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Williamstown Theatre Festival - Audible

by Stacy Osei-Kuffour
Directed by Whitney White
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman

“I don’t think I want that for myself.”

     “Animals,” a new play by Stacy Osei-Kuffour (this is its world premiere) and the third offering in the Wiliamstown Theatre Festival’s 2020 season is, at best, a crude presentation of a situation play in which all four characters are living on the edge of reprehensible. Lydia and Henry, a black woman and white man, are expecting her best friend and his current girlfriend for what is sometimes spoken of as dinner and sometimes as cocktails; Lydia expects them to leave before 7:30 because they have theater tickets. As the play begins Henry has just proposed marriage; they have been living together for a long, though unspecified, time and though she says she wants to marry him, she wants him to take back the proposal and re-offer her the engagement the following day; she doesn’t want to give back the ring, however. It is obvious from their voices that they have a passionate affair and he doesn’t want to answer the door when Yaw, formerly Jason, hammers on it incessantly.

     Yaw is Black (that is his chosen African name), and the girl with him named Coleen (sometimes referred to by Henry as the new Caitlyn) is white. Yaw and Lydia are former lover/partners who are still somewhat obsessed with one another. After they pulled a robbery together Lydia, still a teenager, left him for Henry who was already considerably older than Yaw/Jason. Yaw is now a professor at NYU. Coleen is his student in Philosophy. It is made very crudely clear in the dialogue that both couples live in the mystique of slave-personality-relationships.

     Now and then the play pumps into a quasi-flashback sequence accompanied by the noises provided by sound designer Fan Zhang which often seem to continue after the sequence has ended. Not very helpful, actually, to have the performers back in the present except for a comment using Yaw’s White name Jason again in what I am pretty sure is the now of the play and not the then. But it is hard to be sure.

     The actors do as good a job as I think anyone could do with such unfocused material. Aja Naomi King plays Lydia exposing the characters moods and mood changes as clearly as possible in a script that gives her very few motivations for what she says or does. Similarly her Henry, Jason Butler Harner, seems to jump constantly from angry to romantic to monster/master to self-pitying yet humble lover. Their visitors Yaw and Coleen, William Jackson Harper and Madeleine Brewer, are drawn in similar fashion. Yaw is demanding and rude at one moment, defensive and pitiful at another, and harshly affectionate toward both women at other times. The most consistent character is Coleen who only works to keep her identity as much of a secret as possible: her age, her occupation, her schooling, her affections and knowledge of her lover’s past relationships. It is impossible to make a “hero” of any of these people.

     Not every play is perfectly suited to just the ear. With this play the visual could have helped. We have to assume many of the physical aspects of the drama. When Yaw arrives, for example, we can believe that Henry is making love to Lydia but to what degree we cannot know. However, the lack of a skirt on Lydia at that point makes it rather clear that her appearance is not appropriate for greeting guests. However it seems that she goes to kitchen to get food for her guests when the two separate and Henry answers the door. I couldn’t get my mind around the images here. And it was much the same when it came to the flashbacks.
The play appears to be in two acts with a first act curtain that was obvious but not really needed. The running time of the show is one hour and thirty-four minutes. I don’t know how much time there was for a rehearsal before the play was recorded for this series and I don’t really know how much director Whitney White contributed to the final product during this time. The press release says the “comedy marches into the muddy intersection of romantic entanglement, identity, pride, and survival.” Well (spoiler alert) no one dies in the play which classically qualifies it as a comedy, but there are no laughs to be found here. It marches to an awkward and irregular beat. Entanglements are certainly front and center, romantic and otherwise. Identity is at question throughout, pride is a confuser - who is proud of what is incessantly at question and essentially survival takes center stage for the character as well as for the audience.

     A singularly amateur effort in this otherwise very professional series the audible edition of “Animals” is successful only in its opportunity for four good actors to try to make something out of the stewpot of a play that has been given them by Stacy Osei-Kuffour. Hopefully her next play will be more centered and less still in need of heavy workshopping.

#### 12/16/20 ####

Animals, a Williamstown Theatre Festival production, is available on Audible.com.