Friday, February 12, 2016

"Buzzer" doesn't quite work

Andrew Lee Creech and Spencer Hamp in Buzzer (Michelle Bates)
AJ Epstein Productions at ACT Theatre
Through February 21, 2016

A lot could be said about gentrification. There are all kinds of sides to look at: the people who live in a blighted area because they must (no income options, red-lining, etc.); the people who move there early to take advantage of lower costs in anticipation of the boom; the people who move there after most or all the dangerous elements have been displaced. Plays have examined this, somewhat, like Clybourn Park.

Since so often gentrification has happened to areas that start with poor black residents and become majority white, there are powerful stories to be told in play format. Tracey Scott Wilson has written one that defies easy categorization as commentary on gentrification, Buzzer, now onstage at ACT Theatre, co-produced with AJ Epstein Productions. She includes an uncommon trio, and in this production, the trio on stage feel uneasily linked. So, should the play be seen as commentary on gentrification?
We meet Jackson (Andrew Lee Creech), who is a successful, black lawyer who has purchased a condo in his old, dangerous neighborhood, where gentrification is already in full swing. Cafes and upscale restaurants have begun moving in, but much of the blight still remains. Young black men hang around in small groups, surly about those moving into the neighborhood who would not have wanted to live there before.

Jackson wants to make a home for long-time love, Suzy (Chelsea LeValley), a white schoolteacher who is unsure of her safety, but wants to commit to Jackson. A plot about the two of them could involve just this one choice of property with plenty of substance. But Wilson includes a best friend of Jackson, Don (Spencer Hamp), who is a recovering addict, and also white, and also was raised with a golden spoon in his mouth.

The title comes from the broken buzzer that sounds when people push the button but the condo-dwellers can’t respond to them. They’ve got to go to the door (“downstairs”). It’s a subtle commentary on the upscale building with broken amenities. Similar to a neighborhood that is renovated but not yet ready for use.

There seem to be too many plot insertions: Jackson worked hard to go to top law schools, Don was born in a rich family and became the family dropout. Jackson lived in the neighborhood, but spent much time staying indoors to avoid the dangers, Don lived on the street in that same neighborhood, getting to know it in ways Jackson may not have. Don is in recovery but in danger of using again for the 9th time after a rehab. Suzy has become sick of Don’s failings and doesn’t want him to live with the couple.

There are black/white issues, money issues, trust issues, neighborhood issues. The play is packed!

Creech, here, fails to convince in his role, and is the most “act-y” I have ever seen him. He seems to be convincing himself that he can play a successful lawyer, and that translates to the audience not believing him. His chemistry with LeValley is uneven.

LeValley does a nice job in the role of Suzy and Hamp is a smashing addict, maybe because the writing of his character is the most interesting.

Wilson is a playwright to know and it’s very clear why the play would be chosen. It’s difficult to know whether it is production issues that make it less compelling or writing issues. I “wanted” it to be great, from hearing about it. For me, this just didn’t quite stack up to what it seems to aspire to.

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