A dinner party goes awry in “Welcome to Matteson!,” currently being presented at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, as part of a rolling world premiere (meaning it is being presented in other theaters as well). Inda Craig-Galván’s four-character play, which is directed here by Dawn Monique Williams, follows in the tradition of other dinner-party-gone-awry works such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “God of Carnage.” But there are some crucial differences.
In this subgenre, things usually start off politely, but conflicts and personal troubles gradually come to the surface and, eventually, all hell breaks loose. Here, there is plenty of tension from the start. And though things do get worse, culminating in a truly explosive moment of truth, this robs “Welcome to Matteson!” of some of its power. As bad as things get, we’re not surprised, at all, that that’s where the evening winds up. We see it coming a mile away.
The play is set in Matteson, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Patricia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) and Gerald (De’Lon Grant) have invited their new neighbors, Regina (MaConnia Chesser) and Corey (Charlie Hudson III) to dinner at their upscale home. At first, we see just Patricia and Gerald getting ready, but something already seems off. Patricia is nervous, intense and angry, for no apparent reason. “Get ahold of yourself,” Gerald counsels her, to no avail.
Regina and Corey show up and, as the four make small talk, we learn some vital details. Regina and Corey have moved to Matteson from the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago; they and other families were relocated, at the city’s expense, so that the project could be torn down and new buildings could be built. They are excited to start their new lives, but also somewhat unsure of themselves in their new surroundings. They are also disturbed — and justifiably so — because “stay out of our neighborhood” fliers are showing up in people’s mailboxes, including theirs.
Craig-Galván does a good job of making the cultural differences between the two couples very clear. When Regina calls one of the living room windows a “baby window,” Patricia corrects her with the more accurate word, “transom.”
“You do that a lot, don’t you?” Regina says. “When you just say one word instead of a complete
sentence it’s like you’re just correcting someone.”
“I was correcting you,” responds Patricia, annoyed.
Similarly, Patricia gets offended when Regina calls her mushroom cream sauce, gravy. “Isn’t that what all gravy is? Cream sauce,” Regina responds. “Except for this one has mushrooms? So … it’s a mushroom gravy.”
And things get awkward when Gerald and Corey talk about sports.
“You’d probably enjoy golf,” Gerald says.
“What makes you think I don’t already?” says Corey, offended.
“They got a course in Cabrini?” Gerald asks.
“We were allowed to leave every once in a while,” Corey says, in a rare (for him) moment of sarcasm.
There are some sweet moments, too, as when Regina and Patricia bond over their shared love of Tina Turner, singing and dancing together.
Patricia is trying out a new chicken recipe for the dinner, but something goes wrong and the dish is basically inedible. But the four are able to laugh about that. They also play a party game that doesn’t seem fun at all, and leads to an uncomfortable moment between Patricia and Gerald.
Gerald and Corey are mostly pretty low-key and amiable, and eager to keep their more volatile wives happy. Regina can be a little prickly and nosy. But Patricia, we eventually learn, has a skeleton in her closet that’s a really big deal, compared to the others’ minor transgressions. (This imbalance is unusual for a dinner-party-gone-awry play; we get the impression that without Patricia among them, Regina, Corey and Gerald could get along just fine.).
After things go horribly wrong, the play takes some surprising and somewhat whimsical turns. There is also an extremely clever twist towards the end that I won’t reveal here. Craig-Galván’s writing style is defined in the program as “grounded in reality, and with a touch of magical realism,” which seems about right.
The dinner party gets about as ugly and painful as it could possibly get. But the ending extends hope to both couples, in different but equally effective ways.
New Jersey Repertory Company presents “Welcome to Matteson!” through Oct. 29. Visit njrep.org.
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