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Theatre in Review: Surely Goodness and Mercy (Keen Company/Theatre Row)

Jay Mazyck, Sarita Covington. Photo: Carol Rosegg

As plays go, Surely Goodness and Mercy is just a slip of a thing, but at least it gives us the chance to make the acquaintance of Jay Mazyck, a nineteen-year-old actor with an uncanny way of laying bare the soul of the character he plays. He is cast as Tino, a put-upon eleven-year-old black kid looking for hope in a world that has little on offer. (Like the currently running To Kill a Mockingbird, this production casts young adults in roles that would arguably be too demanding for child actors.) With his mother dead and his father unknown, he has landed with his aunt Alneesa, who makes no secret of her resentment at being saddled with a child not her own. Seeing her pick up the living room a bit, he asks if company is coming. She replies, snappishly, "Is that your punk-ass, pussy-ass way of telling me I don't clean enough? You trying to criticize my housekeeping skills?" And that's one of her milder comments.

At school -- it appears to be a charter institution for minority students in Newark, where the play is set -- Tino is enough of an outcast that he avoids breakfast, preferring to hang out in his classroom and avoid engaging with his fellow students. With no encouragement, he has taken to reading the Bible, and, despite his aunt's cold-eyed attitude, also starts attending a Baptist church. (Amusingly, he found it on Yelp.) "I wouldna figured you to go to a Baptist church," Alneesa says. "Thought you'd be more likely to head for one of them prim, prissy white churches where don't nobody break a sweat. Seem more your speed." Although the playwright, Chisa Hutchinson, relies overmuch on scenes featuring offstage characters heard through the sound system, check out Mazyck's face during a fiery sermon, how avidly he attends to the words of the preacher, his face shifting ever so slightly as he follows the line of thought. It's a nearly perfect portrait of a young man desperately in need of real guidance, who has yet to develop any defenses against a largely cruel and/or indifferent universe. In a second, and equally telling, scene, Tino sits in English class, soaking up every bit of knowledge; he is that kid who raises his hand to answer every question, until he is told to give somebody else a chance.

Indeed, he falls into trouble when he gently corrects his teacher, who seems surprisingly ignorant about collective nouns; refusing to back down -- he is right, after all -- he ends up in the principal's office, where he is told to recant or face a two-day suspension. The way Tino, without rancor, stands up for himself is heartbreaking: In his world, the deck is so stacked against him that he is punished for being an outstanding student.

There are three other fine performances in Surely Goodness and Mercy, from Sarita Covington as the furious, yet ultimately pitiable, Alnessa; Courtney Thomas as Deja, the sassy young classmate who alone among the student body sees him as a potential friend; and the great Brenda Pressley as Bernadette, the cafeteria worker who serves up insults with the daily lunch. But Hutchinson's script is little more than a brief parable of uplift, in which Tino's extraordinary goodness finally proves to be its own reward: Bernadette, suffering from the early symptoms of multiple sclerosis, refuses to face what is happening to herself. Through Tino's gentle prodding, the crusty, childless Bernadette learns to take charge of her life, in turn providing the boy with adult love for the first time in his life.

Hutchinson comes up with a couple of painfully engrossing confrontations, including the classroom controversy mentioned above, and a brutal encounter with Alneesa, who tries to appropriate the money Tino has raised online for Bernadette's treatment. (He has long been a drain on her, she insists, and now it's time for her to help herself.) But Surely Goodness and Mercy is little more than an anecdote, however, with a final fadeout that happens just when the story should get going. Given a running time of only ninety minutes, including an intermission, the script cries out for additional development. And Hutcinson might reconsider the stop-and-start structure, consisting of brief scenes, many of which end abruptly, broken up by lengthy changeovers. As it stands, it's a film script passing as a play, and not felicitously.

Lee Savage's multilevel set manages to cram together most of the play's many locations, although the director, Jessi D. Hill, who handles the actors beautifully, still can't prevent a preponderance of blackouts. Devorah Kengmana's lighting effectively redirects the audience's attention, carving out one playing space after another. Nicole Wee's costumes feel exactly right for the characters. Given the lengthy passages featuring dialogue on the PA system, Sadah Espii Proctor's sound design constitutes another character in the show; Proctor also provides a parade of effects that includes passing cars, TV broadcasts, school bells, murmuring voices, alarms, and more.

Hutchinson creates such appealing characters that it's a pity at Surely Goodness and Mercy never pulls its elements together into a fully convincing drama. But Keen Company is doing God's work in giving a hearing to a rising playwright -- her next drama, Proof of Love opens Off Broadway in May -- and in introducing Mazyck to New York audiences. Surely, we'll be hearing from him again. -- David Barbour

(15 March 2019)

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