Theater review: Hearing about Malawi in ‘Pirira’
By J.Stephen Brantley
Directed by Ari Laura Kreith
Through Oct. 28
Luna Stage Theatre Company
555 Valley Road, West Orange
By GWEN OREL
Wow wow wow David Gow.
The man is a treasure. As Chad, a flamboyant, bored gay man working in a flower shop alongside a colleague from Malawi, Gow’s comic invention is endless.
You won’t see a funnier performance on Broadway. On TV. On earth.
Director Ari Kreith has directed him perfectly. He’s never hammy, just hilarious.
From the first moment we see him lying on the worktable, eating a bagel obscenely (there’s no other way to describe it), he cracks the audience up.
Playwright J.Stephen Brantley has written him belly-laugh zingers: “Is it weird for you that my name is Chad? … Cause it’s a country in Africa?”
When his colleague Gilbert (Kevis Hillocks) agrees that there are many orphans in Malawi, he says, “Yes, I saw a documentary.”
At one point, Chad takes a broom and uses it as a baseball bat to hit a roll of colored tape. His straight man, Gilbert, foils him perfectly with suppressed irritation and bafflement.
But the flower shop is only half of the story.
In the same room, using the same table, NGO (non-governmental organization) worker, Ericka (Naja Selby-Morton) interacting with colleague Jack (John P. Keller) in a locked store room. They have to run in to escape soldiers, and are now trapped.
This half of the story is heavy on exposition, light on drama, and unfortunately not acted as well.
The conceit of the playwright, executed by set designers Christopher and Justin Swader, is that the characters use the same playing space, but it represents two spaces. They do not interact. Lights and acting make the device instantly clear.
Ericka complains about horrible things going on in Malawi, and in Brooklyn. Jack tells her how Malawi people dig up the pipe they lay to sell, which turns the water off, and they have to lay it again. The play has important things to tell us about Malawi, but that’s the problem, we’re being told, not shown, these important things.
Clearly, at opening night, many people were very moved by this play, making its regional premiere at Luna Stage. That’s no small thing; connections among the audience and new ways of thinking about things are part of new Artistic Director Ari Laura Kreith’s mission for the theater. This play fits that bill.
Brantley, according to press materials, worked for Malawi NGOs himself. He knows this territory.
But it’s asking a lot of the audience for us to care about Ericka and her panic attacks and temper. She seems woefully unprepared for Africa (her stolen bag was a Louis Vuitton). Hearing two NGO workers talk about Malawi, one seasoned, one naive, is not the same as dramatizing them, or the situation in Malawi. It’s more like Lawrence O’Donnell than “Ruined.” (Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about women in the civil war-torn Domincan Republic of Congo).
Ultimately, the play is unbalanced. Chad gets to say things like “Yo, chatterbox, got a girlfriend?”
Ericka yells at Jack in publicity materials: ”Leverage your resources by partnering with the business community here in Lilongwe to create a replicable model for water treatment with a vocational component that involves the communities you’re serving.”
And action in the storeroom moves forward with lines like “So what inspired you to come to Africa?”
I get that she and Jack are trapped. But it doesn’t make for high stakes. The stakes in the flower shop are low, too — will these two guys ever learn to understand one another is not “All My Sons” — but it’s funny, and fresh, and does dramatize different attitudes.
Some late reveals that go by too quickly would lend weight to the play if given earlier.
Selby-Morton’s Ericka plays Ericka with mostly one angry/panicked note.
Hillocks’ Jack nicely understates a long-suffering gentle person. And, as noted Gow is a pure revelation, and Keller nicely soft-sells. Kreith’s direction is tight.
Luna Stage’s mission under new artistic director Ari Laura Kreith is one of inclusivity. But there is much to ponder in these stories of Malawi. The stories are shocking and sad. They are worth the hearing. Lawrence O’Donnell is not a bad thing. Along with the action onstage, a lobby display on Malawi had many in the audience reading and talking. Despite the play’s flawed dramaturgy, when it comes to sharing heart and purpose, it sticks the landing.