Urban rap music is blaring as one enters Martinson Hall of the Public Theater, a signal that we're going to witness something hard-hitting, contemporary and perhaps a bit dangerous (or has the danger gone out of rap?). We soon see that Tracey Scott Wilson's BUZZER is about people surrounded by, and perhaps threatened by, the culture that rap represents. The play takes place in a transitional neighborhood, one slowly going through gentrification, a process that the original inhabitants resent. The real estate agent tells a prospective buyer that a gay couple has moved in -- a sure sign of gentrification and trendiness. Jackson (Grantham Coleman), who has just bought a large, beautifully renovated apartment, was born and raised in this neighborhood, but doesn't feel a part of it. Jackson worked hard in school, got scholarships to Exeter and Ive League universities and law schools, and is now a successful lawyer. He claims that he has moved back into his old neighborhood so he can do some good for the people there, but is he really trying to prove to himself of the people there that he Is not like them? Suzy, his white girlfriend (Tessa Ferrer), an outspoken teacher, is constantly menaced by a group of neighborhood men. Their language contains the hateful misogyny that is an element of urban rap. If there's menace outside, there's also trouble inside the apartment, thanks to the arrival of Don, Jackson's long-time best friend. Don comes from a wealthy, privileged background, but is the family blacksheep with a history of addiction. Don's family helped Jackson and his mother as Jackson was growing up. Don hates his father, but Jackson sees him as a father figure and something of a role model. The weak Don needs the stronger self-controlled Jackson, but it isn't clear why Jackson lets Don move in. Is it out of kindness or a sense of superiority to the rich white man? His feelings toward Don are ambivalent at best. Don remembers when the neighborhood was a warren of crack houses -- when addicts died in this very apartment. The white addict is also a fixture in this community. Don keeps insisting on truthful relations between him, Jackson and Suzy, but the lies, secrets and silences build up and a sense of war between the inhabitants of the apartment and the community outside build up.
I seem to be seeing a lot of plays that center on emotionally constipated, repressed Black men in relationships with emotionally open white women. BUZZER, THE MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX and PLACEBO, all explore this territory. The message seems to be that as Black men enter the middle-class, they seal off their emotions and particularly their anger. It's there under the surface, but the men are no longer capable of expressing it and it sours their relationships. These men have entered white-dominated worlds. Has the Obama presidency inspired this group of dramas? Yet the plays are reticent about dealing with issues of race within these biracial relationships. What does Jackson feel about the hostile Black men outside? There's something frustrating about BUZZER. The play could tread on dangerous territory, but it seems to tiptoe around it. I would have liked it to seem less middle-class. Yes, simmering emotions turn violent, but the violence seems abstract, cool. Director Anne Kauffman is partly responsible for this. The set by Laura Jellinek is interesting but cool. Two thirds of the stage is bare with only a sofa and a lamp, the other third contains an abstract version of a beautifully renovated apartment. I see what the set is trying to say -- that these people don't really inhabit the space they live in, that this somewhat fake space in no way defines them -- but it distances us some from the conflicts. Once in a while the black back wall opens and we find ourselves in the entrance hall, the real border between the gentrified world and the hostile world outside.
Grantham Coleman captures the anger and resentment under Jackson's controlled facade. Michael Stahl-David is superb as rich, feckless, needy but subtly hostile Don. Tessa Ferrer's Suzy seemed a bit generic. She's a good actress, but not a very individual one. Stahl-David dominates the play because he's an interesting, quirky actor.
A good play, but not a great one. Wilson is another playwright who has had success writing for television. There's a flatness in the writing where one needed sharpness, theatrical poetry. She writes about dangerous subjects without making us feel the danger.
BUZZER. Public Theater. April 7, 2015.