Entertainment » Theatre

Identity Crisis

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Nov 24, 2014
'Identity Crisis' continues through Dec. 7 at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury
'Identity Crisis' continues through Dec. 7 at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury  (Source:Clennon King/AugustineMonica Films)

Peter Snoad's new play "Identity Crisis" does what plays of this sort ought to do, and does it with flair: It tackles thorny social questions and disarms them not only with humor, but with precise and devastating wit. This is both an "issues" play and a satire, but it's more than that, too, a farce with a solidly constructed narrative core and some delectable meat on those bones.

The play's central hook, as it were, is a high-concept bit of fantasy that's so obvious - and yet not - and so charged that it effortlessly energizes the material. Alan Guthrie (David Josef Hansen) is a slacker on the verge of getting his life together; everything hinges on his impending marriage to Marcia (Sochi Fried), who is not just Alan's anchor in life but also, by way of her well-connected father, Alan's access to the kind of opportunity that could turn everything in his life around, allowing him to make something of himself. Not incidentally, his future father-in-law's business acumen and social station promise to lift Alan out of economically risky waters and onto the ever-shrinking ice shelf of monied privilege. (This point is driven home when it turns out that a game of golf is the crux around which quite a lot of plot and comedy revolve.)

But a sudden twist on the (literal) eve of their wedding throws everything into doubt and disarray: When Frankie (Richard Caines), the old college roommate who is meant to serve as Alan's best man, arrives, he's... well, not quite his old self. To put it plainly, Frankie is a black man. This is news, because last time Alan saw Frankie, he was white.

That's not the half of it. As it turns out, there's an epidemic of sorts sweeping the country; the mainstream news media won't touch it, and so most people have no idea, but for several years affluent whites have mysteriously been transforming into blacks. It's a process, Frankie explains, that can happen in as little time as two hours (though two weeks is the more usual time frame). What's more, by peering at Alan's eyes and taking note of black specks, Frankie diagnoses Alan as on the verge of undergoing the change himself.

This is a bombshell that could shred Alan's life, because Marcia's father - on whom so many of Alan's professional prospects rests - is something of a racist, enough so that he would never allow his daughter to marry a black man. One might take issue with this - Marcia is an adult, and, as she's written and played, she's competent and more than able to stand up for herself and forge her own way in life; it's not a stretch to imagine that she'd choose the love of her life over a controlling and bigoted father. But Fried plays Marcia as just overwhelmed enough (by this new development, and by the wedding in general) that she sells it.

More problematic is the additional twist of how Alan determines to solve the problem. Rather than risk turning into a black man even as he's walking Marcia down the aisle, Alan presses his identical twin brother, David, to impersonate him at the wedding. That way, no matter when the transformation takes place, the revelation of Alan as a black man will take place after the wedding. If Fried has to sell us the idea of a smart, self-reliant woman like Marcia being buffaloed by her overbearing daddy, Hansen has the task of convincing us he's two different people... with the additional wrinkle that David, unlike Alan, is gay.

Hansen plays the gay role a little broadly, but keeps the lid on it enough that the part doesn't lose credibility. He handles some quick-change duties without obvious effort (though one effect - a few lines of pre-recorded dialogue supposedly uttered from another room - is a little clunky), and there's no problem telling Alan from David: They are very different characters. (Hansen's best bit legerdemain, in fact, is convincing us that David is so different from Alan that it's an effort to try to resemble him in affect as well as in appearance.)

As Frankie, Cains has similar challenges. He's tasked with portraying a black man who used to be white, and has unsettling perspectives on both sides of the race coin. "Man," he exclaims at one point, "white people are exhausting." That's only something he's discovered once he stopped being a white guy himself. Something else that's become clear to him: White men spend an awful lot of time trying to be black in everything but skin tone. The suggestion is that this wave of transformation is just as likely to result from some form of wish fulfillment as it is karmic payback.

The theme of identity is, inevitably, going to be central to a play of this sort, and that Snoad has worked so many variations on the theme into a single, coherent theatrical work is astounding. (There's even a very funny, if throwaway, moment identifying a shocked Marcia as not being as Jewish as she'd always assumed she was.) The play's fourth character, Sheree - Marcia's mother, played by Silvia Silverstein - has the fuzziest conflict of identity, and the least compelling. She's a middle-aged woman and devoted wife, while at the same time being a spitfire and a flirt who makes no secret of how sexually attracted she is to Frankie. The role falls just short of making Sheree a complete, cogent character, such that these contradictions believably inhabit the same individual, and Silverstein doesn't seem to have enough to work with to bridge that gap on her own. (She does, however, have an essential speech about love and commitment that she delivers to Marcia just as Marcia's spirits begin to flag.)

Superficially, some of the elements of this play seem like groaners; identical twins seem too on the nose for a play about identities in flux and in confusion, and the fact that Frankie's surname is White is, likewise, a bit much. But here's the thing: A fantasy - like a farce - relies on outsized, brightly hued elements. They allow us something to hold fast to while the material takes us into strange, sometimes bizarre or even outré terrain. Taken as a whole, and with this cast (and zippy, light-on-its-feet direction by Jackie Davis), "Identity Crisis" is a crisis only to the characters. For the audience, it's a tart, fresh, smart take on things that have grown toxic in the culture at large. If laughter is the best medicine, our healing around issues of race and social privilege begins here.

"Identity Crisis" continues through December 7 at Hibernian Hall, 184 Dudley Street in Roxbury. For tickets and more information, please visit www.hibernianhall.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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