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Theatre in Review: ...what the end will be (Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre)

Gerald Caesar (standing), Keith Randolph Smith. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Late in Mansa Ra's new play, a family drama salted with plenty of humor, the great Keith Randolph Smith stops the action cold with a monologue about death. The veteran actor -- always a guarantee of pleasure -- is cast as Bartholomew, who, at 76, suffers from stage-four bone cancer. To be clear, he has made his peace with his diagnosis. He openly discusses the fact that his days are numbered. Without too much grumbling, he ingests the vast number of pills needed to get him through the day. He even cheerfully refers to the upcoming holiday as "my last Thanksgiving ever." To the extent that one may make friends with one's imminent mortality, he has done so.

But Bartholomew is living with his son Maxwell, a too-tightly wrapped business executive sitting on a mountain of unresolved feelings and possessed of a driving certainty that, given enough will and effort, any problem can be fixed. That Maxwell can't stop sneaking shots of whiskey, and that his loved ones are afraid of his increasingly intense outbursts, are not necessarily irrelevant matters; in any case, he will not hear a word about giving in. "I'm spending whatever it takes to keep you alive," he insists, closing the subject permanently, or so he thinks. At long last losing his patience, Bartholomew, calmly but forcefully, delivers the brutal facts, noting that the pain has sunk into his joints, fingers, and eyes, adding, "Imagine that same never-ending soreness around your heart, in muscles you didn't realize existed. You still picturing this?" Thanks to this commanding actor, we all but feel it. At the performance I attended, audience members around me were reduced to tears.

It's a great piece of writing and, perversely, it exposes the rest of ...what the end will be as contrived and saccharin. The playwright has imagined a Black family consisting of three generations of gay/queer men, a concept that requires some fancy narrative footwork to explain. Bartholomew was for decades married to a woman, declining to act on his homoerotic feelings; one week after her death, he began living with a man he had long loved from afar. Maxwell, thrown out of the house at eighteen, also married a woman and began a successful career. Divorced from her, he is married to nice-guy Charles, although things are currently tense. Tony, Maxwell's eighteen-year-old son, a football hero, is secretly keeping company with Antoine, who favors makeup and occasionally wears a skirt. "Should I be asking your preferred pronouns?" wonders Bartholomew, who isn't used to such assertive youths. "He, him, his," replies Antoine. "But I also accept 'fierce bitch'."

This situation is complicated enough for a novel, but Ra's cursory treatment leaves all sorts of questions hanging in the air: How old was Maxwell when his father took a male partner? How did Maxwell feel about this new arrangement? Why did Bartholomew cut him loose at such a young age? Why does Charles, who puts a premium on honesty, put up with Maxwell's semi-closeted status? Without such grounding details, the characters feel more like a playwright's willful inventions rather than people drawn from real life. Maxwell is something of a puzzle, a control freak and borderline alcoholic with anger-management problems whose appeal is hard to credit. We see him lunge at Tony, and Charles has taken a three-day time out after an unspecified "scary" incident. As Charles asks, "Can you stop being an asshole for two seconds or is that, like, impossible?" Good question.

This complex situation has been devised by Ra to show how shame and self-hatred can reverberate down through several generations. "I invited the love of my life to move in with me and we closed the curtains," says Bartholomew, who at inopportune moments produces his late lover's underwear for sniffing. Maxwell, who accepted his sexual orientation later rather than sooner, continues to live a lie at work. Tony hides Antoine's existence from Maxwell, which isn't easy, since Antoine is a finger-snapping, shade-throwing diva-in-training; as he accurately points out to Tony, "That house is full of queens and you still acting straight." The climax, which introduces physician-assisted suicide into the mix -- surprisingly so, since it is illegal in Georgia, where the play is set -- implausibly uses Bartholomew's ailment as a cure-all for everyone else's problems.

The director, Margot Bordelon, keeps things moving efficiently, even if she can't paper over the holes in the script. It helps that the cast members give it their professional best: In trying to find something likable about the boorish, bullying Maxwell, Emerson Brooks has the heaviest lift, but he certainly gives it a go. Gerald Caesar is a charmer as Tony, torn between parental expectations and his own desires. Randy Harrison does very well with Charles, even though the character often seems like a guest in his own house. Tiffany Villarin brings some welcome warmth as Chloe, the home hospice nurse who cares for Bartholomew. Antoine is little more than a string of sassy clich├ęs, and Ryan Jamaal Swain is only too ready to take him over the top.

Maxwell is deeply into conspicuous consumption -- "Three of the real housewives of Atlanta live in this neighborhood," he boasts -- so set designer Reid Thompson has provided him and Charles with suitably high-ceilinged digs complete with designer furniture and art on the walls. Jiyoun Chang's lighting undergoes subtle alternations whenever Bartholomew slips into the past, talking to the shade of his lover. Emilio Sosa's costumes draw a strong contrast between Maxwell's straightforward, yet expensive-looking, wardrobe and Antoine's collection of Juicy Couture tracksuits and miniskirts; Sosa makes sure all the characters are well-delineated. Palmer Hefferan's sound design includes the roar of leaf blowers (which drives Bartholomew mad) and some attractive incidental compositions.

The overall result -- Bartholomew's big scene aside -- is pleasant but glib, affirmative yet sketchy. It's certainly possible that, filled out with more detail and shading, ...what the end will be could become the funny, yet heart-wrenching, drama it aspires to be. But, packaged as a slick, ninety-minute evening of laughter and tears, it strains credulity. This is a tale that wants more intensive telling. Is it too late to hope that it might yet get it? -- David Barbour

(3 June 2022)

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