Reg E. Cathey and André Holland in Blue Door
(© Joan Marcus)
Reg E. Cathey and André Holland in Blue Door
(© Joan Marcus)
The more cynical among us might accuse Tanya Barfield of ultra-pragmatism in constructing Blue Door, since a two-actor, one-minimal-set play is the kind of economically prudent work likely to appeal to cash-strapped regional theaters. And indeed, the show is receiving four major theatrical engagements this season. (It's on the 2007 schedule for Berkeley Rep and Seattle Rep). However, based on Playwrights Horizons' current production of this smart, funny, and ultimately powerful piece about the African-American experience, I suspect that many of this country's artistic directors would be willing to make fund-raising calls themselves to mount the work if need be.

As Blue Door begins, Lewis (Reg E. Cathey), a well-dressed, middle-aged, African-American man steps onto the bare stage; he's listening to a piece of classical music, which itself is interrupted by the strains of an African song (according to the script a Yoruban invocation). Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Barfield will illustrate how this conflict -- this dissonance if you will -- has gone unresolved in Lewis' life. We will hear the life stories of his many deceased relatives, including his great-grandfather Simon, an educated slave; his grandfather Jesse; and his older brother, Rex (all played by André Holland), some of whom have met spectacularly unhappy ends.

Lewis has tried to prevent his own unhappy finale by getting a Ph.D; he is a prestigious mathematics professor and a published author. Yes, Lewis is a true symbol of American assimilation, a success story fit for a magazine profile -- even as he begins to break under the strain of his life. As we meet him, Lewis is suffering from a bout of terrible insomnia in his now-empty home, during which he is visited by the specters of those ancestors, who ultimately urge him to meet them more than halfway.

He is living alone because his wife of 25 years -- a white woman he quickly informs us -- has asked for a divorce. Her decision stems in part because Lewis won't participate in the Million Man March (the year, never specified onstage, is 1995). He treats that reasoning as a punchline to a bad joke, and so do we at first. But we come to see what she's really driving at. It's not that Lewis really needs to march, but that he believes the present can be separated from the past -- it is a thesis of his life and his work. What he has failed to understand -- or at least accept -- is that we are shaped by our individual and collective pasts, no matter how unpleasant or distant they may be. "If a person flattens their existence, they deny the dimensionality of themself and that's difficult, because you never feel like you're getting the whole person," Lewis' wife tells him in explaining her decision to leave their marriage.

Under Leigh Silverman's generally fine and relatively unobtrusive direction, Cathey expertly captures Lewis' intelligence and defensiveness. But he doesn't seem completely comfortable with some of the character's more soul-baring moments. However, he does a crackerjack job at portraying Charles, Lewis' difficult, often terrifying father; and the scene in which Cathey plays both Lewis and Charles at their last, unpleasant dinner together is a standout.

Yet, even Cathey's finest moments seem to pale in comparison to the sensational work of Holland, a 2006 graduate of New York University in a true star-making performance. (It is to Cathey's credit that he encourages Holland to take an extra bow to acknowledge the much-deserved applause). Not only does he create completely separate portraits of Simon, Jesse, and Rex with just the smallest of costume changes and vocal inflections, but Holland effortlessly commands the audience's attention every moment he's onstage.

True, he does have the best of Barfield's material to work with: the stories of Simon being simultaneously taught to read and sexually molested by his teenage master; Jesse's comic-then-tragic meeting with a backwoods' preacher and his hard-learned lesson of how to survive a prison term. If there's a significant flaw to Barfield's work it's that Lewis comes off primarily as a conduit for the more colorful, fully-drawn Simon and Jesse rather than the show's primary character.

Yes, there is no question that Barfield is pragmatic -- and not just in her choice of dramatic structure. There's a very funny reference in the script that the show will play primarily to white audiences (as was decidedly true of a recent matinee). Fortunately, she is also a very gifted playwright with a message worth listening to.