A lack of depth sets Idris Goodwin’s new play out of tune.
As Prop Thtr’s Bars & Measures opens, Eric (Anthony Conway) arrives at a prison to pay a visit to his brother Bilal (Osiris Khepera)—a regular occurrence that takes the form of instrument-free jam sessions. They scat and spar and stay away from pretty much anything but music, watched over all the time by a prison guard (Abbas Salem). Why Bilal’s in prison, why the conversation seems fraught with jagged edges and things unsaid—that’s all what comes next.
Therein lies the play’s biggest problem: None of the backstory comes close to the sight of the two brothers talking music. Despite the title, playwright Idris Goodwin’s latest lacks much in the way of a melody, focusing on a pair of relationships—one between the two brothers, the other between Eric and a vocalist he’s accompanying (Vahishta Vafadari)—that fall oddly flat. Eric’s classical music reflects his personality, as does Bilal’s fiery jazz, a contrast that sits at the center of the central conflict. Bilal’s alleged involvement with a terrorist organization, Eric’s efforts to assert his brother’s innocence, and the revelations that arise out of both simply aren’t as compelling as they might be. In a scant 70 minutes, neither the characters nor their conflicts feel fully realized.
Music, we’re told, communicates things that speech cannot, but the play and director Tara Branham rarely let the music do the talking. When melody does take over, the music itself can range from acceptable to rather less, a problem made more significant by the play’s insistence that each brother is something of a prodigy. The set transforms the Prop’s back space into a nightclub, but the instruments go unplayed and the intimacy’s never quite realized. Branham and her cast build solid performances—Vafadari is particularly affecting—but none of it adds up to much. Like the facts surrounding Bilal’s case, there’s a lot that goes unanswered.
Prop Thtr. By Idris Goodwin. Directed by Tara Branham. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hrs 10mins; no intermission.
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