Heather Velazquez and Namir Smallwood in PIPELINE. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

By Stanford Friedman

With the audience watching from above and encircling the stage, the arena-style seating of the Mitzi E Newhouse Theater provides the perfect vantage point for the grudge matches, gut punches and emotional jabs of Dominique Morisseau’s poignant Pipeline. The action takes place not in a boxing ring, but in even tougher venues: an inner city school, a hospital waiting area and the living room of a single mother.  And though it is a shove that sets the play in motion, this is not a story about physical violence. Instead, it is a 10 scene chronicle of a woman who is emotionally on the ropes, and of the psychologically beat up family and friends in her corner.

Nya (Karen Pittman) is always just one cigarette away from losing it, and being a teacher at a tough, urban public high school is only one of her problems. She still has feelings for her uninterested ex-husband, Xavier (Morocco Omari), she shares some questionable history with one of the school’s security guards, Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), and her son, Omari (Namir Smallwood), has gotten himself suspended from the private high school upstate where Nya hoped he would excel. Omari’s loss of temper, in a socioeconomically heated classroom moment, not only jeopardizes his budding romance with his firebrand of a classmate, Jasmine (Heather Velazquez), it sets him on a collision course with each of his parents.

The smartphone might just be the 21st century playwright’s best friend and Ms. Morisseau makes ample use of them here. A video of Omari’s classroom outburst runs the risk of going viral, heightening the stakes for him; and Nya and Jasmine both have solo scenes where they leave lengthy voice mail messages for their men, providing the simplest of ways for the audience to learn exactly what’s on their minds and in their hearts. A more ambitious device employed by the playwright, with mixed results, is that of literary allusion. Nya spends a long classroom scene deconstructing Gwendolyn Brooks’ ubiquitous poem, We Real Cool. Despite a nifty special effect involving a chalkboard where words magically appear, the scene has all the excitement of, yes, a high school level intro to poetry seminar. Worse, Nya cannot get Brooks’ monosyllabic warnings out of her head. Ghostly recitations haunt her mind, and interrupt Director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s otherwise fine pacing.  Meanwhile, Omari’s troubles turn out to have been triggered by a class discussion of Richard Wright’s Native Son. In the play’s most powerful moment, Omari has it out with his father and weaves Wright’s anger into his own seething frustration.

The casting of Mr. Smallwood as Omari is a risk that mostly pays off. He brings sensitivity and intensity to each of his scenes, and is no less than stunning in that climactic confrontation with Xavier. But, being in his mid-30’s, there was not one moment where I actually believed he was a high school student. I totally bought in to the hilarious attitude and demeanor of Ms. Velazquez’s Jasmine though. It’s tough being lovelorn when, as Omari observes, you are “made of heat and pressure.” Ms. Pittman’s Nya was appropriately discombobulated and always about to stumble, providing counterpoint to Xavier and the solid wall of a man that is Morocco Omari. Tasha Lawrence owns each of her two electric supporting scenes as Laurie, Nya’s colleague and much suffering veteran of the teacher’s lounge. And Mr. Smith riddles his security guard with insecurities.

Matt Saunders’ set is perhaps too spotlessly clean, but is otherwise a dead-on recreation of a city school, with its ugly floor tiles reflecting the fluorescent lights from a drop panel ceiling. Meanwhile, Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes perfectly reflect the financial and emotional distance between Nya and Xavier. He earns extra credit for dressing the stagehands as school custodians.

Pipeline – By Dominique Morisseau; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz.

WITH: Tasha Lawrence (Laurie), Morocco Omari (Xavier), Karen Pittman (Nya), Namir Smallwood (Omari), Jaime Lincoln Smith (Dun) and Heather Velazquez (Jasmine).

Sets by Matt Saunders, Costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, Lighting by Yi Zhao, Sound by Justin Ellington, Projections by Hannah Wasileski; Charles M. Turner III, Stage Manager. Lincoln Center Theater at The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street, 212-239-6200, http://www.lct.org/shows/pipeline/. Through Sunday, August 27. Running time: 90 minutes.