Have you ever been at a party or a family gathering where there’s a heated debated going on, but no one is really listening to what anyone else is saying: They’re just restating what they believe more loudly and forcefully as everyone else gets more animated, too. And you’re sitting there watching it all, and losing interest?
That’s kind of what the central scene of “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” which is making its world premiere at the Two River Theater through May 3 (for tickets and information, visit tworivertheater.org), is like. It’s not a very satisfying debate. And it’s certainly not satisfying theater, either.
The play, written and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (a Tony-winning actor and Obie-winning playwright, best known for writing and starring in “Lackawanna Blues”), starts off promisingly enough. Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden) drops by the handsome New York apartment of Judith (Merritt Janson) to pick up some clothes she is donating to the homeless shelter where he works. Judith, who is white, surprises Zeke, who is African-American, with her deep knowledge of black culture. They spar a bit, intellectually, and flirt a bit, too, but the prickly Zeke suspects that Judith has an ulterior motive for asking him to come by. And sure enough, she does: She wants to write a New York Times feature on him, intrigued that such a well-educated man would be working for a shelter.
“That’s mighty white of you,” he sneers, when she wonders why he’s not doing more with his life.
He agrees to be interviewed, though, and they start the process, and continue sparring, and then he leaves.
These are two complex characters, and the premise of them working out their differences over the course of the play is a good one.
But then the one-act, intermission-less play proceeds to the second of its three parts, and things fall apart. Zeke is invited to dinner with Judith and her boyfriend Randall (Andrew Hovelson), a New York Post editor, along with Judith’s friend, Janeece (Roslyn Ruff). Zeke, who has a huge chip on his shoulder about the way African-Americans are treated in American society, is belligerent from the moment he steps into the apartment, and Janeece and the conservative, almost fratboy-like Randall take an immediate dislike to him. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and the confrontation even gets physical. Judith almost fades into the background, fruitlessly attempting to keep the peace.
Zeke storms off, and in the play’s third and final scene, seeks advice and comfort from his mentor, Zebedee (Charles Weldon), an older, homeless man living underneath Grand Central Station. (Despite the circumstances of his life, he wears a jacket and tie, and keeps his big collection of books neatly stacked). Judith has no trouble finding the lair, and arrives soon after Zeke does. Zebedee tells them both a story about a horrendous racially charged injustice he suffered through in his own life, and Judith and Zeke seem to form a tentative bond.
I wanted to like this play. It attempts to grapple with weighty subjects and has, in Zeke and Judith, two characters I’d like to get to know better. I thought the ending, which was hopeful but not unrealistically upbeat, was skillfully done.
But the shrillness of the play’s second part, and the contrivance of the third part — the wisdom-spouting homeless man seemed like a cliché to me — left a sour taste in my mouth, and I can’t recommend it.