Tony Award-winning Director Peter Brook returns to BAM's Harvey Theater for the first time in nearly a decade with The Suit. While this mercifully short play does have a few sparkling moments, mostly through song, it is far from the thrilling "immediate theatre" about which Brook evangelizes in his book The Empty Space . In fact, at times it is quite dull.
Based on the novel by Can Themba, The Suit tells the story of Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) and Philomen (William Nadylam), a married couple living in 1950s Sophiatown, a center of black culture that will soon be bulldozed, its black residents moved to a less-desirable location under South Africa's apartheid regime. When Philemon discovers his wife in bed with another man, he decides to force her to carry around that man's suit—he fled the house wearing only his underwear—as a constant reminder of her infidelity.
Kheswa easily inhabits Matilda's desperation, lending a gentle demeanor and a joyous voice to a woman whose only options are humiliation or death. Nadylam is appropriately slimy as Philomon, making his vindictive cruelty believable with every raspy breath. If he were my husband, I'd want to sleep with someone else, too.
The music is the saving grace of this play. I waited through the bloviating monologues praying for the next song. Jared McNeill's haunting take on "Strange Fruit" crystallized the untenable nature of apartheid much better than any of the snarky asides about racial oppression. The high point of the play came in a heartfelt Tanzanian song, simply sung with the whole cast on stage facing the audience.
Brook is renowned for his pared-down productions and this show is no exception. Back wall exposed, the empty stage is decorated with multicolored chairs and rolling metal clothing racks. The performers create all manner of playing space with Oria Puppo's versatile set. Everything else is mimed.
Brook relies heavily on audience interaction, but even that feels forced and stale. The only time it was genuinely surprising was when the actors tried to get a member of the audience to dance in a party scene and the clever conscript mimed a big plate of food as an excuse to stay put, eliciting howls of laughter from the audience, a rare moment of levity in this mostly-depressing show.
Indeed, Philomon's insistence on bringing out the suit to shame his wife, even in their happiest moments, ensures that sadness is always just around the corner. This spiritual scab-picking tells a larger story about the pain that comes from refusing to forgive. It's a lesson that is particularly pertinent to modern South Africa, a country that is still haunted by the ghost of apartheid, but it could be easily applied to anywhere with a history of injustice, which is to say everywhere.
Of course, $90 seems like an awfully steep price for 75 minutes of feeling like an enlightened citizen of the world. Around the third curtain call, as the audience stood to applaud the multinational performers in this socially-conscious play by the world-famous director, I began to wonder if this was the "deadly theatre" Brook described in The Empty Space when he wrote, "One associates culture with a certain sense of duty, historical costumes and long speeches with the sensation of being bored: so conversely, just the right degree of boringness is a reassuring guarantee of a worthwhile event." By that measure, The Suit was quite worthwhile.