A LABYRINTH AT THE LAByrinth
by Harvey Perr
published February 22, 2008
now playing Off Broadway at the Public
through March 2
A white man is lynched by a black man. And that is just the first of the images in Brett C. Leonard’s Unconditional, the newest play in LAByrinth Theater Company’s season to grab you, pull you in, and,
afterwards, haunt you.
A white man, possibly scouring the Internet for sex, erupts in paroxysms of fury when his black wife comes home late, but the same
man, in his pursuit of yet another black woman to marry, trembles with uncertainty as he pursues her, an image at odds with the crazed man
we have seen earlier raging at his wife, a sure sign that he will, in time, revert to form.
A Latino woman, who can never seem to get that extra cup of coffee she wants no matter what coffee house she visits, sets up a
date with a young white man, and waits – the eternal Miss Lonelyhearts – for him, at their assignation, thinking it is she who is unwanted,
not knowing that he has been lynched by his black subordinate at work.
An elderly white man picks up unresponsive black women at bars, treats
them cruelly when he gets them home, and gives his black employee a literally murderous hard time at the office.
That black employee has a sexually avaricious relationship with a beautiful young white woman.
One mentions these characters in terms of their color because, clearly, this is a play about racism, and, while it would be
horrendous to suggest that these are the only kinds of racial relations that exist, there is enough ugly truth in what is represented in
these images that Mr. Leonard has flung in our faces that merits our taking into consideration the possibility that, like it or not, they
Possibly the scariest of all the images is the one that takes place in the same bar where we have seen the elderly man pick up the
black woman, sitting this time next to the black man who has just lynched his new white boss. These are the murderers among us, and, for a
brief terrifying moment, they are us, and we are them.
Mark Wendland, who created the ingeniously fascinating set, has literally configured LuEsther Hall into a labyrinth of sorts, so
that we seem to be in a laboratory exploring specimens, and, as if it were meant to be a movie, so much of what we see is in medium shot,
at a distance, but not at enough of a distance for comfort. Mark Wing-Davey, the director has done a marvelous job of keeping nine
interconnected stories moving through this maze, always disorientingly busy, except for those moments of absolute silence which punctuate
the play with ferocious clarity.
If there is a problem with this play, it is not unlike the problem we came across very recently in Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years, in that there is a theatrical shorthand at work here, that character development and
tough sinew of thought take second place to verisimilitude. What we are left with is imagery – powerfully graphic – and the fact that these
are real people, undeveloped though they may be as characters, passing before our eyes. And Wing-Davey has cast the play with terrific
actors. Most memorable are James Doman as the murderous white man, the always reliable Elizabeth Rodriguez as the lonely woman in search of
a man and a cup of coffee, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as the bereft black man who loses his job after twenty five years and ends up lynching his
young uncaring boss. But nobody frightened me more than Kevin Geer whose rage was so authentically borne of real repression that it was
almost comically intense, but, even more frightening was how tremulous with expectancy he could be falling in love. It is like watching the
Frankenstein story in reverse.
The fact that Unconditional tends to be somewhat schematic makes it more of a play than
Two Thousand Years, but, like Leigh, Leonard should be eternally grateful to his director and
his actors. They have given his play a structure as well as a gritty feeling of truth that shake us up and provide us with an extremely
gratifying evening in the theater.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com