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Theatre in Review: La Race (Page 73/Working Theatre at McGinn/Cazale Theatre)

Naomi Lorrain. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez

Playwright Blue Beckford-Burrell has assembled a lively crowd for her Off Broadway debut. There's Maxine -- outspoken, thirtysomething, and Black -- who, having lost her job, gets dragooned into running for the City Council seat from Far Rockaway. There's her roommate/campaign manager AJ, who comes from money, enjoys bossing others, and whose sexual orientation is a closely guarded secret. On their team are Trey, a genial second-in-command with a knack for statistics and a past he refuses to acknowledge; Uriel, a winsome Haitian American barista estranged from her family and their judgmental Christian congregation; and volunteer coordinator Dejani, a rowdy, embattled single mother who, thanks to legal problems, is working on getting her kids back.

They're quite an entertaining bunch -- mouthy, opinionated, and comically observant New Yorkers all. If nothing else, La Race demonstrates Beckford-Burrell's knack for characterization and frequently hilarious dialogue. If I had to bet on her future success, I'd gladly lay down a C-note. For all its attractions, however, La Race has a nagging problem with construction: So bent is the playwright on giving everyone a turn in the spotlight that the narrative is packed with detours -- revelations from the past, visits to poetry slams, an episode of drunkenness, and (admittedly, often amusing) conversational sidebars about campaign job titles, the pretentious local coffee shop ("Le Sea Bean"), and the negative effects of the N-word. Even as Maxine's candidacy goes from long shot to possible front-runner, one often wonders exactly where the play is headed. You'll have plenty of time to do so; despite the title, La Race maintains a surprisingly poky pace.

The central journey follows Maxine as she confronts the trauma of her firing (the details of which are arguably held back for too long), uses the campaign to fend off depression, and learns to stand up to AJ, whose controlling ways take on an unhealthy intensity. Further fueling the women's conflict, Maxine starts seeing Grant, a sneakily charming white guy whose occupation is left unexplained until the blizzard of revelations that triggers the play's climax. Most of the time, however, the supporting characters occupy center stage, talking up a storm about all sorts of topics. Beckford-Burrell has plenty of things on her mind -- Black and female self-empowerment, embedded racism in the workplace, creeping gentrification, and mental health, for starters - and sometimes Maxine gets lost in the shuffle.

Also dogging the action are certain plausibility problems. Trey all but throws himself at AJ, despite his inability to get even a peck on the cheek from her. Why doesn't he notice what everyone else does? It's strange that Maxine gets so close to Grant without discovering his problematic (to her) occupation. And why, in 2017 (the year the play is set), has AJ so thoroughly erased her sexual identity? In the later scenes, when she drives everyone crazy, acting like a martinet and focusing on Grant with naked hostility, she comes perilously close to embodying the cliché of the frustrated closet case.

As constructed La Race is really a series of sprints; it starts out strong, then loses steam before reaching a climax rather too overloaded with bombshells. Still, the characters are an engaging bunch, their talent for comically hairsplitting conversations captured by a strong cast under the sure guidance of director Taylor Reynolds. Whether expressing her distaste for the digressive fiction of Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz, playing romantic rope-a-dope with Grant, or evading her therapist's probing insights, Naomi Lorrain is a feisty, funny Maxine. Shaunette Renée Wilson undercuts AJ's bullying qualities with her natural wit and common sense, plus a disarming smile. Christopher B. Portley has an easy charm as Trey; he also handles a lengthy monologue about his doomed college basketball career with assurance. Stacey Sargeant pulls off a nifty double act as blunt, streetwise Dejani and as Maxine's unruffled therapist. Vince Nappo's casually seductive manner explains why Maxine finds Grant so hard to resist. Nearly walking off with the show is the delightful Uriel of Auberth Bercy, whether explaining the rules of the road at Le Sea Bean, introducing herself to the group ("My favorite color is the rainbow, I think all colors are beautiful, I think it would be unfair to just choose one and say it's better than another"), or suddenly bringing a roomful of fractious people to heel with an eloquent speech on the importance of grace.

Arnulfo Maldonado's set, depicting Maxine and AJ's apartment, is a photorealistic marvel that at times offers a view of the Atlantic Ocean and converts, as needed, to the interior of Le Sea Bean. An especially eye-catching touch is the mural, spelling out "Welcome to Rockaway," on the proscenium. Except for an off-putting orange wash used in the therapy scenes, the lighting by Stacey Derosier and Bailey Costa works several effective atmospheric transformations. Sarafina Bush's costumes give each character a distinct profile, especially in the case of Sargeant's two roles. Germán Martínez's sound design includes preshow selections by Louie Tha Profit and Bobby J From Rockaway as well as such ambient effects as a subway announcement, murmuring voices, and Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror."

If La Race isn't a total winner, it racks up as a solid double for two theatre companies dedicated to nurturing new voices and airing the concerns of working-class Americans. It's an amusing and often enlightening calling card for the writer at the beginning of a promising career. In this election, Bleu Beckford-Burrell gets my vote. --David Barbour

(6 December 2022)

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