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White Noise

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 20, 2019

Thomas Sadoski, Daveed Diggs, Zoë Winters, and Sheria Irving
Photo by Joan Marcus

Suzan-Lori Parks is among the very best living American playwrights. Few can hold a candle to her command of style, language, and plot in such thrilling works as Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), In the Blood, and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead. Over and over again, she has been able to move with great intelligence and wit from realism to satire to surrealism to whatever the theatrical equivalent of abstract expressionism is, sometimes juggling all of these within the same play and she digs deeply into issues of race in America. But even the most skillful juggler sometimes drops a bowling pin by trying to keep too many in the air at the same time. And, alas, that is the case with White Noise, opening tonight in a wonderfully performed but problematically structured production at the Public Theater.

Running three hours in length, White Noise, helmed by the Public's artistic director Oscar Eustis, tackles the tangled web of race relations in the U. S. through the eyes of a quartet of long-time friends: two white, two black; two male, two female; two seemingly hetero, one seemingly bi, one perhaps bi-curious. All are middle class-to-upper middle class, and they have, over time, been romantic partners with each other in various permutations, save for the two men. At the play's opening, they are aligned into two cross-race couples: Leo (Daveed Diggs) and Dawn (Zoë Winters); and Ralph (Thomas Sadoski) and Misha (Sheria Irving), though it used to be Ralph and Dawn and Leo and Misha, and, sometimes, Dawn and Misha. So, yes, complicated.

As a foursome, their favorite place to hang out together is at a bowling alley, quite effectively depicted through Clint Ramos' scenic design and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design. There, and also at their respective homes, they carry out their conversations about their lives, their relationships, and, most importantly, about race. They occasionally get into each other's faces the way long-time friends sometimes do, but things really come to a head when Leo, who describes himself as an insomniac and a "fractured and angry and edgy black visual artist" has a run-in with the police (never fully explained), who shove his face into the pavement before letting him go.

This takes us to the most rich and bitingly satirical strand of the play, in which Leo comes up with an idea. SPOILER ALERT: He will voluntarily enslave himself to Ralph for a 40-day experiment, hypothesizing that he will be safe if he can identify himself as a white man's property. This core element of White Noise is its most striking, especially as Ralph gradually finds himself caught up in the role play. Through the men's scenes together, Suzan-Lori Parks shows us her masterful strength as a writer. But, truly, there is so much more about this she could have incorporated into the play. There is, for example, a sexual/power tension between the men that is mentioned but never pushed to any kind of conclusion, and the master/slave element is dissipated among the many other plot threads that are woven into the tapestry.

There is one about Dawn, who is a lawyer, handling the case of a young black man who has been charged in a violent crime, and there are also several brilliant segments about Misha's self-produced broadcast of a call-in show, "Ask A Black," in which she patiently blacksplains in response to white callers' generally naïve questions about race. There is also a feminist thread and a bro thread packed in there. Eventually, though, the center can no longer carry any more weight, and everything devolves in Act II to four lengthy monologs, one from each of the characters, that discuss everything that was not handled through exposition.

Don't get me wrong. These monologs are brilliantly devised by a writer at the pinnacle of her skills, and it is never less than fascinating to listen to the solo presentations by each of the actors. But these speeches are more lecture than drama and join the too many elements that are vying for our attention, so that the play as a whole is diminished by the sheer amount of its moving parts. There are simply too many bowling pins flying through the air at the same time.

White Noise
Through May 5
Anspacher Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: