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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Johnson starts with an intriguing premise. Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein), a successful young surgeon with offices in a Chicago hospital, is unhappy with his recently hired assistant Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins). But because she is not a team player and happens to be black, he enlists Ileen (Dianne Wiest), his long-term assistant, who's white, to help him do so without running into problems with the hospital's human resource department. Being manipulated (with a promotion, a raise and much praise) to collect evidence for firing the woman she's actually come to look upon as a friend — at least during work hours — makes for a tension filled situation for the mild-mannered, get-along with everybody Ileen.
The intrigue set in motion by Doctor Williams and its effect on both Ilene and Jaclyn's interaction turns the office into a minefield. The fraught office situation unmasks the scar tissue of prejudices supposedly past history in today's multi-cultural work places like city hospitals.
Unfortunately this unpeeling of everyone's prejudices ends up also exposing the weaknesses in Johnson's play. The potential high drama of the set-up is weighed down by too many somewhat stagnant and repetitive scenes. It also ends up with the three white characters as backdrops for its one black character's troubled and troublesome personality.
Fortunately, Cynthia Nixon who's making her directing debut, is blessed to have Tonya Pinkins to play the volatile Jaclyn, and Dianne Wiest as her frenemy. The chance to see these two actors on stage together would make even a really bad play worth seeing. And Rasheeda Speaking isn't a bad play, just not as good and potent as it wants to be.
Darren Goldstein does well as the doctor who feels justified in his dislike of Jaclyn. Patricia Conolly is the play's fourth character. She does her best not to make Rose the occasionally appearing patient facing possible surgery, into a too overcooked steotype of little old ladies prone to voice outrageous opinions. But even without the lines Mr.Johnson has written for her, there's no escaping the cartoonish stigma from this type of character.
The playwright chips away scene by scene at Dr. Williams and Ilene' tolerant surface personas. As already indicated, Jaclyn is his most complex character and Pinkins is terrific in digging into all this woman's complexities. When we first see her she's returning after a five day absence dealing with a vague allergy problem. It's easy to see that she is a more forceful presence than her office mate. She fusses about Ilene's not having watered the plants with which she seems to have made herself at home in the office where she's only been employed for six months. When the seventy-ish Rose arrives for her appointment, Jaclyn's treatment of her makes Dr. Williams' wish to get someone with a less off-putting interpersonal manner to replace her seem quite reasonable.
But the question dominating the play is not whether Jaclyn should and will be fired, but what makes her so abrasive and disdainful of the Doctor's liberalism — and yet obviously desperate to hold onto this job. Do her complaints about allergy producing toxins in the office symbolize the toxicity of the prejudice that's underneath what's happening in this office, as well as her overall work experience?
What in this middle-aged woman's background has made her so defensive and prickly that she can't see that her attitude as much as her race has probably kept her in boring, poor paying jobs? And why doesn't she see that her attitude towards her Mexican neighbors is no better than that of the people she says have merely found a new way to look down on black women at the bottom of the economic heap.
Pinkins manages to keep us intrigued with her paranoid scheming to turn the table on her boss and the l colleague promoted to oversee her performance even though she's not all that neat. Jaclyn's effect on Wiest's mild-mannered Ileen is fascinating to watch. But the play overall just isn't as biting and urgent as it sets out to be.
The final scene does add a surprising twist. But since the penultimate scene feels so much like the play's end the twisty finale comes across as tacked on. This was borne out at the performance I attended when the audience clapped as if the story was all over before the finale.
I don't know if Mr. Johnson based the title on a term in actual use. The best thing about the anecdote explaining it, while well told by Pinkins' Jaclyn, serves mainly to provide one catch-your-breath bit of business.
Like everything the New Group does, Rasheeda Speaking is handsomely staged. Though performed at the Pershing Square Signature Center's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater, be aware that this is not a Signature production so their special pricing policies do not apply.