Sunday, March 7, 2004

Superb acting keeps a pale 'Blue' script afloat

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Starring in Blue are Peter Jay Fernandez, Brenda Thomas (center) and Denise Burse.

Kenny Leon and his acting ensemble float the arty sitcom (or is that comic soaper?) Blue about as high as it can possibly go at Playhouse in the Park - but they're let down by playwright Charles Randolph-Wright, whose abilities don't match his vision.

Meet the Clarks: We start in the '70s, where the African-American family's long-successful funeral home has resulted in a posh, Metropolitan Homes living space (nicely realized in all its nouveau riche glory by set designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg) in a small, South Carolina town. This looks on the surface like a Huxtables-meets-the-Jeffersons family.

At the center, of course, is the mom, Peggy Clark (Denise Burse) who shops addictively, is exhaustively controlling, a horrific snob and obsessed with vocalist Blue Williams embodied by Kevyn Morrow.

In an arty touch, every time Peggy puts on one of Blue's LPs (which is often) Morrow eases into the Clark living room, dining room, staircase, wherever, to sing some smooth-as-satin blues in the night. And when somebody pulls up the needle (kids, ask your grandparents) he leaves in a huff.

Peggy is cut from the same cloth as some of American theater's great Mothers from Hell (Amanda Wingfield, Regina Giddens and so many more) except Randolph-Wright merely makes us dislike her - he doesn't give her the power of her pain or ambition or unhappiness. Burse does what she can, which is plenty, but it's a dislocated character line.

The other key player is Peggy's pride and joy, younger son Reuben, played as a youngster by Darnell Smith Jr., who was a tad stiff on opening night, and as a man by Yusef Miller, who is terrific as we see him, over the years, ease out of Peggy's tight control.

In another arty touch, the younger and older Reubens share the stage and talk to each other. It's an interesting idea, but Randolph-Wright doesn't do anything with it.

Why does the elder need information from the younger when he's already lived that part of his life? And why does the elder hang with the younger if he doesn't intend to say or do anything significant?

In the finest sitcom tradition, Peggy and her mother-in-law can't stand each other and there is much sniping, on the level you'll find on a low-rent cable show, but Brenda Thomas as Peggy's nemesis is simply a joy.

Elder son Sam III (Rashad J. Anthony) is doing a little rebellion thing when we meet him, and has the whole 'fro-and-leather fringe '70s thing going. Susan Mickey's costuming is perfection in defining era and character.

Sam III has taken up with a girl from the wrong side of the tracks (as they said way back then). Tinashe Kajese has some fine comic moments at the family dining table and does well when she makes a dramatic (if completely unbelievable) return late in the play.

The wonderful Peter Jay Fernandez manages to be more than a long-suffering husband without much help from the playwright.

I don't know that Blue is anything that it wants to be. The comedy doesn't rise above standard TV fare; Peggy has a class issue within her own race, which could be very intriguing except that we don't empathize with her and it's easy to dismiss her. No one else seems to share her classism, so that's a non-issue.

There's big melodrama in the second act - melodrama, not drama, because you see the family secret in the first couple of minutes of the play.

And when Randolph-Wright takes the last couple of minutes to wrap everything up in a neat package of Important Wisdom with a blue ribbon on top, you wonder, where the heck did that come from?

Leon creates one of the finest acting ensembles Cincinnati has seen this season. I wish he'd had a better script on which to work his directing magic.

Blue runs through April 2 at Playhouse in the Park's Marx Theatre; 421-3888.


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