It was Torrey B. Lawrence as I'd never seen him before. He staggered out from the wings, and paused by an upstage dumpster to mimic urinating against its side with his back turned to us. He then careened none too steadily toward center stage, his zipper still at half-mast. At that point, his character, Linwood, loudly tried to convince his evidently former live-in girlfriend to, in the oddly polite words of the play's title, Open the Darn Door.
Let's see: A young, drunk, sexually indiscriminate and--what's the word? ah, yes--shiftless black male, too dumb to realize he's already been dumped, is talking trash late at night with his fly open outside an apartment building. Occasionally he takes another pull from the bottle of cheap liquor in his pocket.
Wait, it gets better: On he goes, at some length, about how he just loves fried chicken.
Now have you got the picture?
If you're one of the very few who actually miss the Chitlin Circuit, that long-gone home of the lowest common denominator in racial humor, then Brian Davis is most definitely your man. As writer and director of Durham's Doctor Love Theater Group, it seems he's trying hard to single-handedly revive it--and along with it a host of ethnic stereotypes that went seriously out of style about 40 years back thataway. Has it really been that long since lovable drunks, geezers, swindlers and fools just like these were about the only representations one could find of African Americans in showbiz?
Well, actually, no, not really. And since America is in such a retro mood these days, one is sorely tempted to ask, with so many giants trying to pull back the hands of the clock in terms of civil rights, economics and international relations, what's one lackluster apprentice playwright more or less? Is Open The Darn Door really that much worse than BET?
It's been such a long time since we've seen stereotypes this flat that it's oddly compelling to come upon characters so old and yet so ... so familiar. Like a long-suffering old black momma, for example, who was just forced to walk 20 blocks since her worthless son wasn't there to drive her to the grocery store in--wait for it--his car whose loan she had to co-sign! Isn't that priceless?
One thing's for sure. It ought to be.
Jackie Marriot does shine, briefly, as an 8-year-old kid trying to wheedle his mom out of money for ice cream on the hottest day of the summer. And Angela Ray and Dennard Young do their considerable best to elevate the material they're given to work with.
But as the audience ages, Davis slowly learns how to write a comic monologue, in interminable sequences devoted to Bobo the dog, Billy Bob the redneck used-car salesman and a character who sports a red nose, humongously oversized shoes--and a black cowl, cloak and sickle. Yep, it's the Grin Reaper, who assures us that "death can be amusing."
If so, that's one advantage it has on this profoundly embarrassing octet. Will someone please get Brian Davis a copy of George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum, on the double?
Almost but not quite as useless is Barrymore, a failed exercise in necromancy that closes at Theatre in the Park this weekend.
John Barrymore, that '40s matinee idol--and the ultimately self-destructive kid brother of the legendary American stage and screen family--is obviously one of Ira David Wood's idols. It would take a love both truly deep-seated and of long duration to blind one to the serious flaws in William Luce's script. Though Christopher Plummer took the Tony for his performance in this role in 1996, the critics were nowhere nearly as complementary of the words he spoke. An actor of that brilliance apparently made a silk purse out of this bathetic text. For the record, Wood valiantly attempts to do the same, but does not.
Barrymore asks so little of its audience: only for its pity, nothing else. Its creaky mechanics avoid few of the usual pitfalls of the biographical one-person show. Since Barrymore's character speaks directly to us, the audience is cast as a group of people who are somehow allowed to witness a disastrous closed rehearsal. And as luck would have it, drunkenness--or bad playwriting, more likely--compels Barrymore to immediately take this group of strangers into his deepest confidence and reveal the darkest corners of his life.
Since it takes so little effort--or discretion--on his part, the journey turns into a cheesy, guided tour of the wreckage of a life, past a series of failed marriages, professional collapses and self-delivered insults to the brain. Luce repeatedly slam-segues from the merry to the maudlin.
Given his well-known weakness for gutbucket comedy, no doubt Wood has wanted to send up Shakespearean scenes like the opening of Richard III, which his character memorably does at the start of act two. As dramatic music plays on a darkened stage, a misshapen hulk lurches toward a spotlit throne. When he gets there, he dramatically wheels about to stab a finger at the audience, with an accusative "You!"
Then the moment disintegrates as Barrymore drunkenly finishes the title of that old song, " ... Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby."
Still, I for one could have gratefully gone to my grave without having once witnessed Wood tastelessly simulating masturbation on stage, in an inexcusably tawdry scene reliving John's childhood sexual abuse, literally, at the hands of his stepmother.
Barrymore's character makes with the lewd limericks, spouts inebriated one-liners about the greats and near-great, and rails about his vaunted, dissipated gifts. But he never--ever--changes or truly learns anything. At this point in the fall, I imagine a host of first-semester freshman are just now being taught, once again, the fundamental limitations of such a character on stage.
As it stands, both the character and this production seem entirely content to bathe in rank self-pity--and then solicit us for more.