WHADDAHBLOODCLOT!!! by Katori Hall
World Premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival
By: Charles Giuliano - 08/10/2012
The playwright Katori Hall won the Olivier Award for The Mountantop. Giuliano photo.
A meeting of the condo association. T. Charles Erickson photos.
Kathy Searle as a neighbor decked out in Burberry on Burberry.
Coming out of a coma with a Jamaican accent.
A visit to Dr. Goldberg.
Shopping for Chanel.
A meeting of Foreign Accent Syndrome support group.
A bag lady with a million bucks in her bag shares a bench with a blind man who thinks that he’s black.
By Katori Hall
Directed by May Adrales
Scenic Design, David Gallo; Costume Design, Esosa; Lighting Design, Gina Scherr; Sound Design, Jill BC Du Boff; Fight Director, Lisa Kopitsky; Dialect/ Vocal Coach, Shane Ann Younts; Production Stage Manager, Jenny Dewar; Production Manager, Eric Nottke; Casting, Calleri Casting.
Cast: Brian Tyree Henry (Invisible Man #1/ Dr. Goldberg/ Progressive Black Man/ Police Officer #2/ Worker), Carolyn Michelle Smith (Invisible Woman/ Nurse Shirley/ Beyonce/ Hairbraiding Woman/ Mercy/ Woman), Andres Munar (Invisible Man #2/ Dr. Ramirez/ Puerto Rican Teen/ Jesus/ Jamba Juice Manager/ Clarence), Tina Benko (Eden Higgenbotham), Gretta Lee (Chelle/ Receptionist/ Indian Woman/ Jan), Aaron Costa Ganis (Chance Beasley/ Sales Clerk/ Chase/ Blind Man/ Chuck/ Police Officer #1), Kathy Searle (Zara/Charlotte/ Jamba Juice Girl/ Man) and Ensemble Crew.
Williamstown Theatre Festival
August 8-19, 2012
As we waited for the start of WHADDAHBLOODCLOT!!! by Katori Hall having its world premiere on the Nikos Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival we contemplated the living room of an upscale New York, high rise condo. It was sleekly elegant with white leather versions of Mies van de Rohe’s Barcelona furniture which is produced by Knoll and in cheaper knockoffs. The Bauhaus inspired design, generations later, is a signifier of wealth, ersatz taste, and noblesse chic.
We hoped the action would start soon as the walls of the small theatre pounded with the resonance of throbbing, obnoxious disco music utterly devoid of nuance. With more to come by sound designer Jill Bc Du Boff. It was a bad omen of an evening of comedy by a celebrated young playwright known for not just touching on hot buttons but slamming them.
Her play The Mountaintop a comedic fantasy about the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a raging storm, and an implausible interaction/ flirtation with a chamber maid/ angel won the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play in London. It played on Broadway last fall with Samuel L. Jackson, (Dr. King) and Angela Bassett (Camae).
Several butlers and maids are preparing for the arrival of Eden Higgenbotham an autocratic, mega-rich, widow living in grand style high above Fifth Avenue. The servants are invisible to her, a point of this play, as she is about to conduct a subcommittee meeting of the condo association. Its three members are to pass on the application of a couple intending to purchase the penthouse for some $16 million.
It is not a question of whether they can afford the condo fees. The sticking point revolves around their race and occupation. She is identified as Beyonce, one of the most celebrated recording artists of her generation, and he is her rapper, record company executive husband.
Archly, Eden wants to know just who they will be entertaining, arguably, renowned rappers and gangsta celebrities. Her friend Zara (Kathy Searle), swathed in Burberry on Burberry, likes the idea and points out that the law rules against discrimination. Eden counters that condo law states that owners have the right to vote on potential neighbors. It is a familiar issue when celebrities want to buy into upscale communities. Eden mentions the case of Woody Allen who started dating “A Canadian” actually his adopted daughter. The paparazzi and media frenzy could surely upset the tranquility of neighbors.
Imagine having John Lennon and Yoko Ono as neighbors in the famous Dakota. Or enduring Bernie Madoff under house arrest. Oh how the rich suffer.
The third member of the committee Chance Beasley (Aaron Costa Ganis) is more interested in snacks and martinis served by those invisible servants than voting on potential celebrity neighbors.
“You’re already an alcoholic” Eden observes “So now you want to be a crack head?” It is the potential collateral damage of having rappers in the building.
During the meeting Eden’s assistant, Chelle (Greta Lee), constantly interrupts with reminders of appointments and calls. One is from her daughter. “Take a message” Eden orders. But the daughter insists on speaking to her mom. There is some confusion about Chelle’s ethnicity, assumed to be Japanese, or perhaps Chinese. Neither, she insists, Korean.
The scene becomes more and more chaotic and contentious, which would be ok, if you could understand the dialogue. The actors spoke loudly, even frenetically, but with poor articulation. That only got worse when the play deep sixed into its comedic premise. Here one questions the acumen of the director, May Adrales.
Stressed to the max Eden collapses in an apparent stroke.
With a quick change of scenery (effectively designed by David Gallo) Eden comes out of a brief coma in the hospital. She is attended by a Jamaican nurse (Carolyn Michelle Smith as one of several characters). When Eden attempts to speak it seems that she has been afflicted with a rare but documented condition known as Foreign Accent Syndrome. There have been some 60 or so known cases including Astrid L., a Norwegian woman, who after a head trauma during a bombardment in 1941, suddenly acquired a German accent. One may only imagine the complications since Norway was then occupied by Nazis.
Taking this stretch of a premise Hall has Eden suddenly speaking like an ersatz Rastafarrian. The Jamaican nurse is hysterical. The doctor is amazed but amused. Nurses and orderlies crowd in to take a look at this most unusual occurrence.
The comedic premise, milked for the duration of a fast paced one act play, is that now Eden will at least sound like one of the people who were previously invisible to her. She is chagrined that her society friends will shun her for sounding black. Having established that concept Hall then runs us through all of the possible scenarios.
Back home, with another role and costume change, Searle arrived as the daughter Charlotte. Just returned from Africa doing good work for starving people. Particularly, child assassins or something like that. She thinks her Mom is mocking her with what she assumes is an African accent. As usual, she wants money. Eden bends with the hope of getting rid of her by writing a check. Looking at it Charlotte asks “Can you add another zero.”
Kudos to Tina Benko who accomplishes the daunting challenge of sustaining a very credible Jamaican accent. Much credit is due to the dialogue coach Shane Ann Younts.
At a fast paced clip Hall runs Eden through so many social and political hurdles that you think it’s a competition in the Olympics. To achieve this the cast takes on so many roles that, other than Eden, none are developed beyond caricatures. Every scene is constructed around a different cliché. There was a lot of laughter from the audience but mostly I was not amused.
Dripping in floor length fur (costumes by Esosa) we find Eden shopping for Chanel. She runs into her neighbor, the Burberry lady, who is joined by their newest neighbor, Beyonce (Smith) suitably blinged. The salesman is hysterical falling all over the singer. Eden mostly mumbles and nods trying not to speak. When she does the swishy salesman disses her. In a pique, she upstages the snub by demanding to purchase the entire spring collection.
Since the amount is some $250,000 the bank questions the credit card. In her Jamaican accent the bank’s response is, yeah, right lady, hanging up. Eden is furious and in a later scene takes her millions out of that bank in cash. By then she has more or less devolved into a bag lady. Don’t ask.
There are some promising moments that need work.
Her friend refers her to Dr. Goldberg (Brian Tyree Henry) who turns out to be an elegant, educated, articulate black man. He attempts to cure her through the very precise repetition of certain phrases. Think of Geoffrey Rush coaching Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. Benko has a blazingly brilliant moment as she repeats the phrase faster and faster until it becomes a blur. She hops onto his desk assuming a fetal position. There was only this one promising scene with Dr. Goldberg which might have been expanded with more visits.
Similarly, there was potential when she attended a meeting of a Foreign Accent Syndrome support group. Problematically, most of the accents of the several participants were unidentifiable. We caught only half of the slurry dialogue. With some sharpening this scene may come into focus.
The play was given a reading at WTF last summer and has now been premiered with a full production. It was well received last night by an enthusiastic audience with a large portion of WTF partisans. One wonders how it will be received by a more typical WTF audience. Many New Yorkers will surely know the equivalent of Eden as a friend or neighbor. This play would surely go over well in the Hamptons where there are lots and lots of Edens.
Yes, there is a vicarious pleasure in seeing Eden get her comeuppance. But taking a gag or joke and expanding it into a play gets tedious. Even that tour de force performance by Benko, right now, isn’t enough to sustain an evening of theatre.
Arguably, this is a fresh and different kind of theatre. Hall may be the voice of a new generation and the raison d’etre for this premiere at the venerable WTF. Right now, however, WHADDAHBLOODCLOT!!! is, at best, a work in progress and not ready for prime time.