By Stanford Friedman
Mothers of a certain age are experiencing a memorable winter of discontent this Off-Broadway season. In Marjorie Prime, Marjorie dies and is replaced by a hologram full of memories in order to comfort her daughter. In Buried Child, the memory of a mother’s unmentionable act with her son tears her family asunder. And now, in Colman Domingo’s sprawling, character driven dramedy, Dot, a mother’s advancing dementia drives her children to drink, scream and eat chitlins.
Domingo is trying to do with Philadelphia what August Wilson did with Pittsburgh, create a spiritual homeland for a series of family inspired plays. Dot is his third work in this setting, after a solo show (A Boy and His Soul), and Wild with Happy, which premiered at the Public Theater in 2012. The many characters in Dot seem like people he might have known while growing up in West Philly, which is both good news and bad. It’s a colorful bunch to be sure, but the play wanders, and often resorts to sit-com level interactions to move itself along. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it is rarely as well plotted.
We first find the 65-year-old Dotty (Marjorie Johnson) going a bit dotty in her kitchen a few days before Christmas, causing her 45-year-old daughter, Shelly (Sharon Washington), to engage in some 10 a.m. day drinking. Soon, they are joined by Jackie (Finnerty Steeves), a one-time neighbor who has returned to the hood with some serious baggage. Jackie often appears to have ambled in from some other play entirely, and in this opening scene the three women all seem in a rush to get her back there. Director Susan Stroman, no stranger to frantic pacing, has the actors delivering their lines at full tilt as if competing to see who can be the quickest to finish. As a result, the comic timing suffers and our sympathy for Dotty is blunted.
Other family members turn up, bringing their own selfish problems in tow. There’s Shelly’s brother Donnie (a strong and sensitive Stephen Conrad Moore) and his husband Adam (a pouty Colin Hanlon). They’re having romantic issues. And there is their sister Averie (a brash Libya V. Pugh), the YouTube star who can’t stop performing. Over a tough Christmas Eve they all hash out how to cope with their declining mom. Despite Shelly being structurally set up as the fall gal, it is poor Donnie who ends up being the more brutally punished. In the evening’s most powerful scene, he learns what it’s like to get old, via a family game that spins out of control. A harsh and deafening silence fills scenic designer Allen Moyer’s beautiful set, as Dotty, in a moment of clarity, scolds, “You see.”
Domingo also seems to be making a statement about stereotypes and expectations, though it is hard to get a handle on exactly what that statement is. Shelly and Donnie are both professionals, a lawyer and a musicologist. Shelly’s vodka of choice is watermelon flavored, while Donnie goes off his diet with a plate of fried chicken. Shelly is a single mother intentionally, having never informed the father. Donnie’s husband is white, but seems more at home than anybody. Meanwhile Averie – or Sl(averie), as the playwright first introduces her in the script – embraces her “slave heritage,” insisting on adding chitlins to the Christmas menu. Frankly, I was too distracted trying to figure out the statement behind Fidel (Michael Rosen), Dotty’s illegal caregiver from, of all places, Kazahkstan.
Dot – By Colman Domingo; Directed by Susan Stroman.
WITH: Colin Hanlon (Adam), Marjorie Johnson (Dotty), Stephen Conrad Moore (Donnie), Libya V. Pugh (Averie), Michael Rosen (Fidel), Finnerty Steeves (Jackie) and Sharon Washington (Shelly).
Set design by Allen Moyer; Costume design by Kara Harmon; Lighting design by Ben Stanton; Sound design by Tom Morse; Hair and makeup design by Dave Bova; Roy Harris, Production Stage Manager. At the Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., VineyardTheatre.org, (212) 353-0303. Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.