theater review

Theater Reviews: Unmagical Realism in Runboyrun, In Old Age, and Sunday

From Runboyrun, at NYTW. Photo: Joan Marcus

In Chelsea, a quintet of unquiet millennials are grappling with present pains and fears for the future, while over in the East Village, three people with long lives behind them are confronting the haunting, buried fears and pains of the past. There’s certainly a wide experience gap between the characters of Jack Thorne’s Sunday, a wandering snapshot of fraught young contemporary New Yorkers, and those of runboyrun and In Old Age, the two plays by Mfoniso Udofia currently being presented as a double feature at New York Theatre Workshop. (The theater is revisiting Udofia’s Ufot Cycle—an in-progress, nine-play chronicle of the Nigerian-American Ufot family—after first presenting a pair of its plays, Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, in 2017.) Frustratingly, what all three shows have in common is a feeling of paddedness, along with a well-intentioned but half-baked search for a gestural vocabulary beyond straight realism, the results of which haven’t so much cracked open the stories as burdened them with predictable devices.

At roughly 90 minutes each, the plays aren’t actually long, but they feel like it. runboyrun and In Old Age are especially stretched: They have simple, almost identical structures—someone is increasingly plagued by a kind of ghost until, finally, that ghost is acknowledged, named, and exorcised—but the content Udofia lays across these frames, while spiritually heavy, quickly becomes dramatically thin and repetitive. She’s interested in patterns, rituals, and endurance, but it’s a tricky line to walk: How do you put your characters through a cycle of monotonous torment without doing the same to your audience? Scene to scene, thanks to the infusion of a garrulous new character, In Old Age has more spark to it, but it still fails to consolidate enough power over the course of its action for the oomph of its climax to land. Like runboyrun, it feels plodding, muffled, the sharpness of its intention dulled by its craft. It’s easy to see how high the stories’ stakes are, but much harder to feel them.

Set some years before In Old Age, runboyrun concerns the formative trauma of Disciple Ufot, husband of Abasiama Ufot (who is, herself, the hub of the Ufot Cycle wheel) and father of their three children. Back in the cycle’s first play, Sojourners, a more youthful Abasiama and Disciple found each other in 1970s Texas as students — both brilliant, both serious, both temporary immigrants from Nigeria whose intentions to take their American education home with them morphed into something else. Now, more than 30 years later in runboyrun, the couple are long married and rooted in Worcester, Massachusetts. But, as an agitated Disciple (Chiké Johnson) keeps insisting, “Something lives in here with us.” He comes home from his work as a professor at a community college (a job for which he’s immensely overqualified) in a flurry of nervous energy, throwing open windows and doors, singing hymns at the top of his lungs with a voice full of forced gladness, and sporadically lashing out at his wife. “I am releasing the spirits you cultivate in here,” he tells the clammed-up Abasiama (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), who spends most of the play buyring herself in a pile of blankets on the couch.

Disciple frets, freaks, and rages. Abasiama burrows and broods. Udofia isolates her characters — they don’t so much engage in dialogue as in ongoing monologues with interruptions. It’s a clear enough signal of their psychic disconnect, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it as an approach to character, but here it feels choppy and stagnant, like an engine trying to turn over without ever firing. And, Udofia never does something once or twice when she can do it on a continuous loop. In runboyrun and In Old Age, she keeps ideas going long after they’ve worn out their welcome. Disciple sings and messes with doors and windows for ages; a pair of spirits whom we quickly recognize as the childhood versions of Disciple and his older sister (Karl Green and Adrianna Mitchell) have versions of the same one-sided, coaxing dialogue every time we see them; and in In Old Age, Abasiama (still Chevannes) deals with the resentful, possessive ghost of her now dead husband in the form of a knocking under the stage floor that persists for almost the entire 90-minute play. David Van Tieghem’s sound design frequently layers this clatter with the insipid blare of the evangelical church choir Abasiama constantly has in the background on the TV. You can feel your brain turning into a brick as you try to listen for the play through the deadening noise.

The problem with these gestures—the knocking, the TV hymns, even the spirits themselves (Zenzi Williams and Adesola Osakalumi also appear as shades of Disciple’s mother and older brother)—isn’t simply that they lack variation; it’s that they lack subtlety. They’re obvious answers to the dramatic questions Udofia is asking, and so their shelf life is dangerously short. In both plays, we can see the bombs coming long before they’re dropped. In runboyrun, which harks back to the horrible things that happened to Disciple and his family during the Biafran War, those bombs are literal, and yet their impact isn’t what it should be. And in In Old Age—which finds a lonely, trapped old Abasiama ultimately shaken out of the past’s grip by an encounter with an elderly southern gentleman that her children have sent to redo her floors—the revelations are emotional, confessions of guilt and ritual purgings of old bonds and wounds, yet they don’t surprise. They fulfill, but there’s a dampened satisfaction to the arrival of a thing that’s long been recognized, that’s been delayed less by development than by reiteration.

The bright spots in the shows are the actors. Though sometimes a little effortful in their attempts to get through Udofia’s long stretches of unanswered text, the casts of each play are passionate and available, doing their best to find the emotional meat of the thing. As Azell Abernathy—the Virginian handyman who can’t help cheerfully (or sometimes not so cheerfully) taking the Lord’s name in vain and who gradually gets under Abasiama’s skin in In Old Age—Ron Canada brings a fresh, welcome breeze onto the stage. Azell’s got sins that will eventually out, but before that inevitable point the play—and, in this staging, the evening as a whole—desperately needs the lift of his loquacious charm. As the ghosts of Disciple’s mother and sister who need their story remembered in runboyrun, Williams and Mitchell are also doing sincere and focused work. When Disciple finally allows himself to articulate the past tragedy he’s long been suppressing, Williams’s brief bout of wild weeping, slumped against a door frame, is one of the show’s most affecting moments.

On the same spare set by Andrew Boyce—where the walls of the Ufots’ house in Worcester are only wooden framing and empty space, all borders between realms penetrable—directors Loretta Greco (runboyrun) and Awoye Timpo (In Old Age) do their best not to weigh the plays down. But the scripts have got their own baggage. Udofia’s project has to do with sifting through the weight of the past—one of the Ufot plays is even named after a literal piece of luggage—but the feeling of heaviness, of being stuck, has crept from her characters into her dramaturgy. It’s a perpetual risk on stage and, across town, Jack Thorne’s play is also falling prey to it. Confinement and inertia can be extraordinarily rich theatrical terrain, but how can a play’s characters spin their wheels without communicating their disease to the play itself?

This is the difficulty director Lee Sunday Evans is grappling with in Sunday, a play by the writer of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that abandons the magical for the very mundane. As with the Ufot cycle plays, Sunday has a strong, appealing ensemble that goes a long way in keeping us on board, but it lacks staying power. When it’s over, it practically evaporates. As a dip into the anxieties of today’s twenty-somethings—a generation at once galvanized and paralyzed by coming of age in a particularly terrifying world—it feels more like a collection of character sketches than a fully fleshed out dramatic work. Big issues, uncertain ambitions, racial and gender tensions, hip social psychology terms, and literary references are all tossed about without much ultimate sense of purpose: What is it really that fascinates Thorne about these kids, with their prodigious book-and-media-smarts and their severely underdeveloped emotional intelligence? As a portrait-of-a-generation play, Sunday may be tapping into certain accuracies, but it has yet to make something bigger of them, to say something of pitch and moment about what it’s showing us.

The play’s title refers to the day when five friends regularly gather for a book group. Also the last evening before the work week: a moment of freedom but also a bit of a downer, a lull before the slog of whatever comes next. Four—Alice (Ruby Frankel), Jill (Juliana Canfield), Milo (Zane Pais), and Keith (Christian Strange)—have known each other and been meeting to discuss books and drink cheap booze for some time. Tonight is Marie’s (Sadie Scott) first time with the group. She and Jill are roommates and are hosting the floating get-together. Their New York apartment is a moldy walk-up where sensitive, deeply muddled Marie broods and masturbates—“She had a theory that masturbation is vital brain rest,” Alice, who steps out of the scenes to serve as the play’s omniscient narrator, tells us—and where Jill no longer spends much time, since she’s dating the very wealthy Milo. Downstairs, there’s Bill (Maurice Jones), another sensitive, awkward soul. He’s an aspiring sci-fi writer with a dead-end life and a quiet crush on Marie, who’s thirteen years his junior. Though the bulk of Thorne’s story takes place during the book group (which progresses from screwdrivers and guacamole to weed to cocaine), the show is bracketed by two scenes between Marie and Bill, the second of which contains more heart, pathos, and intriguing ambivalence than the rest of the play put together.

It takes a long time to get there, though. First, we need to spend an evening with five prickly, aspiring friends (friends? Friends in that stereotypical plays-about-friends way, where people are frequently casually awful to each other) as they discuss—or fail to discuss—Anne Tyler, argue about toxic masculinity, and get wasted.

They also dance. Every so often, Masha Tsimring’s lights will go red, green, or blue; sound designer Lee Kinney will pipe in some heavy electronic beats; and Thorne’s characters will stop what they’re doing and throw themselves into athletic interludes (Evans did her own choreography). They pick each other up, run circles around the big tower of books that forms the symbolic center of Brett J. Banakis’s porous apartment set, and generally shimmy and throw down while staring out at the audience with neutral faces.

What do the spontaneous dance-a-thons mean? It seems to me that the answer is, not much more than you might think: These not-quite-kids-definitely-not-adults are balls of anxiety with limbs (well, maybe all except Milo, who pretty quickly reveals himself to be a textbook unreflecting douchebag), and every so often, those barely contained energies need a metaphorical breakout. Thorne doesn’t prescribe these exactly what we see on stage, but these dance interludes are Evans’s way of responding to moments in his script in which he’s asked for something strange to happen. “The angle of the room seems to change,” says one such direction; “The bookshelves are pulled down on both sides,” says another.

…And? What Thorne has written is a contemporary living-room play, and just because he knows that’s what he’s done and has gone on to add a little non-naturalistic pizzazz to the proceedings, it doesn’t change the material’s essential form. The fact that the cast busts a move every so often, or the fact that Alice can exit the action and speak directly to us, endowed with an author’s knowledge of the characters’ pasts and their futures — these things don’t add up dramatically. They’re quirks and flourishes rather than deeply embedded features of the play’s DNA that contribute to its greater meaning. Why specifically Alice as our narrator? What’s her relationship to the dances, which she never joins? What function do the dances serve other than to release (or sometimes, simply to embody) tension and to add a superficial sense of weirdness? The play skates by these questions. Perhaps in a certain sense true to its human subjects, it often feels like a Snapchat. It doesn’t delve, and it doesn’t stick.

The exception to Thorne’s overall contentment with skating the surface occurs late in the play, with the climactic late-night meeting between Marie and Bill. Jones navigates Bill’s creative strangeness, his good intentions, and his hangdog hunger for love beautifully. He even manages to transcend some of Thorne’s more tropey dialogue—like when he launches into a way-too-writerly list of all the things he likes about Marie—and to find genuine ache and connection in a potentially maudlin speech where he reveals the story of the novel he’s trying to write. As the scattered, snappish counterpoint to his contained, sorrowful but aspiring energy, Scott is refreshingly unafraid of digging into the ugliness of anxiety. She’s right on as she channels the self-defeating angst of a smart, half-shy-half-abrasive young woman who knows a little bit about how to be kind, but almost nothing about how to accept kindness. Her Marie becomes reckless and mean in her lack of trust. It’s sad and disturbing to watch her youthful despair, her frustration with a world that seems to offer nothing “original,” curdle into selfishness and, eventually, resignation.

That perennial cry, the lament for the death of novelty, is the chorus of Thorne’s play and the seed of what it would like to be grappling with. Sunday’s epigraph is a quotation from Abraham Lincoln—“Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all”—and Alice gives the most strident voice to the group’s shared fear: “We’re wry and ironic and dull,” she snarls. “In fact, worse than that, we’re insignificant. We’re the generation that plugged in and all we’ve done is get terrified at how vast the world is and how little we are. We’ve inherited shit, and our only response is to smell it and go ‘Ew.’ We’re children. Total children. Insignificant unoriginal children. That’s why we cling onto fiction — it’s the only original thing in our lives.”

Is Thorne indicting or mourning for millennials, or both? And even if we grant his generational observations, facile though some of them are, credence, what—to echo Alice’s own furious quandary—comes after the observation of a thing? Sunday itself feels too much like the conversations it dramatizes. It fizzles and fades, content to leave us with right where we started. It might touch on big things or stray into explosive territory, but, as for so many of its characters, the clarity of its ambition never coalesces. At the end, on stage and off, everyone simply packs up and heads for home.

Runboyrun and In Old Age are at New York Theatre Workshop through October 13.

Sunday is at the Atlantic Theater Company through October 13.

Unmagical Realism in Runboyrun, In Old Age, and Sunday