The Detroit Repertory Theatre, or "the Rep" as it's often known, is kicking off the first 2008 show by bringing audiences a play that bounces between classic warm American comedy and over-the-top melodrama.
The play is Ceremonies in Dark Old Men by Lonne Elder III. It's Elder's first play, which first hit the stage in 1969. Set in the Harlem of that day, the neighborhood's in the throes of changes that have left the Parker family behind. Men may be walking on the moon, but disinvestment has hit the ghetto hard, and the family's barber shop on 126th Street teeters on the brink. Washed-up song-and-dance man Russell B. Parker (James Bowen) whiles away the time in his shop, which is more likely to host a game of checkers with his neighbor William Jenkins (Herman McCain) than a paying customer. In fact, Mr. Parker and his two sons owe everything to daughter Adele (Toni Walker), the family's hardworking, independent young woman who has taken an office job. But Adele swears she won't be "worked to death" like her recently deceased mother, caring for the ne'er-do-well father and his boys, aimless lothario Theopolis (Walter Lindsey) and coasting rip-off man Bobby (Edward K. Robinson).
Having reached her limit, Adele swears to throw the men out unless they find work — or at least look for it — and, to their credit, the men of the family do mull over the thought of work briefly. At least until an ominous offer from local kingpin Blue Haven (Lynch R. Travis) to turn the barber shop into a corn whiskey and gambling house promises the men easy money, and Pop Parker a shot at regaining his position as head of the household.
The 50-year-old Detroit Repertory Theatre has a reputation for staging plays that have their social content up front, but each season also features comedies more about making laughs than changing minds. Ceremonies is political, but not polemical. Though Elder's tale of a troubled family is set in a ghetto rocked by poverty, crime and injustice, his characters don't follow leaders or wave protest signs. Instead, they react the only way they know how, setting the stage for melodrama: When a father can't support his family, what is he willing to do to retain his role as king of the hill?
In the 1960s, Elder (who died in 1996) was a talented playwright and the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of the 1972 film Sounder. This sophisticated writer could cater to a younger, TV-raised audience more accustomed to flip-of-the-dial changes in mood. In this play, he switches between laughter and despair, crafting a sweet-and-sour mix of drama and comedy that can turn on a dime. The tension between mirth and angst can leave you unsure whether you're watching a sad comedy or a funny tragedy.
When Elder's play is funny, it's often over-the-top farce, with moments of mistaken identity and rapid-fire vaudeville-style repartee. The high hilarity makes the sudden dramatic turns all the more surreal and disturbing.
Under the guidance of director Tim Rhoze, however, the actors seem to play it down the middle, missing opportunities for drama, or muting the crackling wit of Elder's dialogue and mistaken-identity farce. This talented cast would benefit from more freedom to play it for laughs when it counts to help give the play's darker moments more arresting menace.
But the talented cast, especially the award-winning Bowen, ensures that the mood has a broad range, creating comedy that's laugh-out-loud funny and drama that's disturbing and menacing. And, as Pop Parker, Bowen makes it all believable. When Pop spins stories of the old days to his boys, recalling his dead wife and lost career, it makes sense that he's willing to risk everything for one last shot at being the family patriarch.
The Rep's accomplished production crew helps make this play a pleasure to watch. It's not a sumptuous set, but the warmth of the era really comes through in Burr Huntington's sound design, with its warm soul tracks and cool radio clips, and Harry Wetzel's evocative set design, with its rich detail and touches of realism. And costume designer Judy Dery had the good sense to play the wardrobe for laughs, with a pimpalicious costume change at intermission that notably leaves one character who wanted to shirk work busted down to working weeds.
All in all, you have a solid show that works in some issues of social importance amid the thrills and chills, even if it plays it a little straight.
Performances promptly at 8:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, until March 16, at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit, 313-868-1347; $20.Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]