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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 6, 2016

Lance Coadie Williams and Charlayne Woodard
Photo by Erin Baiano

His (superb) Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist from last year, Gloria, notwithstanding, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's works are among the most compelling that new playwrights are producing about race, family, or, the fusion of both. Joining Neighbors, An Octoroon, and Appropriate in his thought-provoking oeuvre is War, which just opened at the Claire Tow Theater as part of Lincoln Center's LCT3 program.

If there's one hands-down bad thing about the play—and that's debatable—it's that title, which risks misleading potential audiences into believing it's something it very much is not. This is not any sort of an antiwar screed; there's no armed combat, for one thing, or battlefields in the traditional sense, and the one that figures into the action is talked about and felt but never seen.

The conflict here is quite different, but no less devastating. Roberta, the matriarch of an African-American family in Washington, D.C., suffered a stroke while at the zoo and is now lying comatose in a hospital ICU. Her children, Tate (Chris Myers) and Joanne (Rachel Nicks), are not having an easy time coping, in part because it seems they can barely stand each other—one of their many points of contention: Tate, a political operative, resents having to rush in from Massachusetts to deal with circumstances his sister finds emotionally crippling—and in part because of the odd woman (Michele Shay) who will not leave their mother's bedside.

She looks to be roughly Roberta's age, she does not speak English, and, despite her light-brown skin that leads Tate and Joanne to certain conclusions, also does not speak Spanish. Attempts to get her to leave are fruitless, and escalate to near violence when a second unknown, a man with still-lighter skin and a bushy black beard (Austin Durant), comes to collect the woman he calls his mother, and reveals that the two of them were staying with Roberta. She'd promised them a portion of her father's sizable trust, and they have a legal document to prove it, and they want (or, as they claim, need) their money now. This, as you can perhaps predict, does not go down well with the kids.

But it does begin a chain reaction of events that forces everyone to reconsider who they are and where they came from, as it's revealed before too long that the mystery woman, apparently named Elfrieda, and her son, Tobias, do have an intimate connection with the Americans. It's one that was forged when their grandfather was stationed in southern Germany at the end of World War II, but speaks to deeper questions of identity and identification that transcend time, space, and, it turns out, the human race itself. (Without giving much away, let's just say that the play's logo, which depicts an excited monkey wearing a military helmet, is highly apropos.)

Chris Myers, Rachel Nicks, Reggie Gowland,
Austin Durant, and Michele Shay
Photo by Erin Baiano

This is where Jacobs-Jenkins excels, and his explorations of the ties that bind these people not just to each other, but to the world around them, are engrossing, and at times shocking. None of the characters is exactly what you predict; everyone is, at some point, better or worse, or more or less. There are fascinating lines drawn between matters of class, language, and of course race—Joanne has a white husband (named Malcolm, and played by Reggie Gowland), a fact that only inflames certain already-irritated opinions—and although few of the details about them, and the revelations they inspire, come as eye-popping surprises, they also aren't predictable, so you're always engaged in putting together the next pieces of the puzzle.

One suspects that Jacob-Jenkins could probably have accomplished much of what he does without actually having Roberta appear (in the persona of Charlayne Woodard, put to expert use) and narrate her own journey, which becomes intertwined with a sign-language-speaking gorilla named Alpha (portrayed with unsettling acuity by Lance Coadie Williams, who also plays a peacemaking nurse). But these interludes are integral to seeing the bigger picture of how each person seems himself or herself, and why untangling the branches of their family tree is necessary for their own salvation, and, before long, they're almost more real than the "real" existence the others inhabit.

So rich and unusual is all this, in fact, that it sets a standard the second act is not capable of meeting. Though it resolves all the necessary plot implications, and ends on a series of high notes that change us from being mere spectators into important characters in the story, it gets there by way of a bunch of conventional, and too often uninteresting, arguments that spell out, ad nauseam, what in the first act Jacob-Jenkins was content to let remain implicit. Tate, in particular, goes off on a dizzily expositional rant that ensures you can't misinterpret the playwright's intended targets or come to a different conclusion about anyone's background; instead of supercharging the final scenes it grinds them, and the rest of the play, to a halt.

If this lapse in subtlety hurts the evening as a whole, it's about the only one there is. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz keeps everyone else on point, and beautifully blends the competing realities until it's no longer entirely possible to tell where one ends and the next begins. Scenic designer Mimi Lien does this as well with a set that combines conceptual and naturalistic locales to arresting effect; Matt Frey's lights and Bray Poor's sound, and to a lesser extent Montana Blanco's costumes (which are pretty run-of-the-mill, but pull unexpected double duty at a few key points) also make notable contributions.

So, too, do Woodard, Myers, and Nicks are all terrific in showing different facets of generational suffering and the mechanisms for coping with it; Woodard does so and appealing and ethereally, whereas Myers's coloring is more aggressive and Nicks's more unsure—but all are correct. Gowland is also good, meting out carefully but firmly the frustration outsider Malcolm feels at never being let inside. Though Williams is thoroughly convincing as Alpha (if less so as the more weakly written nurse), Shay and Durant have more difficulty finding their roles' centers, and Elfrieda and Tobias come across for too much of the time as one-note antagonists.

In fairness to the actors, some of that comes from Jacob-Jenkins shrouding their true personalities and intent so he can maintain the secrecy surrounding them for as long as possible. It's another mechanical slip-up that prevents this play from being all it should be. But when Tobias and Elfrieda, and soon enough the others, evolve into much more, the point is nonetheless powerfully made that you'd better treat everyone right because you never for sure who you're fighting. That message recurs throughout all of Jacob-Jenkins's works, but it's rarely been made as conclusively and as creatively as it is in War.

Through July 3
Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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