How does one accurately describe Fairview, a daring new play now receiving its world premiere by and at Soho Rep? Heck, how to describe any of the plays created so far by Jackie Sibblies Drury? Let’s simply note that Drury, a prize-winning playwright with an ascending career, tends to compose her works in non-traditional ways and shows a fondness for meta-theatrical doings.
So it goes with Fairview, which deceptively begins as a contemporary domestic comedy involving a nice, well-off, African-American family and concludes with a total breaching of the invisible fourth wall that divides actors and audience. This unexpected switcheroo obviously freaked several spectators, who voiced their displeasure to the actors. Or were they, in reality, actors who were playing spectators?
It was difficult to tell. Fairview cunningly pulls its audience down a rabbit hole involving race, identity, presumptions and certainly everybody’s original expectations.
It’s easy to be fooled by the play’s initial action and setting. Mimi Lien, the designer, presents a blandly tasteful living room-dining room layout: Peach-tinted walls with white moldings, traditional blond-wood furniture, oatmeal-colored wall-to-wall carpeting. While Sly & The Family Stone’s “Family Affair” croons from the entertainment center, Beverly (Heather Alicia Simms), a comely matron, anxiously readies her home for a dinner party to celebrate her mother’s birthday.
Soon other family members appear: Dayton (Charles Browning), the handsome husband and dad; Keisha (MaYaa Boateng), the adorable teen daughter; and Jasmine (Roslyn Ruff), Beverly’s snarky sister. Wine is poured, the cheese platter is critiqued, and the ensuing banal dialogue is mildly amusing. What’s that Jasmine is saying about how she likes movies about families in which they overcome various troubles? “Real stories about real people,” she calls them.
Then, just as grandma is about to come downstairs for dinner, a crisis arises. The action suddenly breaks off. The actors exit. Stagehands appear to reset the scene as before. Beverly reenters and the play starts over again from the beginning.
Only now the actors are silently mouthing the dialogue as they go through their paces. Meanwhile the voices of several unseen people can be heard in conversation, as if they were indifferently watching this family story unfold on television.
Their chit-chat is sparked by someone’s idle question: “If you could choose to be a different race, what race would you be?” Apparently these are white people talking (enacted by Hannah Cabell, Natalia Payne, Jed Resnick and Luke Robertson). They invisibly gab on and on about the pros and cons of various ethnicities and cultures, even as one individual with a European accent complains that Americans are too obsessed with race and not sufficiently concerned about class.
A few remarks are witty. Other comments are condescending, ignorant, racist, or just plain silly. (Example: “Well, if you want to be a real black person, then you have to be a poor black person.”)
By this time, the mute family drama has passed beyond its previous stopping point. The action grows stylized as patently fake foodstuffs such as turkey and lobsters are madly heaped upon the table while the characters shimmy around the room. The concurrent conversation about race becomes heated.
Without going into extensive detail, the next segment of Fairview witnesses the unseen people attached to those voices enter the African-American story to incongruously depict other family members who arrive later. With everybody gabbing, the drama itself turns chaotic and at last the fourth wall is pierced.
Let’s describe the play no further, except to note that these final convulsions of the work do not register effectively. An attempt to bring the audience into the show proves awkward on several levels, practical and otherwise. With this last gambit fostering distraction more than revelation, it becomes difficult to focus upon the crucial closing passages. The play merely ends rather than concludes.
Wickedly satirizing white presumptions regarding racial and ethnic stereotypes while amiably kidding bourgeois African-American scenarios, Drury delivers a thoughtful message about the error of harboring judgmental attitudes. Consider the significance of her title: Fairview. To some extent the playwright succeeds in achieving her ambitious goal, but the meta-theatrics meant to heighten the work fail to realize her intentions.
Soho Rep provides a typically tip-top staging of the play in every department, under Sarah Benson’s astute direction. The discipline exhibited by the actors as they replicate their actions during the mimed sequence is admirable. MaYaa Boateng, who portrays the teen daughter, copes well with the especially challenging nature of her role. Roslyn Ruff, as usual, offers a vivid presence as a troublesome individual.
The theater seats only 60 spectators, so it’s a pity that relatively few people will get the opportunity to witness this provocative and slyly humorous play that ultimately eludes its gifted author’s grasp. Jackie Sibblies Drury is a playwright who pushes all kinds of boundaries and that makes for exciting theater.