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Theatre in Review: Proof of Love (Audible/New York Theatre Workshop/Minetta Lane Theatre)

Brenda Pressley. Photo: Joan Marcus

Constance Daley, the well-appointed black matron who is the sole character in Proof of Love, isn't the sort who ruffles easily, but she has a situation on her hands of the sort that would challenge anyone. First, her husband, Maurice, is in a coma, the result of a car accident. Second, Constance, monitoring his phone, has discovered that, rather than attending his poker night, he was on his way to see a young woman named Lashonda, with whom he has been sleeping for eight years. Third, members of the hospital staff have intimated to Constance that Maurice is unlikely to awaken, that the time has come to decide whether to move him to a long-term-care facility, where he will probably fade away, or to pull the plug.

Given what she has learned, Constance is hardly in the right frame of mind to make this decision, but the pressure is on. Most of Proof of Love consists of her speaking to the unconscious Maurice while reviewing her options. Her daughter, Sonny, née Madison, is no help; cutting to the heart of their contentious relationship, Constance says, "You would think that in one of those Africana Studies classes at Howard, they might've taught her that there is, in fact, more than one way to be black. (Beat.) I still think she should've gone to Vassar." The playwright, Chisa Hutchinson, has long demonstrated a knack for creating formidable ladies of a certain age, and Constance is no exception. She recalls an encounter with a white woman at Manhattan Theatre Club who, cluelessly, asked her if this was her first time at a theatre: "I looked her right in her condescending face and said, 'As a matter of fact, no. Is this your first encounter with a black person?'" Pondering the name of her rival, she muses, "I don't know what it is with hood black folks and names that begin with 'La.' Do they think that it will make their daughters sound exotic? Are they trying to add sophistication by tacking a 'La' onto an otherwise common name?" Obsessed with understanding Lashonda's appeal, she produces a binder filled with observations derived from five days of "doing reconnaissance" on Facebook. Producing an entry from Lashonda's page, she adds, "She liked her own post, likes all her own posts, in fact, and I just don't know where to begin with that."

Sleekly outfitted by Jen Caprio in a salmon-and-gray ensemble, perfectly coiffed and made up, Brenda Pressley's Constance looks like she just arrived from a ladies' lunch, but as she paces around, her hands knitted in a ball of tension, her face transformed by alternating waves of concern and fury, we see that she is hanging on to her composure by the thinnest of threads. Relentlessly honest, even about herself, she inventories her past, reviewing how she, a daughter of privilege, came to marry Maurice, who "scraped and clawed" his way out of poverty and misery to build a successful life. She begins to realize that, despite years of marriage, a certain gulf remained between them, never to be bridged. Her parents, she notes, "could smell the poor on you. They told me so. Like your cousin Boog's house: Pine-Sol and roach spray. Daddy said, 'Faint, but distinct'." There were other tells, too, she adds, "like your chronic misuse of the first-person nominative. You would say things like 'She looked at him and I' or 'That was between her and I.' And it was clear to everyone in the room, who have been private-school-educated all our lives, that you had not been." Pursuing this line of thought, she reluctantly is forced to conclude, "You've been so thoroughly and successfully immersed in my world of Blakes and Fortons it never really occurred to me that you might actually miss the Shakiras and Terrells."

Proof of Love joins such dramas as Richard Wesley's The Talented Tenth and Lydia R. Diamond's Stick-Fly, as well as Margo Jefferson's probing prose memoir, Negroland, in exploring the contours of upper-middle-class-black American life, a privileged enclave that can have its prison-like aspects and may sometimes leave its members empathy-challenged when it comes to those whom Constance describes as "hood rats." It's a rich subject, and Hutchinson, as always, has a knack for zinger-filled dialogue. Pressley is a formidable presence, and, little by little, she lays bare the suddenly confused and lonely woman whose entire existence has been shaken to its core. Whatever else you want to say about Proof of Love, it is never dull.

Nor is it totally satisfying. Solo shows by their very nature are stylized works, but the idea of Constance spending seventy minutes talking to an unconscious spouse, often rehashing information that is well known to them both, is awfully artificial. In addition, Hutchinson doesn't fully succeed in bringing this marriage to life. "I think I married you because I felt sorry for you," Constance says, a sentiment I found pretty hard to buy. Furthermore, eight years is a long time for a weekly love affair to be conducted without the wife suspecting a thing, and Constance is hardly the clueless type. An eleventh-hour message from Lashonda, in which she diagnoses Constance and Maurice's problems at length and with great acuity, makes one wonder where she got her degree in marriage counseling. (This is preceded by a scene of catfishing, in which Constance, via a series of private messages, pretends to be Maurice.) The problems that comprise the subject matter of Proof of Love are real; the format for discussing them too often feels forced.

Jade King Carroll's direction does little to knit together the play's contradictions, some of which extend to the production design. You have to wonder about Alexis Distler's set, which places a single hospital bed surrounded by curtains in an enormous space; it looks like a waiting room with a bed added. I understand that the rather wide Minetta Lane stage had to be filled, but this may not be the ideal solution. Mary Louise Geiger's lighting is full of subtle transitions that help move things along, however, and Justin Ellington's sound design includes an attractive preshow playlist of such standards as "Let's Fall in Love" and "The Very Thought of You."

Hutchinson aims to end Proof of Love on a tantalizingly unresolved note but, at the performance I attended, when the lights went out, the audience, clearly confused by the dangling ending, didn't applaud. When the lights came back up, Pressley was greeted with acclaim. It was a fair response: Constance (and the actress who plays her) is rather more engaging than the contrived and oddly unfinished play in which she appears. --David Barbour

(21 May 2019)

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