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Haskell King and Stephanie Sanditz in Brother
Photo © Melissa Stewart
The set of Lisa Ebersole's Brother, like those of several other plays in New York, is intended to represent a young professional's trendy New York apartment. But here, the audience is actually invited into the home, seated on opposite sides of the room. This daring setup has an odd effect, at once drawing theatergoers into the world of the play while distracting us by having us face other theatergoers. It also forces set designer Bret Haines to adjust the furniture in peculiar ways to accommodate sightlines, in one instance by facing the couch away from the TV. Although both the script and production of Brother suffer somewhat from awkward construction, the show demands to be seen for its bold sense of experimentation.

Jamie is celebrating her birthday with Margeaux. (Their relationship isn't revealed until late in the play.) The action begins at Jamie's apartment: We learn that she has picked up a tall, dark, and handsome stranger named Carl who's slipping into something more comfortable in her bedroom. When Jamie's husband Kevin comes home early from his late-night job as a paralegal, everyone searches for a way to explain why the other man's in the apartment. Eventually, a number of mysteries unfold to a violent conclusion.

In the manner of Neil LaBute and Patrick Marber, Ebersole doesn't shy away from questions of racism and social injustice. But her dialogue, like that of the other two scribes, confuses nastiness with realism, and the attitudinizing of the characters smacks of pretension and effort. At one point, for example, the alcohol-addled Margeaux regards a poster-sized illustration of the human musculature and confesses to her friend, "I always wanted to be a surgeon. Suture things. Apply pressure. Rip somebody's heart out." If you enjoy plays like Closer (adapted into Mike Nichols' hit film), as many people do, Brother may be for you.

The only character who seems to have any good intentions is Carl, the black man with whom Jamie thinks she's going to have a fling. He endures strings of racist epithets throughout the play, from passing stereotypes ("You prefer to rap?") to being called a "monkey." In fact, it's surprising -- bordering on implausible -- how much he puts up with it, especially since he reveals that he never intended to sleep with anyone. The playwright attempts to subvert stereotypes about black male sexuality by making Carl celibate, but this removes the closest thing to a character motivation. Ebersole tries to justify Carl's behavior by having him say that he's lonely, but there must be a better way to deal with that than by seeking the company of bigots.

There are unnatural pauses between lines to indicate hidden meanings; it almost looks like the actors are trying to act guilty when their characters are covering up secrets. But Ebersole's inspired, voyeuristic staging makes up for these weaknesses, and she draws capable performances from most of her actors. The playwright-director has cast herself as the female lead, and she has the acting chops to justify that decision. Stephanie Sanditz as Margeaux plays a believable valley-girl, and Haskell King has a Tom Cruise-like charm as Jamie's husband. As Carl, Orran Farmer exhibits a commanding stage presence that holds our attention even when his character has nowhere to go.

The show advertises a shocking ending, and it does take a genuinely jarring turn in its final moments to underscore the playwright's commentary about race and class conflict. Ebersole's message is sadly on-point and the finale is painfully plausible; unfortunately, the play that precedes it makes the conclusion seem unearned.

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