Sometimes serious artists can drop the ball.
That Nathan Louis Jackson is a talented playwright is beyond dispute, based on Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s productions of his evocative “Broke-ology” and his dramatically powerful “When I Come to Die.”
The Rep’s world premiere of Jackson’s latest, “Sticky Traps,” directed by Kyle Hatley and featuring a good cast, boasts first-rate production values, but the play itself is an awkward attempt to layer a family drama with easy social commentary and what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas topicality.
Set in a church on the day of a young man’s funeral, the play strives to explore the dynamics of a dysfunctional, multiracial family beset by issues that we once might have said were “torn from today’s headlines.”
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Jackson crams his one-act play full of issues, themes and offstage action, so much so that at times it feels like two or three different plays trying to occupy the same space. But with a running time of less than 90 minutes, neither the characters nor the themes can be adequately developed. It is at once too ambitious and not ambitious enough.
Mark Robbins, an actor who can read a shopping list and make it sound fascinating, plays a homophobic preacher whose rhetoric immediately brings to mind the late Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church. The show opens with a “sermon” by the Rev. Pratt (Robbins), whose jeans, boots, plaid shirt and white Stetson suggest a rancher’s work clothes.
Pratt’s opening monologue is about one of his nephews, a college student who has taken his life and now is condemned to “burn in hell” because he was a “fag.”
Cut to a small church, where all the remaining action of the play is contained. There Linda (Blair Sams), a rather drab middle-aged white woman, is preparing for her son’s funeral. Her mixed-race daughter, Charlotte (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), a successful attorney in Atlanta who can’t stop checking her smartphone, is there to help. So is Charlotte’s half-brother Montrell (Joshua Boone), a police officer.
There’s some bickering about Charlotte’s apparent inability to put away her phone and about the blown-up photo Montrell has brought of his late half-brother in a party mode, which Linda and Charlotte consider inappropriate. Pratt, who is Linda’s brother, shows up and explains that he and his people will be picketing down the road from the church, even though he had earlier promised they would stay away.
Not long after Pratt arrives, the play veers into a comic interlude as Montrell and Charlotte are charged by Linda to dispose of a church mouse caught in a glue trap. The trap, which provides the play’s title, is a clumsily imposed metaphor for the family. Everyone wants to find a way to disconnect from the group’s dysfunctional history, but nobody can.
That’s a legitimate idea for a drama, but Jackson’s increasingly scattered focus allows too little time for us to fully appreciate these characters. As the play progresses, more and more action takes place outside the church, which we can’t see but which the characters describe and sound effects suggest. Inevitably, the presence of protesters, counter-protesters and police sounds more interesting than anything happening in view of the audience.
Robbins, as noted, is a charismatic presence. He also happens to be an actor who exudes formidable intelligence, so much so that when Pratt raves about “God’s word” it doesn’t quite ring true. It might have if Pratt were depicted as a deranged zealot, but Jackson tries to ameliorate the character’s extremism by humanizing him through the revelation of childhood traumas.
Sams’ performance acquires intensity as the show progresses, although in the early going Linda comes across less grief-stricken than perpetually annoyed. Gardner generates a strong stage presence but struggles to find something deeper than Charlotte’s chronic irritability. Boone delivers the show’s most successful performance, lending Montrell a believability we never question.
Jeffrey Cady’s lighting and Meghan Raham’s simple but effective set create a plausible setting.
“Sticky Traps” runs through May 24 at Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut streets. Call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.