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Theatre in Review: Pass Over (August Wilson Theatre)

Namir Smallwood, Jon Michael Hill. Photo: Joan Marcus

"Kill me now." These words, employed so often in real life to humorously express frustration, take on an unsettling urgency in Pass Over. Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu's play -- which instantly enters Broadway history as the first new production since the COVID-19 lockdown -- reframes Waiting for Godot as the existential dilemma of two young Black men in an urban hostile environment. It is also a modern Book of Exodus: Moses and Kitch, Nwandu's protagonists, dwell in the glare of a streetlight on a ghetto block, waiting for something as elusive as Samuel Beckett's unseen title character, hoping to "pass over" to a promised land they can only imagine. The difference is that Godot's Vladimir and Estragon don't have to worry that, at any second, they might lose their lives.

Whether or not Pass Over is well-served in its Broadway incarnation is debatable, but Danya Taymor's production offers two stunning performances. For at least the first third, there's considerable pleasure in watching these two characters, confined to a small strip of concrete, fight the surrounding darkness with plentiful reserves of streetwise wit.

Jon Michael Hill's Moses is an amusingly opinionated cock of the walk -- pacing restlessly, dropping to the ground for some push-ups, instantly ready to put on a new character or try out a comic bit: Watch him painstakingly informing his friend that caviar, that ultimate symbol of luxury, is nothing but fish eggs. He's also an expert at cracking wise; told to imagine a future filled with milk and honey, he dryly comments, "My ass might be lactose-intolerant." Underneath the horseplay, however, lurks something much bleaker, an awareness that certain realities are too ugly to be laughed away: His "paradise top ten," a list of creature comforts he expects in the next world, include pinto beans and collard greens, a drawerful of white socks, and the presence of his late mother and brothers. One of the production's most striking images features him sitting, hunched over, looking exhausted and warily eyeballing the middle distance for fresh troubles.

Namir Smallwood's Kitch is an ideal partner in these bouts of verbal table tennis, batting back rapid-fire lines of dialogue without breaking a sweat. Eminently wised up, scanning the world with squint-eyed skepticism, he cannily impersonates an elderly white woman ordering up lobster rolls from room service and artfully uses his hands to approximate the expansive dimensions of his ideal woman. With him, too, the fun has its limits, however: In one of the play's most chilling moments, he authoritatively delivers a roll call of dead friends and family.

That Moses and Kitch are bursting with life is underscored when, from time to time, the action abruptly halts, and, caught in a narrow line of white sidelight, they stand frozen in terror, menaced by unseen police. The contrast couldn't be starker: In these supremely tense moments, Pass Over finds a powerfully theatrical way of crystallizing the noxious uncertainty that haunts Moses and Kitch; the simple business of walking down a street can be a life-or-death proposition, an exercise in stomach-churning fear.

That Nwandu has imagined two lively, garrulous, edgy-with-energy characters is beyond question; whether the August Wilson Theatre, a house for big musicals, is the ideal venue for them is another matter altogether. Like Waiting for Godot, Pass Over is plotless, concerned with states of mind rather than action, and filled with random encounters; its success depends on establishing a solid intimacy between actors and audience. This was undeniably achieved in the play's 2018 New York premiere at Lincoln Center's tiny Claire Tow Theater; in the Wilson, which has roughly eleven times the seating capacity, the actors must work much harder for diminished returns.

This is especially so when Gabriel Ebert shows up as Mister, a figure of prissy, ulterior white liberalism (and, possibly, a swishy gay stereotype). Bearing a tiny picnic basket -- out of which, in a nifty bit of staging, he produces a Lucullan feast -- Mister woos Moses and Kitch with food and conversation, his eminently fair and friendly manner occasionally hinting at a lurking racism. (Among other things, his real first name, not to be revealed here, is a conversation stopper.) Mister is an artfully stylized figure -- he talks like the host of a children's television show, all golly gees -- and Ebert gives him a brittle veneer that keeps one on edge, especially in an awkward, passive-aggressive conversation about the proper use of the N-word.

Effective as this sequence is, however, it feels overextended, especially coming after lengthy passages of Moses and Kitch killing time with jokes and put-ons. By this point, a slight sense of drift asserts itself, and Pass Over, an episodic, small-scale piece, begins to feel a bit lost in its current digs.

Ebert returns as Ossifer, a violence-prone cop who figures in the play's startling but not entirely satisfying new ending. Previous productions of Pass Over have concluded tragically but Nwandu, who has been vocal about wanting to provide hope in dark times, has overhauled the final scene. Fair enough, but the new finale -- which involves a massive reversal of fortune, some bloody special effects, and a giant scenic reveal -- feels inorganic, an abrupt change of mind for which a solid foundation has not been provided. Nwandu has, probably correctly, intuited what audiences want, and so she gives it to them, adding at the last moment, a sinister note that doesn't fully convince. It is really possible to reverse a play's intention without damaging its impact?

If Taymor handles the early sequences with assurance, her control loosens as the action goes spinning in new and unexpected directions. But she has a solid design team at her disposal: Wilson Chin's desolate streetside set is effectively lit by Marcus Doshi using a limited palette and strongly articulated beam angles. (The big scenic transformation, if dramatically dubious, is nonetheless impressive.) Sarafina Bush's costumes highlight the stylized nature of the proceedings -- Mister dresses like a citizen of Schmigadoon -- and Justin Ellington's sound design provides many effective notes of menace.

It will be interesting to see which version of Pass Over prevails in future productions -- of which, I suspect, there will be many; Nwandu is too talented and her is play too much of the moment not to have an extended future life. (It can also be produced inexpensively, which is not a small consideration as theatres return from lockdown.) If you haven't seen the earlier version(s), the above concerns may not matter. But the road to Broadway has been a bumpy one; I wonder if the play's ideal realization may not yet be in the future. --David Barbour

(13 September 2021)

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