Chicago Theater Review: BUZZER (Goodman Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 19, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

RACIAL PROFILING AND YOU

Smoothly staged by Jessica Thebus for the Goodman Theatre local premiere, the blame game reaches Olympic proportions in Tracey Scott Wilson’s wicked two-act troublemaker, Buzzer. Perilously set in a gentrifying neighborhood in New York City, this slick, almost sit-comic, slice-of-change depicts three old friends in dangerous new circumstances.

Shane Kenyon (Don), Lee Stark (Suzy) and Eric Lynch (Jackson) in BUZZER by Tracey Scott Wilson, directed by Jessica Thebus at Goodman Theatre.

The character contrast that Wilson engineers is nothing if not thematically schematic–to the point of contrivance: Jackson (Eric Lynch, not accidentally greatly resembling Barack Obama) is a rising African-American attorney who, after a long absence at Exeter and Harvard, has returned to his gentrifying old neighborhood to homestead in a refurbished condo complex with a symbolically broken buzzer system.

Shane Kenyon (Don) and Eric Lynch (Jackson) in BUZZER by Tracey Scott Wilson, directed by Jessica Thebus at Goodman Theatre.

Where Jackson has broken away and made good, his formerly privileged childhood chum, white BFF Don (Shane Kenyon), a recovering druggie and full-time slacker, has never left his now-changing home turf: Virtually homeless, he seeks shelter and stability from charitable Jackson. Completing the play’s unstable threesome (or love triangle) is Suzy (Lee Stark, solidly grounded in bad choices), an inner-city teacher and Jackson’s white girlfriend. (This couple’s resemblance to Othello and Desdemona is far from accidental, though Don is way too goofy to be Iago.)

Lee Stark (Suzy), Eric Lynch (Jackson) and Shane Kenyon (Don) in BUZZER by Tracey Scott Wilson, directed by Jessica Thebus at Goodman Theatre.

Still noisy with boom cars rumbling and deafening arguments from corner clashes, the old ‘hood hasn’t changed enough. But, not at all paradoxically, it’s changed too much and fast: Yuppies have integrated wealth with poverty, “movin’ on up” and bringing with them the inevitable Starbucks and assorted boutiques. It’s also altered these old friends, not necessarily for good. Don is much more attuned to the racial frictions triggered by the elite investors who are driving up the rents and kicking out the dollar stores. Adept at confrontation to assure compliance, Jackson brings a lawyer’s adversarial approach to the gangs outside his new old home. (But, like everyone here, he has a luggage-load of unpackaged baggage: he still resents unearned “white privilege.”) Simply trying to survive, Suzy distrusts Don for reasons that slowly point to a very opposite attitude; she also fears the gangsta wannabes outside who harass her, partly from anger at her being there at all.

Eric Lynch (Jackson), Shane Kenyon (Don) and Lee Stark (Suzy) in BUZZER by Tracey Scott Wilson, directed by Jessica Thebus at Goodman Theatre.

The action is propelled by emergency lies and their even more destructive cover-ups. The result is enough clumsy deception to inevitably break up this volatile trio. It’s to the audience’s satisfaction, since more than these three can, we see all that’s gone wrong among and around them. Thebus ensures this by inspiring rooted performances: Kenyon’s painfully well-intentioned Don; Stark’s bad boy-loving Suzy; and Lynch’s over driven Jackson, who is mired in denial while craving respect.

Shane Kenyon (Don) in BUZZER by Tracey Scott Wilson, directed by Jessica Thebus at Goodman Theatre.

For all the play’s mash-up of fascination and familiarity, the starkest, most absorbing pay-off comes in a mute final scene. Suffice it to say it’s a Trayvon Martin-like moment, replete with reflexive racial profiling and a “failure to communicate.” Instantly and silently it drives home the play’s anguished ambiguities about class and comfort, hope and fear, and the perils of “progress.” Retroactively, Wilson’s wordless “reveal” could almost make Buzzer seem talky and contrived. Yet, later on, this last blast may itself seem formulaic and forced. But as it happens it sure hits hard.

Eric Lynch (Jackson) in BUZZER by Tracey Scott Wilson, directed by Jessica Thebus at Goodman Theatre.photos by Liz Lauren

Buzzer
Goodman Theatre
scheduled to end on March 9, 2014
for tickets call 312-443-3800
or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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