Theater review by Naveen Kumar
Set behind the employees-only doors at a big-box store, Paris is often funny in the style of a workplace sitcom. But Eboni Booth’s remarkable new play also casts the discomfiting shadows of a low-key social and psychological thriller. Both its humor and its quiet horrors are connected to the social realities of race and the disintegration of a viable working class. Booth’s deft and delicate hand cuts with slow deliberation until it reaches the bone.
The year is 1995, and Paris is a small town in Vermont, where minimum-wage gigs start at $5 an hour. When the fluorescent lights come up on the break room at Berry’s—the ingeniously compact set is by David Zinn—Emmie (Jules Latimer, in a terrific Off Broadway debut) is filling out a job application while a corporate video plays on an overhead TV. She has a nasty gash on her cheek and gauze to catch the blood in her mouth; her claim to have slipped on ice seems suspect. She’s clearly at the end of her rope when Gar (Eddie K. Robinson), the store’s manager, hires her without much fuss.
A hard-ass one minute and sweet as checkout-line candy the next, Gar is no favorite among his staff, which includes an aspiring Eminem type with a skater-boy bearing (Christopher Dylan White), a zero-bullshit mother of four (Danielle Skraastad) and a keeper-of-peace with a flask in her purse (Ann McDonough). As Christmas and New Year’s roll by, we come to see these folks as a kind of family. But it’s a closeness born of need, not love: When Gar’s fate is suddenly up in the air, Emmie is the only one on high alert. Maybe that’s because Gar, like Emmie, is black—which may be why he hired her so quickly when others wouldn’t, and might also explain why he can’t afford to be friendly.
It is tempting to see Paris as a microcosm, but Booth’s characters, as embodied by a top-notch cast, are too real and specific to be simplified. There’s an easy rhythm to director Knud Adams’s subtly brilliant production that cloaks Paris in a guise of lightness. But the truth lies in wait like a box cutter in the dark.
Atlantic Stage 2 (Off Broadway). By Eboni Booth. Directed by Knud Adams. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.