Theater Review: City Dynamics Step Onstage, in Buzzer

Photo: Joan Marcus

What kingdoms were to Elizabethan drama, co-ops are today. In contemporary plays as diverse as Skylight, Belleville, and Between Riverside and Crazy, domestic real estate is not just a setting but an expression of tone and an embodiment of conflict. So it is with Tracey Scott Wilson’s Buzzer, which takes place in the kind of apartment many New Yorkers can only dream of: thick walls, new kitchen, washer-dryer, walk-in closets. It is also, however, in Brownsville, a tough Brooklyn neighborhood that has not jumped on the gentrification bandwagon. Despite a new coffee shop next door, and a gym threatened down the street, trouble comes with the deed.

Perhaps for Jackson, Wilson’s young black protagonist, that’s somehow a plus. Having grown up nearby and escaped — via Exeter, Harvard, and Harvard Law, of course — he seems to relish the idea of returning to the nabe as a way of keeping faith with his past but also, now that he’s a hotshot lawyer, living it down. His white girlfriend, Suzy, a teacher who could never afford the apartment on her own, is less convinced. It is she, after all, who has to face the vulgar and eventually hostile comments of the men who hang out on the street near the building. Add to this ménage Jackson’s white prep-school buddy Don, fresh out of rehab for the seventh or eighth time, and you have a dramatic setup for explosion, implosion, or both. 

As is always the case with Wilson’s plays, the issues are engaged at a human level; she does not write diatribes or position papers. Race is not a national conversation but an inner turmoil that occasionally spills over, in an argument about something else or in a split-second decision about opening the building’s door to a stranger. Gentrification itself is reframed from the unexpected angle of recovery, as if a neighborhood could be, like Don, on a 12-step program, complete with relapses. In any case, the fact that the main gentrifier here is black turns the usual view of the subject inside out: Can one gentrify one’s own home? Wilson does something similar by making Jackson such a prim straight arrow while making Don such a sympathetic fuck-up. (Don is basically dying to shed his white privilege.) These choices seem to multiply the action, creating a kind of double vision as you watch. You see not only what is happening but what you assumed would happen were this a less subtle play.

The staging, by Anne Kauffman, enhances that sensation by removing the usual theatrical traffic signals. Scenes cross-fade; characters exist in two places at once. The technical production, especially the superb sound design by Bray Poor, also expands the play’s implications outward. But the talented cast — Grantham Coleman as Jackson, Tessa Ferrer as Suzy, and Michael Stahl-David as Don — is largely stymied by a problem that arises from Wilson’s attempt to engage so many themes: The characters are incoherent. This came as a surprise to me, having enjoyed Wilson’s previous plays The Story (2003) and The Good Negro (2009) exactly because the characters, however irrational their acts, existed within a grid of inevitability. Of course, both those plays, also produced at the Public, were at least loosely based on actual people and events. (The Story worked a variation on the Janet Cooke scandal; The Good Negro considered the failings of a civil-rights leader very much like Martin Luther King Jr.) In Buzzer, though, you spend a lot of time in the audience saying to yourself things like Why doesn’t she just tell him? Or Why is he suddenly being such a jerk? Or, most damning, They would never do that. It’s a fatal flaw when a play’s central relationships invite so much doubt that they never truly get off the ground. But, then, if they were more realistic, there might not be a play.

Buzzer is at the Public Theater through April 26.