for daughter Tendi’s impending wedding. Youngest (and prodigal) daughter Nyasha has just arrived from New York while mother Marvi (short for Marvelous) rues the arrival of her eldest sister Anne from the home country, since Marvi hopes that Tendi’s wedding to local man Chris will further the family’s American success story. But—needless to say—complications ensue.

Gurira has everyone and everything in their places for her amusing, at times insightful if too, um, familiar comedy, smartly balancing arguments for assimilating with those for retaining ultural customs—Aunt Anne wants to resurrect an elaborate Zimbabwean ritual for Tendi’s ceremony, whose working out takes up a good chunk of the overlong first act—and finding the humorous absurdity in both sides.

With this group of people who speak normally and fight over every little thing both serious and frivolous, Gurira’s stage family is recognizable and real. If she relies too much on the strictures of drawing-room comedy, snowballing into Neil Simon slapstick at the close of Act I, it’s certainly forgivable.

Rebecca Taichman thoughtfully directs on Clint Ramos’ spectacular set, which exactingly captures the family house's solidly upper-middle class interior. The acting is forceful and funny across the board, with standouts being Tamara Tunie’s headstrong Marvi, Ito Aghayere’s  Nyasha and Joe Tippett's surprisingly sympathetic turn as Chris’s brother Brad, whose arrival is just one of many bizarre interludes in a distinctly unfamiliar day for the Chinyaramwira family.

Lupita Nyong'o (center) in Eclipsed (photo: Joan Marcus)

Stronger still is Eclipsed, set during the Liberian Civil War in the early 2000s. We meet several unnamed women in a worn-down shack, each of them designated by a number, since they are “wives” for one of the warlords, who periodically calls one of them to his bed while the others sit and wait around. 

If spending two-plus hours in such company seems depressing or enervating, the reality is far from that: Gurira's potent, probing play illuminates our shared humanity, even in a place where social and cultural structures have broken down and been replaced by wholesale degradation, destruction and slaughter. The women form a bond—at one point, the only literate one among them begins reading from Bill Clinton’s autobiography, which becomes a source of endless consternation, amusement and even hope—and it’s only in the second act, when the newest arrival joins another "wife" as a rebel soldier, does Eclipsed threaten to unravel.

That it doesn’t is a tribute not only to Gurira’s incisive and unsentimental writing but also the spot-on production by Liesl Tommy, who directs five miraculous actresses (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is the lone marquee name, but she’s just one-fifth of a marvelously harmonious ensemble) on Clint Ramos’ imaginatively dilapidated set.

Familiar is worth attending and Eclipsed is a major achievement: playwright Danai Gurira has arrived in New York.

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