By Tulis McCall
Sweet, sincere and sophomoric – the about sums it up for Invisible Thread now at Second Stage Theatre. The first clue is the phrase “Inspired by true events” scrawled across the upstage wall of the set. Why do authors insist on telling us this? Beats me, because it is usually the first step in a story that insists on being real instead of theatrical. When you are preparing the story for the theatre, however, this approach is more or less backwards.
Griffin (Griffin Matthews) plays himself in this tale. In 2005 he was rejected by his pastor, to whom he came out at the urging of his white, Jewish boyfriend Ryan (Corey Mach). The rejection sends him out of the country to Uganda where he hopes to rediscover his roots and contribute to the education of a few teenagers. Grace (Kristolyn Lloyd), Ronny (Tyrone Davis Jr.), Eden (Nicolette Robinson) and Ibrahim (Jamar Williams) and the ever recalcitrant Jacob (Michael Luwoye) make up his small tribe. To them his energy is fascinating. They think of him as a white visitor and treat him more like a pet than a man of import. When Griffin refers himself as African American Jacobs asks – does this make me African African?
Griffin struggles to find his purpose among these people who have third world problems. The ring leader is another demanding minister, Reverend Jim, who remains invisible. As Griffin and the kids get closer he teaches them in an old abandoned library. Eventually Ryan comes to Uganda to help as well. The kids figure out the relationship and this gives them all pause because homosexuality in Uganda is (and still is) illegal. Pastor Jim decides to burn the library down and Griffin fleas with Ryan and the kids. They are installed in a school eventually and sponsored by Griffin and Ryan who return to the States. Soon the money runs out and the two guys decide to put on a musical to raise money for the school. A musical – who would have thunk? Eventually they return to the church that spurned Griffin and get enough money to return to Uganda to check on their kids.
They have done that every year since 2005, and in the end we see the kids and discover their career choices. This is indeed a success story.
The drama, however, has leeched out of the tale. In some ways it was never there to begin with. For some reason the authors chose not to have us see the scene that started the ball rolling. Griffin’s minister told Griffin to step down from his position in the choir and leave the church. No gays allowed. Even as I write this I get a little nauseous just thinking about it. Even so, that is the scene I wanted to see. I wanted to see the pastoral cruelty that catapulted Griffin out of the country. It is the event that drives everything else in this musical. To leave it out is to empty the gas tank before the car has left the driveway. I’m not certain how everyone overlooked the fact that the still beating heart was left on the operating table while the body was moved, but they did. More’s the pity.
The ensuing story of a guy trying to do good because he was looking for his place in the world and in the Universe is interesting but not engaging. The music is all uplifting, and there is some glorious talent on the stage and in the orchestra, but the songs begin to sound the same after awhile – and does everyone in Uganda break into song at the drop of a laundered shirt? So what was intended as an epic tale of a boy turning into a man ends up being a series of bland incidents that, especially in the light of the refugee crisis going on in Europe, feels almost insignificant.
Invisible Thread By Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews; directed by Diane Paulus
WITH: Tyrone Davis Jr. (Ronny), Kristolyn Lloyd (Grace), Michael Luwoye (Jacob), Corey Mach (Ryan), Griffin Matthews (Griffin), Nicolette Robinson (Eden), Adeola Role (Joy), Jamar Williams (Ibrahim), and Melody Betts, Rodrick Covington, Kevin Curtis, Latrisa Harper, Jason Herbert, Aisha Jackson and Jamard Richardson (Ensemble).
Choreography by Sergio Trujillo; co-choreographer, Darrell Grand Moultrie; sets by Tom Pye; costumes by ESosa; lighting by Justin Townsend; sound by Jonathan Deans; projections by Peter Nigrini; artistic adviser, Dick Scanlan; story consultant, David Goldsmith; music supervisor, Remy Kurs; music director, Mr. Gould; orchestrations by Mr. Gould and Mr. Kurs; music coordinator, Howard Joines; associate director, Shira Milikowsky; production stage manager, Carolyn Boyd; associate artistic director, Christopher Burney; production manager, Jeff Wild; general manager, Seth Shepsle. Presented by Second Stage Theater, Carole Rothman, artistic director; Casey Reitz, executive director; in association with American Repertory Theater. Through Dec 27 at the Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, 212-246-4422, 2st.com. Running time: 2 hours.