Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sometimes a great notion

Keith Mascoll, Johnny Lee Davenport and Jesse Hinson in The Whipping Man.

Sometimes one good idea - and a cast to put it over - is all a new play needs.

Or at least that's what I thought as the curtain fell on Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man at the New Rep (through next weekend only), which I was unsurprised to discover is its young author's first play.

For it had felt like a first play - a little disorganized and choppy, it basically swirls around a Big Idea that Lopez doesn't quite know how to develop. But he's got good dramatic instincts minute-to-minute, has an ear for dialogue, and so manages to haul his theme through 100 minutes of stage time, basically by hook or by crook, development be damned. To keep us watching, he generally depends on big, bold, irrelevant plot devices, like amputations or off-stage love affairs. But these days, honestly, real dramatic development feels more and more like a luxury, so I'll take what I can get.

It helps that Lopez's Big Idea is also a Good Idea, whose resonance carries his action over many a gap. The Whipping Man is set among the ruins of a Jewish plantation in the (just barely) post-bellum South; this is perhaps improbable, but hardly impossible (there was a slave-owning Jewish population of approximately 5,000 in the Confederacy, although very few Jews owned plantations).  The bigger stretch is that said plantation owners would have raised their slaves as Jews (there is only one recorded case of a converted Jewish slave). But that is the playwright's conceit, and we're willing to take it on faith, as it were, as we quickly realize how it opens up so many intriguing moral questions and quandaries.

For in that one brilliant stroke, Lopez limns the deep contradictions in the construction of slavehood, which (need I mention?) the Old Testament heartily endorses - at least for members of other tribes - and the New Testament never contradicts (no, the Son of God himself is silent on the question, and followers like Paul often admonished slaves to obey their masters). So technically there is no hypocrisy in raising one's slaves as Jews - or Christians. But that doesn't mean it isn't highly ironic. Particularly once those slaves have been freed by a secular authority which claims that a practice condoned by God for millennia is actually a moral horror.

Thus there is always a potently indignant question rippling just beneath the fraught surface of The Whipping Man, particularly in such scenes as the makeshift Seder celebrated by the newly freed Simon (Johnny Lee Davenport) and John (Keith Mascoll). Their reverence for a tradition which both included and excluded them is poignant in the extreme, particularly given that their crippled former owner (Jesse Hinson), has lost his faith in Judaism, but not in slavery itself.

If only the author had managed to pull together some form of action to more fully illuminate these conflicts! As it is, he does manage to conjure several stunning speeches and scenes.  The theatrical air all but throbs with irony, for instance, as Simon and John recall the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. And John's evocation of the sadistic "Whipping Man" (who put the fear of God into any slave who claimed Jewish freedoms for himself) is horrifically gripping.

The rest of the play, alas, veers toward roughly carpentered melodrama. But the cast at the New Rep, under the quietly persuasive direction of Benny Sato Ambush, is so eloquent that we forgive the clumsier passages, and exult in the more compelling. It would be pointless to attempt to rank Davenport's dignity against Hinson's intensity, or Mascoll's bitter wit - all are superb. But as the newcomer of the group, and its livest wire, Mascoll perhaps makes the biggest impression - big enough that you end up wishing Lopez had written him a fuller arc.  The physical production at the New Rep is likewise strong, but perhaps not as fully imagined as it might be - or perhaps the stage is simply a bit too bare; more detritus and devastation might better highlight the sense of chaos underpinning the action.  Such touches might have subtly supported the improvised plot as well; but if The Whipping Man fails to  impress as a well-made play, it nevertheless deeply impresses with its troubling moral vision.

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