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On the Culture Front: Themes of Identity Shape Two Plays Off-Broadway

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Identity is at the heart of two superb but very different plays currently running off-Broadway: Athol Fugard's Blood Knot and Marius von Mayenburg's The Ugly One. The former was first performed in Johannesburg, South Africa more than 50 years ago, which was a decade before the playwright of the latter was born. Both playwrights were born in countries far away from the Manhattan theaters where their plays are now living. Seeing both works on the same day, the similarities and differences between the two snapped into sharp focus. The comparisons go on.

Blood Knot takes its time, unraveling a psychologically complex story of the internalization of racism as materialized by two brothers spanning a generous two and a half hours. Fugard's in no rush. He lets words hang in the air, seemingly lost in mid-flight. For much of the first act, there isn't a sense of motion, and we're not quite sure where we're going. For some playwrights, this is a sign of weakness and an inability to articulate and draw compelling characters. Fugard, though, uses the time to let his characters crawl into our minds undetected. For more than an hour, we share the mundane day-to-day drudgery of two biracial brothers, Morris (Scott Shepherd) and Zachariah (Coleman Domingo). One appears white but the other black. This difference between them takes on an increasing importance when Zachariah mistakenly buys the "white" newspaper and the brothers answer a pen pal add they see in it.

As they get deeper in conversation with the woman in the ad, the reality of apartheid clashes hard with their desires, leading to a role-play that shakes both to their core. Blood Knot is a deeply political play, but Fugard never gets on a soapbox. His characters don't proselytize the evils of racism and segregation, they are forced to live them. They are also forced to grapple with the randomness of the laws they live under as they realize that one of them could "pass" as white. Shepherd and Domingo both give nuanced and vivid performances under Fugard's direction that build to a chilling climactic moment that is hard to forget.

There's a different identity struggle at play in The Ugly One, and that is the nature and power of beauty. Lette (Alfredo Narciso) is a talented engineer slated to bring his latest invention to a conference when his boss informs him that his assistant, Karlmann (Steven Boyer) is to go in his place. Lette's confounded and enraged by this decision prompting him to demand an explanation. "Your face is unacceptable," his boss bluntly tells him. Lette's wife who insists that he's beautiful on the inside confirms this revelation, causing him to question his identity. He doesn't feel ugly until this is pointed out to him, but now it's all he can think about.

Mayenburg's dialogue and crisp and to the point, packing a lot into the play's brief 60-minute running time. Under the direction of Soho Rep's former artistic director Daniel Aukin, the action moves fast and decisively, walking a fine tonal line between the existential absurdities of Ionesco and Kafka philosophical musings of Tom Stoppard. In particular, I kept thinking about Caryl Churchill's equally brief and resonant one-act Far Away. However, as much as Mayenburg's work draws comparisons, it is uniquely his own. The conclusions he comes to about the value of beauty and how it shapes who we are will keep you thinking long after leaving the Rep.

A good friend of mine, Gerard Bianco Jr., is putting together a webisode, Method or Madness, about his experiences in the sometimes superficial world of acting. It takes a much lighter approach than the plays discussed above, but in my unbiased opinion it's pretty funny. They recently cut a trailer and are launching a campaign to shoot a full season. Check it out here.