"American Son" is not a subtle play; it barely feels like a play at all. With its unrelentingly high tension on every level - maternal, marital, societal - it's more like a slice of a nightmare, with few contours despite its surprises. Its abrupt ending doesn't even offer a chance for catharsis; it just spits you out.
AMERICAN SON Broadway Reviews
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At its best, "American Son" is smart, mysterious and engrossing - not to mention an effective star vehicle for Washington, who gives a revealing, sympathetic performance in which her character's professional veneer gives way to surmounting doubt and desperation.
Director Kenny Leon keeps the action taut during the 90-minute running time, perhaps too taut. There isn't much breathing room in the production - and the ending is so abrupt that it's a wonder the curtain drop doesn't give the actors whiplash. This is the rare show that would benefit from a longer running time, from more scenes exploring the characters in greater depth.
Enhancing the production is an outstanding company of A-listers: Jeremy Jordan as a young white cop limited by his narrow world view; Eugene Lee providing the pragmatic voice of a black man who's learned how to straddle both sides to survive; Steven Pasquale as a member of the ruling class who's never had to compromise; and Kerry Washington - at times combative and emotionally overwrought - reflects the soul-crippling history of the black experience in America.
The play, directed by Kenny Leon, makes no attempt to hide its agenda. As the plot unfurls and details slowly emerge about a traffic stop (Jamal's driving a silver Lexus, an 18th birthday present from his parents), there are few surprises. Demos-Brown, a Florida trial attorney, writes what he knows but breaks no new ground and offers no solutions. This probably wouldn't have made it to Broadway without the imprimatur of Washington, who has expressed in interviews that she hopes the play will force people to listen to each other in ways the characters do not.
American Son is most affecting when it is personal, not political: When we understand that Jamal, a prep school kid off to West Point in the fall, has recently cornrowed his hair, started wearing baggy jeans, and adopted what Scott calls, "that stupid, loping, surly walk" not merely as an exploration of identity, but as a way of differentiating himself from his father, who has let the family down by moving out. Was this reactionary change in Jamal's attitude and appearance a factor in the trouble he found himself in that night?
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It's an interesting piece of writing that has opened at the Booth Theatre. The four characters are less fully-fleshed out humans than they are representations of types created to express four sides of what is arguably the most controversial issue facing America today; the combination of social media and cell phones with video recorders increasing the country's visibility of black men being killed by police officers.
The drama depends on the sustained pitch of Washington's portrayal of a mother ferociously battling forces larger, though not greater, than herself. The "Scandal" star could use more modulation in the early going, a fault of the direction as much as the writing. But the anguish of Demos-Brown's play is coiled inside a performance rooted in one character's story but containing real-world multitudes. Washington honors all the shattered loved ones who have gone through Kendra's experience.
One might question whether the grim inevitability of such a punitive ending was necessary, and whether the play might have gained complexity without diluting its message by subverting audience expectations with a different, less predictable outcome. But this is tense theater designed to shake up our complacency and make us think. In that aim, it succeeds.
Playwright Demos-Brown is a clever phrase-maker, and he delights in using language that vividly illustrates the social and educational gulf between Larkin and Kendra. Lacking a common language, they fail to communicate on even the most basic level. The cop's awkward efforts to find out if Jamal goes by any other names is a sad but funny example of that lack of communication: "If he was taken into custody under a different alias... Gave a different... you know... different from some other time... is all I'm sayin'..." The concept of a street name is so totally foreign to Kendra that she honestly doesn't understand what Officer Larkin is asking her.
So you have to get past all that schematic writing to get to the deeper point, which is that racism poisons everything: marriages, justice, economic progress, decent black police officers, even hope for the American future. The two ex-spouses fight as proxies for their identities: Scott argues Kendra has encouraged the kid to be "too black"; Kendra says the kid was mad at having been abandoned by his rich, white dad. The African-American cop is caught in the middle. The piece wrestles with crucial issues, and it's performed with enough intensity by Pasquale and Washington under Kenny Leon's theme-based direction that they effectively collide with your own prejudices, whoever you might be. You feel everything the characters feel, and, given the crisis we're all in, that has worth.
These aren't small inconsistencies, nor are they rare, and despite Leon's fluid direction and the robust performances, they keep the play from coalescing into the fully realized family drama it might have been. But as a cri de coeur, from a mother, for her child, for others like him, for her country, American Son screams just as loud as it should.
We don't get many ancient Greek tragedies on Broadway. Tastes have changed, and what we think of as dramatic has shifted into different patterns. So Christopher Demos-Brown's American Son seems like a play from another time. It basically consists of two-person arguments, interspersed with messenger speeches: Something has happened offstage, and we wait with the characters to find out what it is. The rhetoric is heavy-handed, the grief and fear are unremitting, the brushstrokes are asphalt-thick, and there's no subtlety in either the characterizations or the narrative structure. In other words, Demos-Brown hasn't written a particularly skillful modern drama. But when the fate of a nation was at stake, Euripides wrote plays like this too.
But though American Son has the superficial form of a classical tragedy and a scene of raw suffering that few tragedies can equal, it also has a creaky dramatic structure, shallow characterizations, naïve politics and indifferent writing. Directed by Kenny Leon, who has submerged his tendency to showboat in favor of a studied naturalism, it's a very powerful play without being an especially good one and that shouldn't matter - power being hard to come by - but sometimes it does.
No spoilers here, but that ending and the way the ending is phrased and treated (like a soap opera cliffhanger) instead of feeling real and raw, which I am sure was the intention, feels rushed and horribly exploitative. It struck this critic later that this ending is how the play may have more effectively begun from before peeling the layers away from this "American Son" and his parents' marriage, and the police brutality and racism the play seeks to skewer and impeach.
American Son has power behind it: Shonda Rhimes, Jada Pinkett Smith, Dwayne Wade, and the show's star, Kerry Washington, are on its long, glittery list of producers. It has its serious sights set on a subject of indisputable tragic weight: the unjustifiable killing of unarmed black men in America by unaccountable police officers. It also has a contrived, TV-ish script peopled by one-note characters and peppered with amateurish flourishes. Its playwright, Christopher Demos-Brown, a writer and lawyer who runs a practice in Miami, seems to be positioning himself as a kind of John Grisham for the stage, and its director, Kenny Leon, can't push the material past its inherent paperback flatness. Derek McLane's bulky, photo-real Miami police-station set, with real rain falling outside the upstage windows, tells us all we need to know about tone: There's nothing remotely theatrical about this play, no reason for it to be a play at all - save that we retain a kind of anxious cultural cachet about drama. Putting something on stage seems to aggrandize it, make it more serious-minded and more luxurious, closer to opera than Netflix. But the truth is that contemporary plays like American Son are simply imitations of the shows on Netflix-or, in this case, NBC-and pale ones at that, because unlike our age's spate of fascinating television, these plays want to be something they're not. They neither take joy in the possibilities of their own form nor respect its demands.