Good writing tells. Race and class provide the background for two plays with one-word titles, but there the similarity ends. Christopher Shinn’s Four explores the nuances of four distinctive individuals, while Charles Randolph-Wright’s Blue skims along the surface of domestic upheaval, pandering to its audience with platitudes and stock characters.
Four is the story of two parallel seductions on the Fourth of July, 1996. Joe (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a black middle-aged literature professor, has hooked up through the Internet with June (Keith Nobbs), a 16-year-old white boy conflicted about his gay identity. Joe’s teenage daughter Abigayle (Vinessa Antoine), an honors-student type, spends her Fourth with Dexter (Armando Riesco), the white-trash high school basketball star who’s smitten with her. Offstage, Abigayle’s mom lies at home with a mysterious nervous condition.
Joe, a gay intellectual trapped in a hetero life, is the heart of Four. With June, he radiates confidence and experience. In a fatherly way, he draws the boy out, forcing June to own his desires and make the next move. Nobbs, a bundle of nervous mannerisms and adolescent angst, makes June’s discomfort—and horniness—palpable. Whitlock Jr.’s Joe, solid and ponderous at first, gradually unpeels layers of sorrow in a profound performance. Their sex scenes ignite, a fusion of fear and longing.
With Abigayle and Dexter’s encounter, the playwright seeks to show how Joe’s unhappiness has affected his daughter. Abigayle’s motive for taking up with Dexter—which she does on a seeming whim after repeatedly turning him down—is murky. Her father’s repeated absences and her mother’s distress stir an unease she wants to escape. Antoine’s appealing but vague portrayal reflects this. But Abigayle is paired with the irrepressible and goofy Dexter. Riesco invests him with a bravura crotch-scratching energy and a staccato stream of quirky observations. When she comes on to him, his startled confusion registers a funny and touching collision of feelings.
Shinn explores the pervasive longing to connect, the need for spiritual nourishment, and the emptiness of religion and American culture—symbolized by the Fourth of July celebrations neither Abigayle nor June wants to watch. Shinn only sketches in the larger themes, but the intimate encounters resonate. Each character speaks in a distinctive voice, their dialogue crackling with tension and intelligence. Jeff Cohen sensitively directs this Worth Street Theater production for maximum intimacy. On the stripped-down set, isolated pools of light intensify the couples’ private dramas, and Steve Bargonetti and Diane Gioia’s lush, guitar-based background music adds a lyrical touch. Though the fireworks display fails to engage these searching souls, Four‘s taut slice of life sets off its own charges.
Blue, on the other hand, sets off speculations—about the genesis of this would-be commercial vehicle. Let’s get a good jazz singer, author Randolph-Wright may have thought, write a few soulful numbers, then weave the music and the man through a glossy tale of a black upper-middle-class family. Furnish it with predictable types, parent-child tensions to be resolved heartwarmingly, and liberally sprinkle with facile race-related jokes.
Meet the Clark family. Peggy, a former Ebony model, is now the wife of Samuel, who owns the funeral parlor in a small Southern town. Peggy, a glamour-puss overflowing with ridiculous pretensions, rules supreme, masterminding the manners and fates of her two sons. She swoons to records by jazzman Blue Williams Jr.—while Michael McElroy, playing Blue, appears onstage to sing. There are cute run-ins with her mother-in-law, rebellions from her sons, and a plot that links up Blue with their immediate circle.
The author strong-arms the story from sitcom to soap opera, losing focus and even the veneer of credibility. Sheldon Epps directs both styles broadly. One saving grace of this Roundabout production is Messeret Stroman as LaTonya, the older son’s downscale girlfriend, who explodes with a burst of sunshine and sass. Blue‘s other pleasure is Tucker’s jazzman, crooning Nona Hendryx and Randolph-Wright’s easy r&b tunes in a mellow, insinuating tenor. Clearly, the music was supposed to be the draw. But the soul’s gotta be in the people—not just the sounds.