We gave it a C
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks once described writing as ”wandering in a wilderness and getting totally lost.” Indeed, there is something wonderfully meandering about her best works, the Brechtian, abortion-themed Scarlet Letter riff F—ing A and the Booth/Lincoln sibling-rivalry drama Topdog/Underdog (which won her the 2002 Pulitzer Prize). But the journey is much less enjoyable in the plodding revenge fantasy The Book of Grace, now premiering at Off Broadway’s Public Theatre.
There are only three symbolically named characters to follow: hard-hearted border-patrol officer Vet (John Doman); the African-American son he hasn’t seen in 15 years, Buddy (Amari Cheatom); and Vet’s sunny second wife, Grace (the always stellar Elizabeth Marvel), a hash slinger, would-be author, and orchestrator of the trio’s begrudging reunion.
But the actors’ every move is hampered by director James Macdonald’s heavy-handed treatment of Parks’ dialogue; in the hands of Macdonald — best known for his work with postmodernist playwright Caryl Churchill — the awkward reintroduction of Vet and Buddy, awash with comic potential (the guy frisks his own kid!), morphs into something surrealistic. Cheatom delivers most of his lines to the ceiling. Pauses. Are. Taken. Everywhere. It’s like a Texas-set Pinter play. (Not that the script is without its absurd moments. Do we really think Vet, a Neanderthal straight guy, would do his own ironing? Come on. A man who won’t let his wife take a basic algebra class isn’t going to let her shirk her housework duties, even if she ”can’t understand the importance of a good crease.”)
Macdonald also saps Parks’ speech of its natural musicality; instead, her recurring motifs (Grace’s many dreamy mentions of the Disney ”Magic Castle,” Buddy’s ”We hold these truths to be self-evident” outbursts, Vet’s obsession with ”aliens”) become hollow and repetitive. Despite Marvel’s gutsy, appealing, sing-songy delivery, the scenes lack rhythm and flow — something that Parks (a composer herself, who’s also married to a blues musician) has never lacked. C
(Tickets: publictheater.org or 212-967-5555)