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|A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
Dramatizing the awkward relationship between a father and son, a chemistry that both binds and repels, is a difficult enterprise. More often than not, the inherent complexity dissolves into either over-simplification or rationalization. Playwright Thomas Gibbons has found an original way to circumnavigate these pitfalls. It is daring in structure and surprising in effect. Most importantly, it works, and this is reason enough to see Black Russian. There are others.
Gibbons tells two parallel stories that violate not only the laws of geometry (they occasionally cross), but also the rules of dramatic exposition. One is the story of Eugene, a African American man from Louisiana who goes to Uzbekistan to help build a Soviet workers' paradise in 1936. He marries a Russian woman, Galina (Geraldine Singer); they have a son, Misha -- a Black Russian. The second story is Misha's, set in 1996 shortly after Eugene's death. He reverses his father's footsteps, traveling to America in the hope of unearthing his own identity in the process. A historian by training, he wants to learn the "history of his skin."
The stories unfold side by side. They are fluidly directed by Seth Rozin on a stage decorated with two enormous flag-scrims, one American and one Soviet, and little more. While Misha's story is told in linear fashion, Eugene's is conveyed randomly. Scenes are sometimes memories, sometimes visions and at other times illustrations. While telling a story in real time prompts an audience to make judgments with the characters, Black Russian's approach causes the audience to see things as the characters cannot (at least not yet). It's a brilliant way to paint in the substance of a father-son relationship.
Gibbons uses parallels poignantly. The play opens with both men arriving at the desk of skeptical customs officers, Eugene in Leningrad, Misha in New York. The first act ends with the father renouncing his American citizenship, stage left, as we see his son, stage right, admiring his first set of American clothes in a mirror -- having donned, as it were, the mantle of an American.
But Gibbons is not a slave to the parallelism. He has a great deal of information to convey (ranging from the rise and fall of the Soviet system to "what it means to be a black man in America"), and he wisely doesn't let devices get in the way. He also has a point of view, and isn't about to shrink from it. The impact of his story is heightened because, as he tells one of the "big" stories of the century, he never loses sight of the fact that his characters are real people, who have ordinary and well as illustrative lives. These are among Black Russian's strengths, which combine to make it a moving as well as illuminating experience.
The father and son are at the center of this nine member cast, and perform with exceptional depth. Frank X reprises his Misha from the original Philadelphia production (which was also directed by Seth Rozin). It is a part for which he is well-suited. He has an historian's curiosity and a child's sense of discovery. Vincent Yates is also excellent, making Eugene seem both larger-than-life and yet a vulnerable stranger in his adopted land, insightful yet gullible. He is credible as an unrepentant "ghost of Socialism past," but also as a father who, perhaps inadvertently, instills in his son enough of the American dream that the son is determined to see it for himself. Geraldine Singer is also very good as wife and mother.
In America, Misha stays with the Markovs, a couple of "formers" (i.e. former citizens of the former Soviet Republic) who now live in New York. Yelena (Elena Katzap) is an artist, and a good friend to Misha. Alex (James Rutledge) is a writer, unsettled in the post-Communist world in which he successfully has found a home. The remainder of the cast does fine work doubling, tripling and even quadrupling roles.
The play is not without its weak moments. Alex is the major misfire, especially as the buffoon Rutledge presents (and even more especially as unfortunately prone as he is to silly ranting and raving). The attention paid to this character seems unnecessary. It detracts and diverts.
The handling of Alex is also a symptom of what appears to be the playwright's greatest weakness, an anemic comic sense. While elegant -- even poetic -- language, artful metaphor and insightful storytelling are in great abundance here, forays into humor show every ounce of Gibbons' effort and little in the way of accomplishment. The good news, though, is that there are plenty of rewards here anyway.