BWW Review: THE PURISTS at Huntington Theatre Company In Boston
There's more gray than black and white in the scintillating new play THE PURISTS written by Dan McCabe and directed by Billy Porter. Receiving its rollicking world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, this rap versus Broadway battle for musical purity between an ex-rapper, a hip-hop DJ and a showtunes aficionado finds common ground among this disparate group of stoop dwellers and thus throws staunchly held beliefs about music, self, and others into serious question.
Mr. Bugz (J. Bernard Calloway) and Gerry Brinsler (John Scurti) live in the same Queens tenement brownstone and spend much of their time commiserating with Lamont Born Cipher (Morocco Omari) about the cultural changes that make them feel as if life is passing them by. Bugz and Lamont are legendary artists who are no longer commercial. Bugz is also dealing with the agonizing mental decline of his mother's dementia while Lamont is trying to regain his relevance by promoting his talented nephew.
Gerry is an aging Broadway telesales director, a gay man who has sadly outlived his friends. Given his age and melancholy, most presumably have died of AIDS. When the trio's mutual friend (and drug dealer), the young Puerto Rican woman Val Kano (Analisa Velez), squares off with Gerry's spirited sales protégé Nancy Reinstein (Izzie Steele) in an impromptu norm-busting rap smackdown, they are forced to acknowledge that new ways aren't necessarily bad.
THE PURISTS crackles with politically incorrect humor that illuminates the complexities of well entrenched stereotypes. Through outrageous, at times even shocking, jabs, the joke is often turned back on the perpetrator. When Gerry gripes about a rude "thug" on the subway, for example, Lamont assumes he means a young black man. When Gerry and even Bugz merely hint at the topic of homosexuality in their conversations, Lamont immediately begins doing pull-ups on the sidewalk scaffolding in an effort to assert his black alpha masculinity.
Despite their very real differences, though, the men, for better or worse, have chosen to be friends. Lonely (and angry) in their own ways, they nevertheless risk sharing their truths. In so doing, they find that they have more in common than they imagined. Lamont may never go to a Broadway musical, and Gerry may never learn to like rap. But all three have grappled with fear and loss in their own ways. And they have all survived.
To navigate the sudden shifts between THE PURISTS' raucous laughter and barbed verbal attacks, Billy Porter has directed his nimble cast as if conducting a symphony. Timing is split-second, and both the rap music and showtunes add unexpected vitality.
When Bugz and Lamont go into action, the clock rewinds to their musical heyday. When Gerry plays his Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein, he becomes Patti LuPone and Gertrude Lawrence. It's not coincidental that two of the songs Gerry plays are "Anything Goes" and "Getting to Know You." Then, when Bugz and Val mash-up hip-hop and "Annie," it's a not so subtle nod to the joy of bridging differences.
Omari, Calloway, Scurti, Velez and Steele are all simply exquisite in their roles. Omari blends long-standing frustrations with a poet's soul. Calloway is a gentle giant whose pain in coming to terms with his own identity as he faces his mother's mortality is tempered by his unbridled joy in making music. Scurti balances the weight of unspeakable grief with a biting sarcasm that evokes shocked guffaws followed by a knowing empathy. Velez and Steele are defiantly, and goofily, optimistic, the former in spite of the obstacles in front of her, the latter because of her as yet unscathed naivete.
Set designer Clint Ramos' multi-story tenement pinpoints the Queens neighborhood that is home to a diverse community of working-class generations. The stoop outside of the secured entrance is a natural summertime gathering place, while the scaffolding that blocks a portion of the sidewalk suggests that the brownstone has seen better days. Above the street on the first floor is a cutaway that exposes Gerry's apartment, an untidy studio that seems an apt metaphor for his disheveled and circumscribed life.
THE PURISTS is a delightful and at times breathtaking new play that is anything but pure and simple. With a team of Broadway pros at the helm both onstage and off, one can only hopefully speculate about its future.
(PHOTOS Courtesy of Huntington Theatre)
Written by Dan McCabe; directed by Billy Porter; scenic design, Clint Ramos; costume design, Kara Harmon; lighting design, Driscoll Otto; sound design, Leon Rothenberg; original music, Michael Sandlofer; production stage manager, Kevin Schlagle
Cast in Order of Appearance:
Performances and Tickets:
Now through October 6, Huntington Theatre Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston, MA; tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.huntingtontheatre.org, by calling 617-266-0800, or at the Box Offices at 264 Huntington Avenue and 527 Tremont St.