By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
|Photo by Joel Daavid|
Fish Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, but just how much a girl has to love that man of hers is clearly open to debate in Gus Edwards’ 1977 play, The Offering, now having its belated West Coast premiere at the Riprap Studio Theater. The story opens dreamily, eerily upon a cramped living room as an old man sits staring at late-night cowboys and Indians on TV.
“How can you watch that?” a young woman dully asks as she enters the room’s cathode glow. She could be referring to the set’s fuzzy reception, but she might also be questioning the Western’s dubious racial message. After all, Big Bob Tyrone (Charles Weldon) and Princess (Sandra Maria Nutt) are African-American, living in a basement flat in downtown Manhattan. Guessing the play’s meaning and its author’s intentions, it turns out, will become a major audience preoccupation — both a strength and a weakness. This work’s enigmatic shadows often lend a playful menace to the evening, but sometimes they simply spread confusion.
The apartment’s sepulchral calm is soon broken by a doorbell ring, which the taciturn pair ignore. The next night they decide to respond to the buzzer and find themselves visited by Martin (Christopher Warren), a young man who, years ago, learned the finer points of hustling and stealing from Bob. The energetic, can-do Martin, now a Las Vegas “businessman,” seems to be doing well for himself and has dropped by with his showgirl paramour, Ginny (Katia Bokor). While Martin’s flattering, solicitous chatter barely causes Bob and Princess to blink (even when he offers them six grand as a gift), Ginny’s mute presence jolts Bob out of whatever existential funk has embalmed his emotions — while stoking Princess’ apprehensions.
Her suspicions are aroused with good reason, as we learn that Princess is Bob’s wife, having married him when she was a teenager. (The expression “old enough to be her father” could be stitched on Bob’s coat of arms.) Ginny is an obsequious, leggy blond — actress Bokor wears the shortest skirt I have ever seen on a woman who was not leaning against a brass pole. Before long she has provoked Bob out of his PJs and into nattier threads; with each scene, the old man, as though emerging from a vampiric slumber, draws vigor from the sight of those legs and blond hair, and claims Ginny as his new woman — oblivious to the anguish this causes Martin and the jilted Princess.
The Offering careens between naturalism and hyperbole. One moment Bob and Martin are two ghetto celebrities pimpishly discussing their women as though the latter were racehorses; the next, Martin has the rug pulled out from under him when Ginny inexplicably accompanies Bob to the welfare office — never to return to Martin’s bed. Martin is left with all the more egg on his face because he’d respectfully offered up Ginny to Bob as a vicarious signifier of the elder’s vanished youth; he just hadn’t counted on Ginny jumping ship — or rather, sheets.
If Martin’s miscalculation makes him a buffoon (“You faggot niggahs make me laugh,” Princess tells him), Bob’s betrayal of the stoic Princess simply makes no sense, that his respect for her would suddenly evaporate because of a new skirt. The result of all this is a fable without a moral, a play caught in a no-man’s land between absurdism and the kitchen sink.
Accordingly, the production, under Weldon’s direction, sends mixed signals. The show’s uneasy demarcation of tone comes with Warren’s turn as Martin — a smooth portrayal of a hood with a decidedly Kissingeresque appreciation of power-as-aphrodisiac. The problem is that the other actors seem to be performing in another kind of play, one whose characters inhabit an almost nonverbal world. Also, Bokor’s wispy, tenuous line deliveries, marked by a slight Russian accent, leave us guessing as to whether she’s intentionally spacy or just not connecting with the material. Likewise, Ed DeShae’s lighting plot is appropriately moody, but John S. Nemeth Jr.’s set, with its white-painted walls, cheery wooden shutters and ivy planter (not to mention an entrance door with no locks) more suggests a Valley ranch house than a Lower Manhattan cellar.
The show ultimately belongs to its two leads. As Bob, Weldon (who created the role of Martin in the original Negro Ensemble Company production) masterfully constructs a character of aged hubris: a glass of E&J brandy in hand, boorish reminiscences rolling off his tongue. Nutt, too, is a stately presence as the terse, somnambulant Princess, whose sleepwalk through life abruptly ends with Bob’s loutish behavior. Neither of the two actors wastes a syllable or misses a beat, and both would feel at home in any damp evening of Pinter.
The program notes tell us that Brooke Purdy’s Plungetakes place on the rooftop of a New York brownstone. We have no reason to doubt this, as Joel Daavid’s highly articulated set, which he has also evocatively lit, features a tattered clothesline, grimy skylight, blistered window sills and all the sad detritus that tenant dwellers sooner or later push to the top of their urban anthills. But we know this will be no ordinary brownstone, for the program also informs us that it is located a half-mile from Ground Zero. The story opens on Ruby and Jack (Brooke and Doug Purdy), a couple who meet here one night, half a year after 9/11.