Luck of the Irish (2013)
Kirsten Greenidge, who had a memorable New York debut in 2011 with the inner-city dramedy Milk Like Sugar, cements her status as a young playwright of great promise with Luck of the Irish, which plays through March 10 at Lincoln Center Theater’s black-box Claire Tow Theater.
In this ambitious and mostly successful drama, Greenidge depicts an African American family in two time periods: In the present, we meet Hannah (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and her sister, Nessa (Carra Patterson), who’ve taken possession of the suburban Boston home of the just-deceased grandparents who raised them. Back in the 1950s, we meet Rex and Lucy Taylor (Victor Williams and Eisa Davis) — he’s a doctor, she’s a well-spoken housewife with a young daughter (Hannah and Nessa’s mom) — and learn how they came to be the first African Americans on the block. After another attempt to move into another white neighborhood ended in arson, the Taylors recruit a cash-strapped white couple, the Donovans (Dashiell Eaves and Amanda Quaid) to ”ghost-buy” the house for them, putting their name on the lease while the Taylors pay the mortgage — and compensate the Donovans for their trouble.
Greenidge poses an intriguing question: What if the Donovans never sign over the title on the house and demand the house back from the Taylors’ heirs after their deaths — even as Hannah and her husband (Frank Harts) have settled in and hope to raise their rambunctious (off-stage) son in the still-lily-white neighborhood? To play out this premise, of course, she needs a stubborn bigot who remains unswayed by a half century of social progress. Despite the best efforts of Quaid and Jenny O’Hara (as the elder Mrs. Donovan), the character remains a rather one-dimensional villain railing against the Taylors’ intrusion on ”the natural order of things.” Mr. Donovan, a failed entrepreneur and inveterate dreamer who forges an unlikely connection with the better-educated Lucy, seems both more sympathetic and more rounded.
That’s a pity, because elsewhere Greenidge grapples with more complicated aspects of racial relations. Despite her suburban upbringing and college education, Hannah continues to be weighed down by the legacy of racial injustice, of feeling like an outsider. When her unruly son is suspended from the still-mostly-white neighborhood school for assaulting a classmate, she cannot help but see the incident through a racial filter. And her sister, Nessa, loses an office promotion to a guy ”who spends half his day tending a virtual farm on Facebook” — but worries that ”I don’t think everyone else is too afraid to ask for what they want.”
The cast, finely directed by Rebecca Taichman, are terrific across the board. Eisa Davis makes a particularly strong impression as the regal Lucy Taylor, a button-collecting literature-loving woman whose backstory is lamentably underdeveloped (too often, she’s a plaster saint to Mrs. Donovan’s cartoon villain). While the mechanics of Greenidge’s plot can seem a little forced, Greenidge has an acute ear for dialog and an acute sense of the subtle signifiers of class distinctions, both past and present: A Robert Frost quotation, a defrosted Sara Lee cake, a congratulatory lunch at P.F. Changs. It’s all too easy, she seems to say, to get lost in the symbols of status and in the longing for lives that are not our own. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)