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The Guest at Central Park West
This is not the first time Simon, an actor, screenwriter and playwright, has concerned himself with issues of race. Part One, Toussaint — the Soul — Rise and Revolution was nominated for 10 NAACP awards in 2001, and The Bow-Wow Club was the winner of the 1998/1999 Lorraine Hansberry Award for best full-length play.
The Guest at Central Park West was developed with the WorkShop Theater before it went on to the Hadley Players in 2007. Now it's back home, helmed by Thomas Cote and starring John Marshall Jones, best known as Floyd Henderson on Family Channel's Smart Guy. Many TV viewers may come to see Jones. They will leave impressed not only with his performance but with the overall quality of a play that is thoughtful, provocative and very, very funny.
The play begins shortly after African-American Professor Charles Watts (Harvy Blanks) has been awarded the Nobel Prize for his pacifist book, The Eyes of Peace. He and his African-American wife, Professor Nina Odood Watts (Trish McCall) are about to celebrate with two old friends, the white Professor Eric Engles (Jed Dickson) and his white wife, Professor Jennifer Engles (Tracy Newirth).
It soon becomes apparent, however, that there will not be a peaceful evening in this fashionable apartment with its African masks on the wall and tables laden with food and drink. The tension begins when it is revealed that Nina and Charles are receiving anonymous threatening phone calls from someone who feels that Charles's pacifist statements are somehow anti-American. It increases when Jennifer and Eric arrive and the troubled state of their marriage becomes immediately apparent, and increasingly explosive the more Jennifer drinks. Things come to a climax when Charles welcomes into his apartment a homeless African-American man named Terrance (Jones).
Terrance is dirty, smelly, belligerent, prone to seizures— and probably a bit insane. But he is also an old college buddy and Charles refuses to leave him in the streets. Terrance stirs things up quite a bit with his hints at some mysterious past he shares with Charles, his tendency to violent and impulsive actions and his militant politics. Then Lisa (Erinn Holmes), the Watts' bi-racial daughter (from Nina's previous marriage) arrives with her boyfriend, Seth (Curt Bouril), a white rapper who wears dreadlocks and spout black slang straight from the hood.
Simon's dialogue is certainly a little rough around the edges. There are times he gets bogged down in arguments that were old ten or twenty years ago. The plot keeps slipping dangerously close to melodrama. Perhaps most troubling, the characters are nothing if not stereotypes: Charles Watts could be Martin Luther King reincarnated. Engles is the kind of smug, superior white man that makes every other white person want to find a place to hide. It's hard to figure out why Watts became and stayed his friend.
But just when the plays seems hopelessly mired in its own pretensions, Simon picks himself up and get out of the mess with a really funny or thoughtful or unexpected comment. He is helped enormously by Cote's energetic direction and the cast's pitch perfect acting.
In the end it's not clear exactly what Simon's views on race relations are. Some of the possibilities, such as the efficacy of violence, the nature of guilt, and current levels of racism in America (especially in light of this year's Democratic primaries) are questionable. The final premise is certainly a bit absurd. But it would be nice to think that's what The Guest at Central Park West is all about — questioning, and maybe not coming up with all the answers.
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