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Theatre in Review: When January Feels Like Summer (Ensemble Studio Theatre/Page 73)

J. Mallory McCree, Maurice Williams. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Another title for When January Feels Like Summer could be When Theatre Feels Like a Television Sitcom. Playwright Cori Thomas' deft ability to get inside the heads of a wide range of characters is undercut by her determination to spin the most unlikely elements -- brain death, gay-baiting, transsexualism, global warming -- into a feel-good comedy. You could get whiplash watching the cast of Daniella Topol's production switch between little moments of truth and scenes of pure audience-baiting corn.

Thomas hooks our attention by presenting two distinct sets of characters from Central Harlem who cross paths on the subway without meeting but who are soon to have a big impact on each other. Devaun and Jeron are homeboys, cousins, and fellow Burger King workers; we see them chatting about girls, the mysteries of overtime pay, and "the global," or the warming of the planet, which is caused, they think, by people refusing to recycle. Then Devaun drops a bombshell: Lorrance, a neighborhood character who dresses in red and purple suits and big sunglasses, apparently propositioned him in a neighborhood bodega.

Whipping themselves into a panic -- "He might have LSD, SUV, A-I-Dees and everything," worries Devaun -- they appoint themselves neighborhood protectors posting signs warning the populace about Lorrance. Because neither Devaun nor Jeron is the brightest light in the circuit, their posters are filled with supposedly hilarious malapropisms -- warning people about the "predictor" among them. Really, they are the most adorable pair of homophobes.

This project brings Devaun and Jeron into the little grocery store operated by Nirmala, a young Indian woman whose life is one big list of woes: Her husband lies brain dead in the hospital and she refuses to let him go, even if, as we learn in a neatly turned revelation, that she is, several years into her marriage, still a virgin. Meanwhile, her brother, Ishan, has announced he is a transsexual and is planning his transition. In fact, Ishan wouldn't mind at all if Nirmala would pull the plug on her husband, netting them a $1 million insurance policy that would go a long way toward paying for sex reassignment surgery. As Ishan transitions into Indira, she tries to set herself up as a matchmaker; for example, she would love to fix Nirmala up with Joe, the middle-aged sanitation worker who drops into the store a little too often to be merely interested in foodstuffs.

These two storylines intersect when Devaun and Jeron show up in Nirmala's store looking to hang their posters and Devaun takes a shine to Indira. Soon after, the playwright tries to wipe the Devaun-Jeron plot clean of its tasteless gay-baiting taint by revealing that Lorrance has a kink, involving anal penetration and photography, that takes in both sexes. The boys are made into heroes in the news media, and Devaun decides to employ his posters for an anti-global warming campaign. ("The global, on account'a garbage and what have you. It's serial, and people don't seem to care.") The rest of the play is geared toward setting up a double-date night rife with questions: Will Joe get anywhere with Nirmala? Will Devaun understand that Indira is not what he expects? Let's just say that, for Thomas, no obstacle to happiness is too big to be traversed.

Keeping things watchable is the author's undeniable sympathy and understanding for her characters' dilemmas, often expressed in little outbursts of truth that bring their pain to life. Staring at her barely alive spouse in his hospital bed, Nirmala wonders, "How can you still be hurting me from there?" Indira, recalling Devaun's attentions, says, "I did not know if I should be afraid or flattered." Later, waiting for her date, she wonders to herself, "Oh my God, I know next to nothing about this manchild except that he hates homosexuals." Joe has a touching monologue about his marriage, which was destroyed by his wife's drug addiction, and his hope for something more out of life. And when the time comes for Indira to explain the truth of her situation to Devaun, she does it with unusual grace.

But whether any of this would lead to the thoroughly implausible conclusion that Thomas has devised is another question altogether. Her characters suffer real pain, but it is all removed far too quickly and easily. Differences of culture, prejudices, self-hatred -- all are dispensed with like a headache after two aspirin. Thomas certainly knows how to throw a crowd-pleasing climax, but on the evidence of the best scenes here, she is capable of much more than that.

Topol's direction is helpful in unearthing the real feelings sometimes hidden under the shtick, and her cast does remarkably well with material that shuttles between reality and bare-faced gagging. She pulls off some lovely moments, especially when Indira and Devaun enter from their Burger King date, festooned with paper crowns. Mahira Kakkar makes Nirmala's dilemma -- she feels loyal to a man she has never remotely loved -- seem thoroughly real. Debargo Sanyal believably enacts Ishan/Indira's big change; he also does wonders with Indira's big speech, explaining her situation in terms of the Hindu religion. As Joe, Dion Graham radiates a quiet decency that only barely hides his desire for Nirmala. As Devaun and Jeron, Maurice Williams and J. Mallory McCree are certainly enthusiastic even as they channel material that sounds like it comes from a "hip" mid-'70s sitcom like Good Times or What's Happening. However, Williams plays beautifully with Sanyal and McCree does well with a pair of phone monologues in which he tries to get together with the Chinese girl who works at Devaun's Burger King.

Jason Simms' set, an arched brick streetscape that can be quickly dressed and redressed, neatly solves the problem of doing a play set in a great many locations; he even supplies a thoroughly convincing piece of a subway car. Austin R. Smith's lighting reshapes the space as necessary, neatly and without fuss. Sydney Maresca's costumes include some stunning Indian outfits for Nirmala and clothing that does much to assist Indira's newly feminine appearance. Shane Rettig's sound design helpfully provides a battery of urban effects -- traffic, subway rumbles, and a local television newscast among them.

Thomas' writing is sufficiently striking that it's easy to see why two fine theatre companies wanted to get behind this production, but When January Feels Like Summer's soft heart is too often accompanied by an equally soft head. Maybe, like Devaun says, it's because of the global.--David Barbour

(6 June 2014)

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