Credit: Jonathan Slaff

AN AMERICAN FAMILY TAKES A LOVER – What we have here is a piece of experimental theatre placed on fertile ground by enthusiastic artists who will love it through all pains of growth.  Assumed enthusiasm is evidenced by a willingness to work with a gross lack of budget.  As is often the challenge of a collaborative piece by excited contributors, the group can be inundated with a lot of brilliant ideas about how the final product should look and feel.  That challenge burns bright with this show; so bright that the viewer might be blinded to the genius which also exists here.

Amina Henry, the author of this play, is a good writer possessing a flexible mind and an urge to push boundaries.   As her story pulls further and further out from its central themes, a lot of light is cast on many clever ideas pressing for equal time in the minds of the observers.  There’s a lot Henry wants to say about race, class, breakdowns in relationships, the limits of modern society on our happiness, self-imposed and other-imposed bondage, the audacity of hope . . . fascinating stuff.  I found myself overwhelmed.  I wanted to reach over to Henry, sitting a few seats away, and ask her if she fears she may have a very short time here on this planet.  Could this be why she wanted to pack so much into one hundred minutes?

Picture it: Good writing in abundance, very skilled and eager actors in a small house barely funded.  Director, Kira Simring has her work cut out for her in many small but colorful puzzle pieces.  Getting a rein on this piece probably kept this director up nights. Lady Anne (Lila Donnolo) Richard David (Bob Jaffe) are an eccentric pair.  Donnolo has a finely crafted theatre-of-the-absurd skill set.  She uses the high language of the text for her first scene and commits to the absurd styling full on.  Jaffe follows Donnolo’s lead, playing a dominant, hopelessly ignorant husband, but with a bit less commitment to the absurd than he has to his character’s tightly screwed in selfishness, which is magnified by suppressed explosive anger.  This white-bred couple has enslaved (sort of) a young black woman, Justine, (Tiffany Nichole Greene). We never find out why, but Henry throws out a variety of great reasons that are good guesses.

Questions are asked throughout the play along the lines of “Why did you take me that night?”  “What were you thinking when you came with us?”  If the answers were delivered also as questions, I think the audience may have been able to get more on board with Henry’s quest.  As well, Henry cannot resist her humanity and weaves into this journey some very real moments, which are beautiful on their own, but don’t quite match up to the more absurd pieces of the show.  This mis-matching could have worked with some clear mechanism of transition inserted in the piece so we could more easily come along to all of these interesting places Henry wants us to go.

The character of Thomas, played so tenderly by Daniel Le, quiets the endearing fidgeting of a feral bird that is Green’s interpretation of Justine’s bound existence.  Thomas also gentle and loving to Justine when he stumbles upon her in the house to which he has been called to fix a hole – literally and also figuratively (ah, nice, Henry) He is a simple hero just trying to make a difference in a strange world.  Le doesn’t approach theatre of the absurd in his acting choices, but that is not to say he isn’t gorgeously talented.  Thomas seems mystified by the reality of Justine’s situation, but a curve ball in the text reveals that Thomas is polyamorous.

I would have liked to have known more about how Richard and Lady Anne got together before the adding on of Justine.  There was, for example, a wonderful moment in which Lady Anne kisses Justine and the two brush against some genuine pleasure which Anne quickly chases away through a speech about how disgusting she finds Justine.  This was a perfectly nuanced nugget that gratified and was darkly comic.  Seeds for all the development of these pathways in the story were present in multiples and we, to my disappointment, never got to see them grow.

The production was under-nourished in budget but that did not stop this company from building an ambitious set.  Designer, Andrew Diaz, got right in there with a hammer and saw and large antique set pieces.  The home of Richard and Lady Anne is rich in material, but poor in emotional maturity and ethics.  This idea is clearly peeking through.  Sara Hinkley’s costume design was a well-developed offer of realism.

Well, folks, it is an experiment, jam packed with so much to think about that you will likely miss a good deal of it, as I’m sure I did.  I think cutting the text, slowing the deliver and a full commitment to genre and acting style, would have made for some real brilliant fireworks.  I’m looking forward to more writing from Amira Henry and will seek out these actors in future productions as I am a fan of thoughtful artists.

AN AMERICAN FAMILY TAKES A LOVER – By Amina Henry; Directed by Kira Simring assisted by Tjasa Ferme; a production of The Cell Theatre Company; presented by Theatre for the New City; Production Stage Manager, Christian Steckel assisted by Mackenzie Meeks; Set Design by Andrew Diaz; costume Design by Sara Hinkley; Lighting Design by Jonathan Cottle; Sound Design by Thomas Kennedy; Production Assistant, Hope Andrejack.  Running November 7th to 17th , Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 3:00pm at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (at East 10th Street), Box office (212) 254-1109. $15 general admission.  Running time 100 minutes.