Frank Tracy, the protagonist of Kermit Frazier’s Kernel of Sanity, is a holy offering to the Trinity of white hypermasculinity: Thomas Pynchon, Ken Kesey, and Sam Shepard. Having retreated from New York to the Midwest, Frank is playing crazy so that Social Security will bankroll his fledgling Great American Novel. Suddenly, who should turn up but the actor who played an asylum aide opposite Frank’s star turn in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Roger, an up-and-coming black actor, has left bit roles behind, and comes fresh from Native Son, Titus Andronicus, and Dutchman—ominous precedents.
Roger stages an ambush of sorts, blending disingenuous role-play and earnest rage in an effort to shake up Frank’s sense that racial “interface” and personal sanity are firmly under his control. Joel Nagle (as Frank) soars, Shepard-style, in the play’s opening rant against a coastal culture of “famous neurotics,” and Chaz Reuben often swells with Baraka-like power as Roger. But director Petronia Paley has trouble keeping these embers glowing.
Basic writerly problems stand in her way: Frank’s girlfriend, Rita, is a complete nonentity and third wheel. Frazier spends the first half of this New Federal Theatre show awkwardly ushering characters on- and offstage to ensure an orderly sequence of two-person scenes. Why not ditch Rita and embrace the intensity of a true two-hander?