This is one of the more difficult plays of the season that I’ve had to wrap my head around. The impact of its message and the imprint of its presentation have lasted long after this disturbing but powerful play by Christopher Demos-Brown came to its conclusion on its opening night at the George Street Playhouse. “American Son” is not merely topical, it is a sensational play driven by a long-standing social imperative made more acute by the current political climate.
But Demos-Brown’s one-act play is explosive not only because of the imploding situation we witness, but because of the complex and diverse nature and behavior of its four characters, each of whom reveal through their occasionally incendiary rhetoric aspects of their own shortcomings. Played out in real time with terrifying conviction under the taut direction of David Saint, “American Son” goes to the heart of the matter with an unrelenting earnestness.
Kendra Ellis-Connor (Suzzanne Douglas) is African-American, worried, impatient, and close to frantic in the clean, small, modern waiting room of a police station in Miami-Dade County, Florida (nicely designed by Jason Simms). It is 4 a.m. She has reported that her just turned 18-year-old bi-racial son Jamal left home in the evening in the Lexus registered to his father and not returned. Fearing the worst and not getting the answers to any of her questions from a polite and scrupulously conscientious rookie officer Paul Larkin (Mark Junek) assigned to night duty, she finds her patience is at an end.
Kendra’s frequent and failed attempts to reach her estranged husband on her cell phone are making her increasingly unnerved. The young, newly assigned white officer appears somewhat naive in dealing with a crisis. His efforts to not agitate her but be polite and stick strictly to protocol provide moments of humor.
The officer unwittingly becomes a target for her frustration and her ill-advised digs and spurts of condescension. Attractive, well-groomed, middle-aged Kendra is a professor of psychology. She is fuming with rage and fearful thinking about what might have happened to her son.
The play adds its next layer of conflicting personalities with the arrival of her white estranged husband, Scott Connor (John Bolger), an FBI agent who left his wife and son four months ago despite their devotion to their son.
Irish and volatile, Scott soon enough finds himself not only immersed in an emotionally heated confrontation between himself and Kendra but in one that culminates in a physical altercation with the tough-as-nails, no-nonsense Lieutenant John Stokes (Mark Kenneth Smaltz.) An African-American, Stokes loses no time asserting his authority and taking control of the situation.
That there are only a minimum of valleys between the many peaks of emotional eruptions makes the otherwise well-written play a little exhausting. Notwithstanding the expected clash of temperaments, there is a concentration of contentious, high-pitched tirades by Kendra. These diminish our empathy for her.
Douglas’ performance is unquestionably as real as it is fierce — the impassioned contemporary career woman’s bright son is presumably heading for West Point. She reveals herself as both irretrievably abrasive and also unmistakably fractured by her failed marriage when alone with Scott. Scott, usually even tempered, becomes curiously and even implausibly unhinged in dealing the officers. Scott and Kendra attempting to review and revive the chemistry that initially brought them together does not seem quite credible.
Junek is terrific as the inexperienced officer who decides to bend the rules and reveal there was, indeed, an incident. There is no pretense or posturing in Smaltz’s performance as the supervising lieutenant who makes it clear that young black men need to “shut their mouth and behave” if they want to survive on the street these days. While we can sit back and admire the stand that an educated, self-empowered black woman takes in the face of law enforcement officers, we all have to acknowledge the grim reality that racial equality is still far from our reality.
At the pre-curtain speech, director Saint informed the audience that producer Jeffrey Richards has optioned the play for production on Broadway for next season. Originally commissioned by Barrington Stage, “American Son” was recently awarded the Laurents/Hatcher foundation Award given for a production of a new play by an emerging playwright.
American Son, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through February 26. $20 to $76. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org.