BWW Review: SIGNATURE PLAYS: THE SANDBOX, DROWNING, FUNNYHOUSE OF A NEGRO, Looking Back At An Absurdist Trio

The official title of the trio of absurdist one-acts directed by Lila Neugebauer that Signature Theatre Company has packaged in celebration of their 25th anniversary season is SIGNATURE PLAYS: EDWARD ALBEE'S THE SANDBOX, MARIA IRENE FORNES' DROWNING, ADRIENNE KENNEDY'S FUNNYHOUSE OF A NEGRO, recalling an era when playwrights seemed to be competing for the honor of longest title.

Frank Wood, Alison Fraser and Ryan-James Hatanaka
(Photo: Monique Carboni)

Two of the plays, the Albee and Kennedy entries, premiered in makeshift Lower East Side playhouses in the 1960s, a time when "downtown theatre" was defined by the kind of experimentation and symbolism that baffled as many as it inspired. Fornes' middle piece premiered in 1986 and all were revived by Signature when each author served as one of the company's resident playwrights.

This is one of those rare instances where an Edward Albee play can be considered the most accessible of a collection. Set on a beach where a handsome muscleman flexes (Ryan-James Hatanaka) and a woman plays the cello (Melody Giron), characters named Mommy and Daddy (an airily silly Alison Fraser and a gruff Frank Wood) arrive to deposit Grandma (Phyllis Somerville) into a sandbox with a toy bucket and shovel.

As the middle age couple lounge in beach chairs, the sprightly senior citizen enjoys the company of the friendly hunk, who happens to be the angel of death.

There isn't an intermission, exactly, between Albee and Fornes' short pieces, but rather a nine-minute pause for a set change, during which actor Nicholas Bruder stands in front of the stage with a radio, occasionally changing stations.

The three characters in DROWNING are described in the text as having overgrown heads and bodies that look like potatoes. Costume designer Kaye Voyce nicely meets the unusual requirement.

Set in a café, the young Pea (Mikéah Ernest Jennings) is enamored of a photograph of a woman in a newspaper. His friend Roe (Sahr Ngaujah) insists that it's a snow drift. They wait for the arrival of Stephen (Wood).

As the lethargically-paced play is only five pages long, the description will end here.

January LaVoy (Photo: Monique Carboni)

FUNNYHOUSE OF A NEGRO concerns the maddening thoughts of a woman named Negro-Sarah (Crystal Dickinson). She idealizes having a white mother, as represented by the regal, white-faced appearances of the Duchess of Hapsburg (January LaVoy) and Queen Victoria Regina (April Matthis) and wishes to be "pallid like Negroes on the covers of American Negro magazines."

Her self-hatred for having a black father appears in visions of Patrice Lumumba (Ngaujah), the Congo's first democratically elected prime minister, and Jesus Christ (Jennings), adored with a crown of thorns. The dramatic collage includes appearances by her white husband (Bruder) and landlady (Fraser).

Premiering in 1964, FUNNYHOUSE OF A NEGRO would be considered an early product of the male-dominated Black Arts Movement, a context that enhances appreciation for play being, at its time, a rare instance of a black woman writing about black women.

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From This Author Michael Dale

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