Off-Broadway Review: …WHAT THE END WILL BE (Roundabout)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on May 31, 2022

in Theater-New York

QUE SERÁ, SERÁ

Those of us of a certain age may remember the now classic opening credits of the popular, seventies, television sitcom The Odd Couple.  Right before the catchy theme music would commence, a deep voiced announcer would state the show’s simple premise, “Can two divorced men share an apartment – without driving each other crazy?” The show was witty, funny, safe and, at times, innocently titillating. Fast forward to 2022. The apartment is now an upscale home in Atlanta. The two divorced men are now an elderly father and his middle-aged son, both gay and Black. Add the middle-aged son’s eighteen-year-old Black son who doesn’t label himself sexually — he just loves whom he loves. At the moment, he loves another Black teen who is femme, gender-fluid and unapologetically, fiercely himself. Lastly, add to the mix the middle-aged son’s white husband and the elderly father’s Asian, female caregiver. Thus, into the middle-aged son’s stable, upper-middle-class home he shares with his husband and son moves his cantankerous, sickly, elderly father. Can an aging widower, a divorced man, his husband and his teenage son share a very nice house in the suburbs without driving each other crazy?

Keith Randolph Smith (Bartholomew), Tiffany Villarin (Chloe), Gerald Caesar
(Tony), Randy Harrison (Charles), Emerson Brooks (Maxwell)
Gerald Caesar (Tony Kennedy), Ryan Jamaal Swain (Antoine)

Playwright Mansa Ra attempts to answer that question in his equally witty, funny, safe and, at times, innocently titillating new play …what the end will be, produced by The Roundabout Theater and currently in performance at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. At a time when a recent poll shows that 71% of Americans support gay marriage, there may still be those who are uncomfortable in the presence of three, gay, Black males from the same family. That would be their loss as this show, while thoroughly informed by race and sexuality, is actually just about family — loving, tolerating and letting go. Also, as reflective of their different generations, each of the male leads has a very different coming out story. The widower, Bartholomew “Bart” Kennedy (a brilliant Keith Randolph Smith) waited until the death of his wife of many years before cohabitating with the man he’s loved since they were young soldiers together in Viet Nam. His conflicted son Maxwell (an impressive Emerson Brooks) was caught by his wife while he was in bed with another man. Maxwell’s eighteen-year-old, high-school football player son Tony (a charming Gerald Caesar) matter-of-factly says it one day when his father catches his very femme “friend” coming out of his room. No big deal.

Gerald Caesar (Tony Kennedy), Emerson Brooks (Maxwell Kennedy)Keith Randolph Smith (Bartholomew Kennedy) Gerald Caesar (Tony Kennedy)

No big deal indeed. For what is most revolutionary about this classically structured, family drama is just how non-revolutionary it actually is. At a time when many young, Black playwrights are challenging rules and shattering conventions, Mr. Ra seems to have happily stepped back into the past to show just how normal the supposed abnormal can be. That normality, however, is both the strength and weakness of this entertaining but very safe production.

Gerald Caesar (Tony Kennedy), Randy Harrison (Charles)
Gerald Caesar (Tony Kennedy), Emerson Brooks (Maxwell Kennedy)

While the show boasts intriguing characters on the surface, it really is a conventional exploration of the father/son relationship and caring for elderly parents. Bart is very ill and has moved into Maxwell’s home at Max’s invitation, though they always had a contentious relationship. The affluent Maxwell has been paying for Bart’s expensive medical treatments anyway.  While accepting of their new houseguest, Max’s husband Charles (a strong Randy Harrison) is none too happy about the situation; especially since his marriage to Maxwell is hitting some very big rocks of their own. Maxwell himself just seems uncomfortable in his own skin, constantly trying to measure up to…something, rarely hearing anyone around him, at odds with his son and still closeted professionally. So Bart and Max have a difficult relationship as do Max and Charles as do Max and Tony as do Tony and his boyfriend Antoine (a hilarious and moving Ryan Jamaal Swain). Caregiver Chloe (an effective Tiffany Villarin) is there to protect Bart’s health interests and support the family in Bart’s care, which she efficiently accomplishes. Lastly, like any long-suffering spouse, Charles tries to keep the peace and manage everyone’s feelings

Keith Randolph Smith (Bartholomew Kennedy), Tiffany Villarin (Chloe)

As with Reid Thompson’s beautiful, two-level home set where nothing is out of place, so goes Ra’s writing and Margot Bordelon’s direction. There’s no risk, no ruffles, no blood. Problems are set-up but all is resolved by the requisite hopeful ending. There are contrived plot points that conveniently move the story along but we probably shouldn’t look that deeply. Bordelon’s staging often creates beautiful pictures, but do people really move, or rather, not move like that in their own homes? The performances are all perfectly pitched and perfectly appealing and perfectly as expected. In actuality, this show could be transported back to fifties-era Broadway and fit right in – and that is not a really bad thing. For this is more an idealized version of what could happen in a situation like this, not a recreation of what would most likely occur. Also for a certain demographic — OK, gay men — there are father/son exchanges spoken that we could only wish had happened in our own lives. Those words alone may be worth the price of admission for all of us still carrying a misunderstood and shamed little boy inside.

Ryan Jamaal Swain (Antoine), Emerson Brooks (Maxwell Kennedy)

…what the end will be by Mansa Ra structurally looks back to a time when plays were not trying to make a point but just tell a story. Though set in present day, the experience is like watching one of those revived, mainstream productions from the Golden Age of Broadway. Were it not for the race and sexuality of the characters, it could very well be an enjoyable, commercial play from that era. But it is 2022 and, while a bit retro, this play does not view Black, gay men as revolutionary. It sees us simply as human beings. Which may be the most up-to-date, revolutionary view of all.

photos by Joan Marcus, 2022

…what the end will be
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th St
ends on July 10, 2022 (reviewed May 26)
for tickets ($69-$79), call 212.719.1300 or visit Roundabout

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