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Theatre in Review: Invisible Thread (Second Stage)

Griffin Matthews, Michael Luwoye. Photo: Joan Marcus

You don't need to see Hamilton to know that ambition and invention have returned to the musical theatre. There was a time, not so long ago, when it looked like we would be forever condemned to a steady diet of songbook shows, movie retreads, and revivals, revivals, revivals. Suddenly, however, our writers and composers are excited about the form and its possibilities, and they have producers who are willing to take chances on them. With greater or lesser degrees of success, shows like Fun Home, First Daughter Suite, and Allegiance push up against the boundaries of what is acceptable in musicals when -- that is, when they're not -- exploring new ways of telling stories. The latest of them, Invisible Thread, isn't the most successful; in fact, it has some pretty big issues that cry out to be addressed. But it dares to take on a difficult, complex subject, and it has an enormous heart -- qualities that money can't buy.

Based on the experiences of the coauthors Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, the show introduces us to Griffin, a sprightly, energetic, black New York actor. When, following the advice of Ryan, his white, Jewish boyfriend -- an aspiring musical theatre writer -- Griffin comes out to his pastor, he suddenly finds himself persona non grata in his church choir. ("Imagine a gay in the tenor section," he notes, bitterly). Thrown for a loop by this unexpected shunning, he rashly volunteers to spend several weeks in Uganda, helping to build a school for a local minister named Pastor Jim. Griffin's decision also drives a small, but real, wedge between him and Ryan, who wasn't consulted.

The work is hard, the heat unrelenting, and there is a distinct lack of joy in Pastor Jim's compound, and, before long, Griffin falls under the spell of four teenagers -- Ronny, Grace, Eden, and Ibrahim -- who are not welcome there. All are AIDS orphans and have been left to fend for themselves; they are hungry for education. Griffin throws over his work on the school to hold daily lessons in a shack located in the nearby hills. They are soon joined by Jacob, a young man from the compound, to whom Griffin is drawn -- and who may or may not be gay.

As satisfying as these lessons are, it soon becomes clear that, given his limited time, Griffin cannot provide the youths with any real assistance. Complicating the enterprise is the realization that they are indoctrinated in the prejudices of their time and place, and therefore are unafraid to speak in the ugliest possible terms about homosexuals. Then Ryan, boxed in by career frustrations and inspired by Griffin's letters, shows up in Uganda, eager to help. When someone burns down the schoolhouse, Griffin and Ryan, fearing that they have been targeted by Pastor Jim, take all five youths to safety, placing them in a private school a couple of hours away. But this is just the beginning of Griffin and Ryan's problems; back in New York, they struggle to raise the money to keep their charges in school. When another crisis erupts, they must return to Uganda, in part to allow Griffin to untie the psychological knot that is his unresolved connection to Jacob.

In its best moments, Invisible Thread is remarkably clear-eyed about the cultural clashes that separate its characters. Griffin's attraction to Jacob is teasingly ambiguous, leaving us speculating about the latter's motives: Is he leading Griffin on? Is he a complete innocent in sexual matters? Or, is he driven by a mix of reasons both desperate and a little bit cynical? Keeping a cold eye on them is Joy, Jacob's sister, who works for Pastor Jim even if she has no illusions about his character. In one of her most distinctive passages, she demonstrates for Griffin the repertory of happy and sad faces with which she bamboozles dilettante charity workers (like, for example, him) into believing she cares about them. We also see how the burden of raising the cash to care for five young people on another continent has a devastating effect on Griffin and Ryan's relationship. "It's been a month," Ryan says, noting how they have become too exhausted to make love. "We have five kids. I hear it's normal," cracks Griffin, sourly. The score, by Matthews and Gould, favors extended sequences in which music is woven in and around dialogue; if there aren't too many memorable stand-alone numbers, the songs, written in a pop idiom crossed with African sounds that suits the characters well, drive the action admirably. One standout is the title tune, a song of psychological bonding that is sung, in different contexts, between Griffin and Ryan, and between Griffin and Jacob.

Still, the opening section of Invisible Thread feels rushed and too sketchily set up. Much more could be made of Griffin's conflict with his church congregation, considering the tremendous impact it has on him. It's odd that, given his enormous role in the story, we never meet the corrupt Pastor Jim. It almost seems as if the authors are directly avoiding any too-harsh criticism of Christianity for fear of being offensive. Also, Griffin's decision to go to Uganda comes off as bizarre and arbitrary; it is also accompanied by a handful of not-very-funny fish-out-of-water jokes about tenors and theatre people.

Still, Diane Paulus' direction gets powerful, full-throated performances from Matthews, playing a version of himself; Corey Mach, stalwart as Ryan; Michael Lowoye as Jacob, especially in the number "Weeds," an account of his desolate childhood; and Adeola Role, taut and skeptical as Joy. As Ronny, Grace, Eden, and Ibrahim, Tyrone Davis, Jr., Kristolyn Lloyd, Nicolette Robinson, and Jamar Williams make a totally winning quartet. The choreography, by Sergio Trujillo and Darrell Grand Moultrie, uses a vocabulary of African dance styles to keep the play in constant motion.

The production makes a strong impression with Tom Pye's setting, which uses multiple levels and a deck of red African dirt to suggest a variety locations; it also makes room for the ten-member band. The set includes a pair of screens on which Peter Nigrini unleashes a cascade of images, ranging from New York apartments to African hills to kente cloth patterns. Justin Townsend's lighting infuses the stage with sumptuously saturated colors. ESosa's costumes draw a strong contrast between characters of two continents. Jonathan Deans' sound design is vibrant without being overbearing.

The deeply moving finale reveals that Griffin and Ryan, for all their naiveté and mistakes, have a profound effect on the lives of these young Africans. (In real life, Matthews and Gould have created a nonprofit, the Uganda Project, which is dedicated to improving the lives of the country's AIDS orphans.) As the final tableau makes clear, the lives of these two Americans are deeply intertwined with the life of Africa; this is one invisible thread that no one wants to break. -- David Barbour

(3 December 2015)

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