Theater review by Helen Shaw
We don’t get many ancient Greek tragedies on Broadway. Tastes have changed, and what we think of as dramatic has shifted into different patterns. So Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son seems like a play from another time. It basically consists of two-person arguments, interspersed with messenger speeches: Something has happened offstage, and we wait with the characters to find out what it is. The rhetoric is heavy-handed, the grief and fear are unremitting, the brushstrokes are asphalt-thick, and there’s no subtlety in either the characterizations or the narrative structure. In other words, Demos-Brown hasn’t written a particularly skillful modern drama. But when the fate of a nation was at stake, Euripides wrote plays like this too.
A panicking mother, Kendra (Kerry Washington), sits in the waiting room of a Miami police station while rain pours down outside. (Derek McLane’s set is almost all windows, looking out on an empty parking lot.) Kendra’s son, Jamal, has been involved in an incident, but the overnight officer, Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), claims that protocol prevents him from telling her anything till morning. Larkin leaves, then reenters, adding eyedropper beads of racism to the conversation each time: “Did he have any street names?” he asks, busily taking notes. Eventually, Kendra is joined by her estranged white husband, Scott (Steven Pasquale), and the two of them fight over things that have clearly been long since decided. As written by Demos-Brown, Scott is a callous blowhard: He calls Jamal’s driving around with black friends an “unforced error,” and he seems to have never thought about his biracial son’s interior life. Kendra tells him, apparently for the first time, about her nightmares. In fact, everything seems to be happening for the first time; Officer Larkin and his tart superior, Lieutenant Stokes (a scene-stealing Eugene Lee), seem to have no experience dealing with parents, the public or even other police officers.
But there’s method in the play’s thinness. The play doesn’t need to establish suspense because we all know what’s happened. We know it from the moment we see Kendra sitting in the waiting room; the whole script is written in her terrified face. American Son is meant to make us sit with this grim certainty, and it stragetically deploys the glamour of Kerry Washington to sugar the pill. For 90 minutes, she vibrates like a struck tuning fork; she represents the sound of tragedy, even when the other characters can’t hear it yet, and the rest of Kenny Leon’s production just tries to stand well back from her. (The lighting sometimes finds her and lets the others stay in shadow.) American Son is not well orchestrated or well made, but what Washington is doing is out of an older, more frightening ritual than the conventional Broadway play. She takes the rage, sorrow and guilt of our whole city-state and channels them into a single cry.
Booth Theater (Broadway). By Christopher Demos-Brown. Directed by Kenny Leon. With Kerry Washington. Steven Pasquale. Eugene Lee, Jeremy Jordan. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.