BWW Reviews: BUZZER at The Goodman a Revelation
Tracey Scott Wilson's "Buzzer" at The Goodman Theatre is a thought-provoking look at racial tensions and pervasive sexism in a not-yet-gentrified urban neighborhood, as seen through the eyes of an affluent interracial couple and their recovering-addict friend who moves in with them.
The play begins with Jackson, Suzy and Don (played by Eric Lynch, Lee Stark, and Shane Keynon respectively) each giving somewhat stilted "public" monologues to unseen listeners. (The opening was so stylized and stark, in fact, I was worried for a bit that I had been magically transported to New York's Flea Theater circa 2007.) However, once the threesome is engaged in the day-to-day business of living under the same roof, the play becomes realistic, natural, and fluid, allowing the meat of the story to unfold.
Ms. Wilson has written a beautiful play, expertly weaving comic elements throughout the dramatic action, allowing us to invest emotionally in her characters. There are many instances where an extremely tense scene culminates not in a violent act or a verbal assault, but a sublime joke - which makes the action feel all the more life-like. Humor is this play's best secret weapon; even ensemble member Andy Lutz (Tenant) manages to get a tremendous laugh without ever uttering a word.
Ms. Wilson has also masterfully built two distinct worlds, the public and the private, separate yet continuously influencing one other. The public world very much becomes the catalyst for the private downfalls of her characters, and as a result the audience is reminded that no matter how isolated or "safe" you may feel in your beautifully renovated city apartment... you still are in, and are a part of, your city. Privacy is an illusion.
Eric Lynch and Lee Stark were solid and consistent as Jackson and Suzy, if a little lacking in relationship chemistry. Both had their gorgeous, truthful moments: Suzy's confession (in graphic detail) of what the local hoodlums have been saying to her (as she fights to "not care") elicited gasps from the audience; Jackson's scene wherein he pleads with Suzy to tell him the truth resulted in more than a few patrons actually talking to the characters (most under their breath, but few basically out loud), which is always good fun.
Shane Kenyon's portrayal of Don was the highlight of the evening; fervent, hysterical, and mesmerizing. He fully embodied the troubled "misfit" type, an ADHD live-wire...just the kind of person we all too often lose to drugs and alcohol. (And when Don and Suzy shamefully fall headlong into an affair, there is chemistry, there - leading me to conclude that perhaps Mr. Lynch simply needs a few more years to ripen into a great leading man. And when he does... watch out.)
Jessica Thebus' direction is detailed and smart, and she is backed up by a truly exceptional artistic team. Walt Spangler's set design is exacting and splendid; as Jackson and Suzy sip wine on their Room&Board-esque couch, you are keenly aware of the poverty and urban despair pressing in on them, as though the stench of cheap Chinese food and leaky garbage is seeping in through the walls. John Culbert's lighting design and Birgit Rattenborg Wise's costumes both felt appropriately understated and realistic, allowing for the story to stand center-stage.
And given that the outside world's urban blight and a broken buzzer are central to the plot, Mikhail Fiskel's sound design was front-and-center... and he delivered in spades. A brawl that Jackson and Don engage in with the neighborhood tough guys - entirely offstage - is Mr. Fiskel's crowning achievement. There is even a brilliantly placed joke (again, with the jokes!) mid-scuffle... much needed, as the nerve-wracked audience is left completely blind, wringing their hands at the thought of what must be happening to these three now beloved characters.
There were a couple of dramatic opportunities which were unfortunately mishandled, or frittered away. The broken buzzer never became truly important, dramatically; more often than not it served merely as a distraction, sometimes even causing confusion (at least in this reviewer). And in the final scene, when a lone African-American youth attempts to gain entry into the building (via buzzer at first, then by pounding on the door), Don and Suzy sit impotent, unwilling or too afraid to even talk to the young man, let alone help him. Poignant, yes ... but eventually the young man gives up and wanders off, and I for one was left wondering ...what was that about? Was he a tenant, or visiting a friend, or just trying to come in from the cold? Or, was he a threat of some kind? In either case, I can't help but think that the symbolism could have blossomed if based in a more realistic moment, with an actual outcome... giving us that emotional kick in the gut we look forward to from a night at the theatre.
But despite these relatively small quibbles, "Buzzer" really does make you think. It makes you think about racism, about gentrification, sexism, about rising poverty, and the precarious affluence of a very few. And it makes one think about the definition of "success", as our hero Jackson is constantly checking his Blackberry, terrified to miss an email, lose his job, and everything that goes along with it. Jackson even checks his email in the middle of Don's emotional apology for his past drug-infused misdeeds; as Jackson takes Don's script away to "read it later", his longing for forgiveness and connection in that moment leaves us aching.
While I would say that "Buzzer" stops short of being emotionally wrenching or full of insight into human Truth, perhaps this is intentional. The play itself is mired in our modern-day racisms, fears (both real and imagined), and our technological distractedness. So perhaps the lesson of "Buzzer" is, we must be able to break free from all of that, look past it all and really see each other... in order to connect, and ultimately understand our own human Truth.
Runs February 8 - March 9, 2014 in the Owen Theatre.
Directed by Jessica Thebus
Shane Kenyon (Don)
Eric Lynch (Jackson)
Lee Stark (Suzy)
Luce Metrius (Tenant)
Danny Mulae (Tenant)
Andy Lutz (Tenant)
Costumes: Birgit Rattenborg Wise
Sets: Walt Spangler
Lighting: John Culbert
Sound: Mikhail Fiskel