by Cate Ryan
Directed by Charles Weldon
The Negro Ensemble Company
at Theatre Row

Reviewed by David Spencer

The venerable Negro Ensemble Company seems, at least, to be showing the signs of a company in trouble. No permanent home, bare-bones production values, tiny casts, short runs and bewilderingly unadventurous fare. Its latest, The Picture Box, by Cate Ryan is a case in point. On the eve of Obama’s election, Carrie (Jennifer van Dyck), a young middle-age white woman is about to close on selling the oceanside Florida house she grew up in. The buyers are a not very appealing couple: Bob (Malachy Cleary) an arch conservative whose bigotry toward blacks (he’s concerned about the neighborhood ad etc.) is so thinly veiled there’s barely any fabric to it at all; and his wife Karen (Marisa Redanty) who occasionally tries to speak up for good but has also settled into a routine of being bullied. They actually don’t hang around onstage much. They kind of frame the real substance, which is the sort of random arrival of Mackie (Arthur French) the old black caretaker, and his wife Josephine (Elain Graham) who pretty much, you know, raised Carrie from a pup. He’s there to take a last look at the house, his wife is there to look after him; and Carrie, in clearing the house, has found a box of photos: memories of growing up.

                        And the three of them—Carrie, Mackie and Josephine—go through the pictures and reminisce. And that’s pretty much it until the Bickersons return for one more spot of abuse before Carrie shows them the door. The play runs maybe 60, 65 minutes.

                        If it all sounds woefully undramatic, well, you have indeed grasped the essentials. No mistake, there’s a certain aw-shucks sweetness to it all, I mean the white girl who never saw the black surrogate parents as any different from herself and the elderly black couple who see her as one of their own and oh, if the world were like this always. But there’s no dramatic tension in the reminiscing (notwithstanding one or two unpleasant memories, but nothing that serves as a trigger to spark present dynamics) and about ten minutes into the pleasantries you’re suddenly struck by the thought: Oh, I see. This is it. This is what the play is going to be. We’re never going to lift off. I’m just going to listen to these nice people be nice to one another until it’s time to go home. And sure enough…

                        Director Charles Weldon seems not to have paid too much attention to much more than efficient traffic patterns, so the actors, left to twist in the wind on their own, have made strong choices just to have something to hang onto, thus there’s not much in the way of nuance. As old Mackie, the venerable Arthur French (himself a genuine old-timer and a founding member of the NEC) is agreeable—but a little spiritless owing to the clear slowdown of age; which also, I hate to say it, sometimes makes him evoke the shuffling demeanor of an unfortunate archetype. The again, archetypes are, in a sense, the order of the day: As the white buyers Redanty and Cleary are mostly noisy symbols (who might as well be cymbals). Jennifer Van Dyck has the thankless task of sustaining the enlightened good girl, reminiscing pleasantly with people she loves, in a situation that presents nothing in the way of threat or risk (just the melancholia of saying goodbye to the old house), so, while she avoids over-acting, she works very hard to keep the bubble afloat, spinning variations on a very limited theme. Somehow Elain Graham manages to anchor her surrogate mom character without visible effort or the indicia of an actor at work; but the character provides no fresh insights, nor a fresh approach to the familiar.

                        Indeed, the most fascinating thing about the play and production is how its gentle and unassuming nature bespeaks—what seems to me at least—the NEC’s desperation. And that, kids, is dramatic irony…

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