Monday, February 18, 2019

Review of "Good Faith"

Dramatizing a real-life event, steeped in politics, can be a daunting task.  An example of a play that succeeded was Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, which centered on President Lyndon Johnson’s battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The 2014 production was powerful, well focused and included a gripping performance by Bryan Cranston as LBJ.

In contrast, the Yale Rep’s world premiere of Good Faith – Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department, while well intentioned and firmly knowledgeable of the subject matter, is too broad and loquacious to succeed as a compelling piece of theater.

The show explores the background and ramifications of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Ricci v. DeStefano.  In that ruling, it was found that New Haven violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it refused to certify the test results of a promotional exam for city firefighters because of the disparate impact on Black and Hispanic candidates.

The play opens with a character identified as the Writer (Laura Heisler), a self-deprecating playwright given the job of dramatizing the aforementioned events.  Her questions and probing inquiries focus on some of the important players involved in the case.  They include Frank Ricci (Ian Bedford), a white firefighter who was part of the group that successfully sued for promotion; Mike Briscoe (Billy Eugene Jones) and Tyrone Ewing (Rob Demery), two of the Black firefighters who, because of their low test scores, did not qualify for one of the original promotions; and Karen Torre (Rene Augesen), the lawyer who successfully argued the firefighter’s contention in front of the Supreme Court.   The Writer serves, at times, as interviewer, gentle inquisitor, referee, and impassioned listener within the meetings and sessions she arranges.

Playwright Karen Hartman spent a lengthy amount of time researching the case, the central players, its impact on New Haven and the city’s firefighters.  Many hot-buttoned topics are brought up within the conversations and repartees she dramatizes.  They include discussions of socio-economic status, race relations, affirmative action, equal opportunity, and classism.  However, her attempt to address a multitude of important issues is buffeted by an overload of information and fast-talking, overlapping dialogue.  The non-linear structure also makes it difficulty to grasp onto the valuable arguments being presented.

The cast is uniformly fine.  Laura Heisler brings an inquisitive nature, warmth, and sly humor to her role as the Writer.  Ian Bedford, who plays a number of roles in addition to firefighter Frank Ricci, is forceful and upstanding and gives his portrayals a self-assured cockiness.  While Billy Eugene Jones imbues firefighter Mike Briscoe with passion and a sense of righteousness, he also shows the hurt and pain of his ordeal.  Rob Demery’s portrayal of Tyrone Ewing is expressive and animated.  His scenes with Billy Eugene are layered with humor and are also quite spirited.  Rene Augesen brings an air of confidence and assertiveness to the role of Karen Torre.

Stephanie Osin Cohen’s set of large steel structures, with their bright red pigment, resonate with the authenticity of a multi-bay firehouse. Zachary Borovay’s projections effectively augment the scenic design.

Good Faith would have been much more successful if Director Kenny Leon would have massaged the material more, winnowing down the investigative findings to a more manageable and easily digestible amount.  At certain points in the production the audience has to work too hard to grasp concepts and the nuances of the landmark case.  The rapid fire and overlapping dialogue in some scenes can also be tricky and pose a challenge for the audience.

Good Faith, a well-meaning and provocative piece of theater that doesn’t always hit its mark.

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