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Rasheeda Speaking

Tonya Pinkins (above) and Dianne Wiest (below)    (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

                                              By David Schultz

A scintillating cat and mouse treatise combines office politics and race into a frothy mix. Cunningly directed, makes for must see viewing.

This new black comedy written by Joel Drake Johnson hits a lot of nerves. The subject of race has been touched on in countless plays both past and present. This slow to boil, then simmering to full steam black comedy hits a lot of topical themes during its ninety minute intermission free timeframe. By turns, suspenseful, and achingly funny, it is helped immeasurably by its two leading ladies, Tonya Pinkins and Diane Wiest. Played to perfection, these two performers are giving a master class in acting. Ileen (Diane Wiest) and Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins) work the front desk of a surgeon’s office in Chicago. As the play starts Ileen is having a morning chat with Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein). The thinly veiled racial comments by the doctor on the return of Jaclyn, an African American secretary hangs like a foul stench in the air. Jaclyn has been out of the office on a five-day sick leave having complained about “toxins in the air”, and is just about to return to her desk job that morning. Dr. Williams has decided that Ileen should be upgraded to a higher position in the office. Ileen has been subtly informed that she should “keep her eye” on Jaclyn and report any unusual or suspicious activity, and keep a log on anything that stands out. Ileen balks at the thought but does as she is told. Mousey, with a shy demeanor, eyes downcast, wanting to make her boss happy, she slowly acquiesces to her newfound office chores.

What then transpires is a slow ratcheting of psychological tormenting as incrementally Ileen starts to discover that her friendly office co-worker is not all that she seems. In perfectly paced scenes that are directed by Cynthia Nixon with sly wit, the game is on. The deck at first seems to be sided by Ms. Wiest’s comforting overly friendly persona. Ms. Pinkins comes on as a steam engine in full attitude-speed with no brakes. Her cunningly sweet-nasty overbearing manner does seem to stack the deck against her…. at first anyway. Her way of inducing guilt, to her co-worker seems like child play to her. In short well-etched scenes Jaclyn finds out that Ileen is spying on her, with the potential outcome of her ouster from the office, and when she does the demented torment of what’s in store is just about to start. The cruel and unpleasant treatment by Jaclyn of any elderly patient Rose (Patricia Conolly) only adds to the myriad notes that Ileen writes in her ever-expanding notebook.  The racial hatred and various unpleasant treatment of white people toward Jaclyn reaches its apotheosis with a memorable tale told in hushed tones by Jaclyn of riding the bus to work every morning. After the tale is told, one wonders if this is another ploy to gain attention made up in her fantasy to gain sympathy, or an unpleasant truth revealed.

Allen Moyer designs the office set, perfect down to the last coffee cup. Contained in this claustrophobic space: Low overhanging ceiling, two desks filled with paperwork and files, twin bookshelves, assorted ephemera strewn throughout, loads of plants owned and tended to by Jaclyn, coffee machine nearby. It is every bland office we have ever had to go to, and sit in waiting for an appointment. Lit with harsh blinding lighting by Jennifer Tipton you almost need sunglasses to shield you from its unforgiving brightness. The play is a bit of a tease, in that the playwright sets the stage for a big flashy dénouement. It never comes. The war of office politics and all the little petty grievances therein are laid out like soldiers in the line of fire. The play comes to an uneasy truce. No winners or losers here. Not unlike in life, these characters keep moving forward in the vague hope that it will all turn out perfectly fine; that we can truly all just “get along together”. From the surface it looks like these people have changed in attitude and mindset by play’s end. The last scene finds a fluid way of exposing all the racial unspoken thoughts and finding that we haven’t come very far at all. Ms. Wiest and Ms. Pinkins squeeze every last drop out of their exquisitely juicy roles and add an unexpected pathos to this darkly amusing riff on the elephant in the room.        

The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues   212-279-4200
Playing through March 22nd