You expect the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright to serve up strange. (Remember the whiteface Lincoln in Topdog/Underdog?) But being an experimental artist means the experiments don't always work.
You've got to give Suzan-Lori Parks credit for following her creative muse wherever it takes her. Sometimes it leads her to fresh and satisfyingly fertile places, as happened with Topdog/Underdog, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. Other times it lands her in the weeds, as, alas, it's done with The Book of Grace, her newest play, which opened at the Public Theater this week.
The audience sat in uncomfortable silence for almost 10 seconds at the end of the performance that my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended. Then someone started clapping and the rest of us sheepishly joined in. You can trace our uncertainty to the fact that none of us were quite sure what we'd just seen.
A few minutes later, as Bill and I sat over glasses of wine and waited for our meals at my favorite downtown theater spot, Five Points, he suggested that maybe the show had been a modern-day riff on Desire Under the Elms, the Eugene O'Neill play about the relationships between an older man, his restless young wife and his grown son from an earlier marriage who lives with them.
That basically sums up the story line for The Book of Grace, too. Here the older man is Vet, played by the white actor John Doman, whom fans of the great HBO series The Wire will recognize as the overly ambitious Col. William A. Rawls. Vet works as a border patrol guard. His waitress wife, Grace, played by Elizabeth Marvel who's also white, is one of those cockeyed optimists who seem to exist almost exclusively in plays and movies. And his son, Buddy, who is portrayed by the black actor Amari Cheatom, may be a terrorist.
I suppose the casting could have been colorblind, since no mention is made of the racial difference between father and son, but Parks tends to imbue very specific meaning into every aspect of her work. So I'm pretty sure there's some heavy symbolism involved here, too. Like maybe a riff on how the white patriarchy of the United States has oppressed black folks and women.
Indeed, the interchanges between the characters in The Book of Grace are all charged; even the tender moments range from unsettling to downright abusive. The apparent irony is that while the father is focused on foreign threats, the greater danger is already inside.
There's potential there for one of those edge-of-your-seat or mind-blowing experiences. But it doesn't turn out that way. I don't know if it's the fault of Parks' script or James Macdonald's direction, but I didn't believe the world they attempted to create on stage. Or that the characters would behave as they do. I mean how many women would stay with a guy she fears may have murdered--and buried--his first wife in the backyard?
The production, which runs just over an hour and a half, seemed to drag on interminably. The one thing that almost-but not quite-saves The Book of Grace is the acting, particularly on the part of Marvel, who, as always, gives it her all and then some.
Of course, being an experimental artist means that sometimes the experiments don't work. Despite my disappointment with The Book of Grace, I'm looking forward to seeing what Parks does next. And I won't have to wait long. For in addition to being intrepid, Parks is prolific.
Four years ago, her series 365 Days/365 Plays, a collection of mini plays, one for each day of the year, traveled around the country. Last June, three parts of Father Comes Home From the Wars, a projected nine-play cycle inspired by Homer's The Odyssey, played in the Public's Lab series for developing works. And just last week, came word that her latest show, Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Musical will open on Broadway in November. It's a jukebox musical, but with a book by Parks, it's bound to march to a different drummer.
This review previously appeared on Simpson's blog, Broadway & Me, which can be found here.