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Theatre in Review: The Great Novel (New Light Theater Project/The Flea Theater)

Michael Aguirre, Tabatha Gayle, MaryKathryn Kopp . Photo: Hunter Canning.

Some families have a servant problem. Bertha, the heroine of Amina Henry's play, is a servant with an employer problem: The Brennan family, for whom she works as a housekeeper/governess/ chief cook and bottlewasher, is a thoroughgoing bunch of selfish idlers. Dick, a widower who is forever coming or going from work, won't let Bertha get a word in edgewise, cutting her off with the admonition "Go team!" Saul, Dick's son, is an addict who routinely robs his father for drug money. Charlotte, the elder daughter, is, at seventeen, a monster of selfishness, idly rifling through magazines and dismissing anything that doesn't have to do with her as "provincial." Anne, her thirteen-year-old sister, is prone to depression and a mysterious hacking cough.

Despite her best efforts, Bertha can't escape working for the Brennans, which she sees as a necessary precondition to fulfilling her dream of writing a novel; what with her days (and nights) spent riding herd on this navel-gazing crew, she hasn't had time to put down a word. Nor can she decide on her subject matter, a problem aggravated by her late Granny, a Jamaican native, who appears from the astral plane to deliver vividly described passages of island life that Bertha would rather not hear. "No one wants to read about mangos or ackee or summer storms, Granny," she says. "They want to read about England in the wintertime."

In fact, Bertha thinks she might write a novel about the Brennans; trouble is, they don't make for very good copy. This is a problem that she shares with Henry: The Great Novel reveals itself in the first few minutes -- a black servant, struggling to find her voice as an artist, is used and patronized by her privileged white employers -- without having anything additional to say; having established this situation, the playwright seemingly feels no need to press the point -- nor is she interested in providing any meaningful dramatic action. What's left is a scattered series of comic bits joined to some colorful descriptive writing about the Caribbean that wanders to a unmotivated and abrupt conclusion.

Henry's sly sense of humor keeps things lively, at least in the early passages. Bertha, struggling to find an opening line for her novel, shuttles through some of the greatest hits of Herman Melville and Emily Brontë. Granny, irritated by Bertha's attempts at sending her away, replies stubbornly, "I'm a ghost. I go where I please." Many of the best bits coalesce around the blood-curdling Charlotte, who treats everyone around her as toys in her personal dollhouse: "Mother died of consumption, like Mimi in Crime and Punishment," she moons, laying bare both her lack of feeling and her illiteracy. "I thought she died of anorexia," protests Anne. "She did," Charlotte replies. "Consumption and anorexia are the same thing."

A little bit of this goes a long way, however; most of The Great Novel consists of Charlotte and her siblings behaving cluelessly as Bertha stews about her future and Granny delivers loads of unwanted advice -- among other things, she urges Bertha to steal the enormous Fabergé egg on display in the living room. Even when this expensive object disappears, nothing much seems to happen; you'd think that at least someone would call the police, but instead everyone continues with their lazy, sniping ways. "I think this family is entirely too dramatic sometimes," Bertha comments; it may be the only untrue thing she says.

The play's biggest problem is that Bertha is defined only by her ambivalence; her literary ambition is so vaguely articulated that it never feels compelling or real. As a metaphor for claiming one's identity, it is a pretty tired idea, especially since she has no deeply felt need to write about any specific subject. As Virginia Woolf noted, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." Good advice, but you need an idea, too.

Sarah Norris' direction doesn't add any urgency to the proceedings, but her cast seizes such opportunities as they are given. Nikki E. Walker gives Bertha more of an inner life than the script seems to suggest, and Madeline McCray is a strong, scene-stealing presence as Granny. Most of the fun is supplied by MaryKathryn Kopp as the eye-glazing narcissist Charlotte and Oghenero Gbaje as Potter, her genial British beau, who is bent on quietly escaping her clutches. Potter is an orphan, a fact that allows Charlotte to speculate, "Maybe your real mother was a kindly prostitute, or a little girl who couldn't bear the shame of raising a child out of wedlock in her provincial, religious town." The look of panic in Gbaje's eyes, combined with a smile that freezes into a grimace, when faced with such remarks, is the funniest thing in the show.

It's not easy to suggest decadent wealth on a budget, but An-lin Dauber's set does the job nicely, with some cannily chosen pieces of gilded French provincial furniture and, behind the upstage windows, a series of tropical plants that recall the Caribbean; she also provides projections that announces the number and title of each of the play's chapters. Christina Tang's lighting shifts between chilly white washes for the Brennans and a more colorful, tropical palette when Granny takes the stage. Mari Taylor's costumes could be chicer -- why do Charlotte and Anne spend the day lying around in white peignoirs? -- but they manage to delineate each character's social level; because the play is cast without regard to race, Potter and all of the Brennans are fitted out with clown-white makeup across their mid-faces. Carsen Joenk's sound design includes such evocative effects as ticking clocks, chimes, birds, surf, rain, and thunder.

Overall, this is an uncertain and rather mild treatment of a potentially incendiary subject. It doesn't shy away from clichés, either: Moments such as Dick sanctimoniously telling Bertha, "You're like one of the family," have a wearying sense of familiarity. The Great Novel is neither sufficiently dynamic for drama nor cutting enough for real satire. Like its leading character, it doesn't really know which direction it wants to take. --David Barbour

(25 June 2019)

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