Jit very air is different. Bel Air, in fact. The phenomenal UK debut production of Danya Taymor by Jeremy O Harris Father (2019) bounces across the scene with the flat sheen of a Hockney pool painting. Indeed, there is a real swimming pool to splash on stage: the first row of the floors was wringing out during the intermission. The white walls of the Matt Saunders-designed villa are hit with Day-Glo color. Isabella Byrd’s lighting accentuates outlines, transfixes a figure in a rosy glow or, as if painting with a brush, slowly sends color over a figure from head to toe. It also makes things woozy, with watery shadow ripples.
Harris describes her piece as “a melodrama”, but it sounds more like a trance. There is no overcharged action; the plot sparkles. Celebrated for his 2018 drama slave play, Harris here examines inheritance and ownership – of people and works of art. The central character, played with magnetizing intelligence and pirouetting elegance by Terique Jarrett, is a young black artist who creates disconcerting floppy sculptures that sometimes look like dolls, sometimes like life-size friends. He’s picked up – and in – by a rich old white man whose walls are laden with Basquiats and who tells the artist he has legs “like Naomi’s”. The young man’s prospects are advanced but his personality risks being tainted by the relationship with this sinisterly impenetrable sexual mentor Claes Bang. It looks like, well, loot.
It’s an evening that cleverly mixes satire, psychology (too much in the last half hour) and bluster. Crisp caricatures are deliciously delivered: a poolside lounge chair – and a serial addict to rich dudes – screams she’s never seen the handwriting of a man she’s dated: “Someone can anyone read cursive writing? More than one father is crucial: the man who abandoned the artist as a baby, as well as the sugar daddy. And let’s not forget God the Father: the artist’s mother (the glorious Sharlene Whyte) is one of his big fans; she corkscrews around the stage, urging the well-to-do wasters to pray well. Whyte has a gospel backing band that dives in and out of the pool in full surplices; The father figure of George Michael meanders throughout the evening, evoking professors, preachers and naked bodies. Lee Kinney’s sound design, which blends the music with electronic buzzes and moving chimes, is an essential part of the production’s luminous weirdness; as if this air were vibrating.
Later this month, Harris is hosting a “Black Out” performance of Father, in which seats will be reserved for black spectators. The goal is to give black theatergoers the experience that white audiences regularly have: being in an audience that “looks like them.” I imagine Chinonyerem Odimba might view this idea kindly. His musical game black love is a celebration of the love between a brother and a sister and an evocation of their affection for their deceased mother. First and foremost, and in its most effective form, it is an attack on a white girl who interferes in the lives of the two siblings, after beginning an affair with the boy, and assumes that she can squat there.
It doesn’t always go hand in hand. The music, by Ben and Max Ringham, is not used consistently; the lines of the words disperse; part of the dialogue is weighed down by the therapeutic discourse. Still, the onslaught — voiced vibrantly by Nicholle Cherrie as sister, Roo, with Nathan Queeley-Dennis as her failing brother, Orion, and Beth Elliott as White Lois — is gripping, not least because the he argument isn’t simple: Lois isn’t all badness and her opponent has an interest in keeping her brother to herself. It’s a healthy shock.
There is no such disturbance in Alexis Zegerman fever syndrome but. There are a lot of jolts. The teenage girl (played confidently by Nancy Allsop) whose medical condition gives the play its title is prone to sudden temperatures – and seizures. His grandfather has Parkinson’s disease and is played by Robert Lindsay with an unstoppable tremor in one hand. Lindsay, as powerful as the wounded lion, isn’t overdoing it – although I’d love to see a room in which Parkinson’s is characterized by her freezing as well as shaking.
If only public expectations were so deeply shaken. Three generations of a family reunite in a New York brownstone, reuniting at the news of their father’s decline: of course, they go their separate ways. Lizzie Clachan’s design – a sample of pieces stacked not too neatly on top of each other – promises complexity and incisiveness. In fact, too many expectations and promises are predictably subverted. A son is confidently announced not to come: he is coming. The father, a pioneer of IVF, made countless families happy; naturally, he didn’t make his own children feel loved. The money that everyone depends on is… not completely reliable. There are some huge symbolic clues to the secrets of childhood.
Two of the brothers are looking for candies they hid when they were children. The patriarch is haunted by a teenage version of his unhappy daughter, who dances around the stage and goes a little crazy most often in – of course – the attic. Most of the time though, and detrimentally for a piece about buried feelings, the difficulties are explicitly exposed, discussed – and ultimately, implausibly, summed up at the end. Some needlework — especially from the highly focused Lisa Dillon — isn’t enough to give Roxana Silbert’s production a sluggish flavor, or make this family’s feuds resonate. Harris’ pool picks up more echoes.
Star ratings (out of five)
black love ★★★
fever syndrome ★★