Tarrell Alvin McCraney has shown himself in recent work (WIG OUT, THE BROTHERS SIZE) to be one of the most interesting young American playwrights. He has a unique gift for poetic language and storytelling that allows him to depict aspects of African-American culture from urban drag queens to rural farmers. He is also one of the chief chroniclers of the gay African-American experience. Recently, McCraney has served as playwright-in-residnce to the Royal Shakespeare Company, a position that has taken him away from the African-American culture he knows best. His latest play, AMERICAN TRADE, was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and written particularly for members of the company that has been performing together for almost three years now -- a true repertory company and a change from recent years during which the Royal Shakespeare Company has not really been a company at all. Writing a play for a particular group of actors has its virtues and defects. You can write to the actors' strengths, but it may take you from your subject matter.
AMERICAN TRADE is certainly a disappointment for us admirers of McCraney's work. It is glib, aiming for laughs rather than any insights into character and situation. It is possible to do both. AMERICAN TRADE, in Jamie Lloyd's overloud production, is neither funny nor insightful.
Pharus is an African-American rent boy who runs to London to escape the clutches of a hip-hop star who wants to own him. For some reason, a dotty woman who runs a PR agency with her neurotic lesbian daughter wants Pharis to set up a modeling agency for her. Actually, Pharus's plan is for the modeling agency to be a cover for an odd band of male and female prostitutes he has assembled. AMERICAN TRADE is really a farce, but heavy-handed drector Jamie Lloyd doesn't seem to know how to direct farce which depends on bizarre situations being played as if they were completely normal. Farce takes a light touch. It shouldn't be shouted and amplified for a 300 seat theatre like the Hampstead. The play itself isn't much, but I blame Lloyd for the labored production. It was all "faster-louder" and, oddly, no sense of a consistent acting style from this company that has worked together for years. No one seemed to be acting "with" their fellow actors. And playwright, director and actors seemed to have little concern about developing characters the audience could care about at all. Even in farce, one has to feel some interest in the protagonist.
This was a really long 90 minutes. I looked at my watch halfwa through and couldn't believe only 45 minutes had passed.
AMERICAN TRADE. Hampstead Theatre. June 3, 2011.