Artney Jackson, by James Anthony Tyler. Directed by Laura Savia. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Ray Anthony Thomas (Artney Jackson), Michael Braugher (AJ), Christopher Livingston (Zaahir Baldwin), Joshua Boone (Perkins Howard), Portia (Jackie Zinner) and Alfie Fuller (Rhonda Simpson). Photo Daniel Rader.
"It's about more than popularity."
Ray Anthony Thomas; Photo: Carolyn Brown.
Artney Jackson is more than just popular. People adore him. In the break room at the cable company where he has worked for more than 25 years in Las Vegas, people gather daily almost just to talk with him. His co-workers, his team, assemble to share food, stories, theories of life, to garner wisdom from his input. He is up for a major promotion and everyone wants to help him, including the woman he would replace as she moves on in her life and career. This man is even popular with his son AJ whose mental health issues are tempered by a loving father and pills, in about equal amounts.
This new play, on stage at the Nikos Stage as part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival's season of new works, is a charmer. It is also overwhelmingly predictable and adds little to the life of the theater in general. It will undoubtedly be a popular choice for community theaters in the future; it is a safe play where no political, social or economic issues are really discussed. We pretty much can sit back and enjoy some clever dialogue, watch some very talented actors wend their way through a week in January, 2016 (among the last moments of the American safety zone) and achieve reasonably happy endings. It is funny, though, how non-satisfying a bunch of happy endings can be.
The retention team at the cable company, under the leadership of a black woman, consist of five black workers including Artney and his son Artney, Jr. (AJ). Due to his seniority everyone on the team has a special relationship with the title character. I get annoyed sometimes with the concept of color-blind casting in the American theater where people of all races are cast as a single family and we are simply asked to accept that without question. Here is a play in which that casting concept could have worked so perfectly. Jackie Zinner could have been any race. Perkins Howard could have been. Rhonda Simpson might have been as well. Zaahir Baldwin might also have been something other. But the production is all black. Everyone of them is terrific in their roles, so I have no quibble with the casting, but it did seem to me that here was a fine opportunity to not be so safe with a black playwright's work (it is mostly white playwrights whose plays are cast without regard to author's intent).
The actress known as Portia plays Jackie Zinner. She is terrific. If there is a moment in the play that moves you it is her breakdown and she plays it simply and sincerely and finely. You feel the tug in the heart that Artney feels, experience Zaahir's concern for her. You love her for her perserverance in the face of personal disaster. Portia does the small dramatics with the same flair she employs in the more comic moments of her role. She is a delight to watch.
Christopher Livingston plays Zaahir with the self-assured cockiness of the educated man in a job that is not up to his official standard. He is a good friend, a good man. He plays the loyalty of person who respects his fellows and is only marginally jealous of another man's charm. It's a very endearing performance.
Portia; Photo: Daniel Rader.
Portia, Joshua Boone, Ray Anthony Thomas, Alfie Fuller; Photo: Carolyn Brown.
Joshua Boone plays Perkins Howard, Zaahir's buddy whose credentials aren't as good as his, who ultimately wins the personal argument they have over the course of the play. He is also the friend who moves mountains to help Artney win the job that has eluded the man. Boone is also a charmer. He is very good-looking, self-assured and plays that emotional ground that hovers between mature and immature very well. He was a joy to watch in the role.
As the boss about to retire, Rhonda Simpson, a gorgeous actress with a sensuous voice named Alfie Fuller attacks the role head on. She moves like a musical comedy star, says the most perfect lines with a sincerity that makes us suspicious and, in her character, inspires trust and dislike in the various other characters on her "team." Fuller is a definite asset to this play. Rhonda is the one character we are pulled away from through the writing and the direction, a lovely achievement by Laura Savia, through the circumstances of the play and the ways in which she takes over the scene. I enjoyed her work very much.
Michael Braugher; Photo: Daniel Rader.
The two men at the center of the drama are AJ Senior and AJ Junior. Michael Braugher plays the son who suffers from Bi-Polar disorder. At age 30 is trying to make a break from his father's house and this is the core issue in the drama of this comedy. Braugher is handsome with a richly handsome voice and his character's plight is a very understandable one as he plays it. His work inspires our sympathy for AJ and that is a good thing. His use of anger technique similiarly inspires our sympathy for Artney himself. Braugher plays the fine line perfectly.
Ray Anthony Thomas (who replaced Clarke Peters) is the title character around whom the entire play revolves. This is a fine performance by a consummate professional. He gives us everything the playwright wishes and a bit more as well for his own personality comes through the role and his smile, his frowns, his ups and downs seem like second nature to him (yes, a "My Fair Lady" reference - he'd be a wonderful Doolittle in that show). Artney is always present in this play and Thomas is an actor who can handle the constant presence on a stage. For most of the play's ninety-one minutes we are with him and he never disappoints us.
Director Laura Savia has done a fine job with the show, keeping us focussed and interested in the simple plots that bedeck the story. Arnulfo Maldonado has provided an apt setting for the play and Emilio Sosa has adorned his players in costumes that are simply right for each one. Isabella Byrd's lighting is simple and straightforward and works for the play as does Stowe Nelson's sound design. If there is a fault to find in this production it is in the play itself, not in the way so many artists have put it on the stage.
Predictable in plot, riddled with happy endings (all but one issue is resolved happily), beautifully performed in a pristine space, this world premiere production is an easy play to sit back and enjoy. Just don't expect much and you'll have a great time.
Artney Jackson plays on the Nikos Stage at Williams College's '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through July 22. For tickets and information go on line to wtfestival.org or call the box office at 413-458-3253.