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LAByrinth's unremittingly bleak and heavy-handed new production emphasizes mood over action. logo
Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Kevin Geer
(© Monique Carboni)
There's little hope to be found in UNCONDITIONAL, Brett C. Leonard's unremittingly bleak and heavy-handed new play, presented by LAByrinth Theater Company at the Public Theater, under the direction of Mark Wing-Davey. The work revolves around the lives (and sometimes deaths) of nine unhappy individuals in New York City, interconnected through various marriages, friendships, sexual liaisons, jobs, and random circumstances. Their encounters are often violent, frequently sexual, and nearly always racially charged.

Leonard begins his play with the most dramatic scene, depicting the final confrontation between Newton (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) and Daniel (Trevor Long). However, its placement at the start diminishes the pair's interactions throughout the rest of the play. We already know where it's going to lead, and so it's the violent revenge that the African-American Newton enacts against the Caucasian Daniel that is foremost in audience members' minds, rather than the very real issues of race discrimination that led him to that point.

More effective are the scenes involving the African-American Lotty (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) and the two Caucasian men with whom she interacts, the slimy Keith (John Doman) and her husband Gary (Kevin Geer). Both of the men have sexual fetishes for non-white women, and their scenes with Lotty are filled with tension and discomfort. Lotty herself remains somewhat of a mystery, although Ekulona's nuanced performance allows the audience to see the unspoken pain -- and perhaps shame -- that motivates her self-destructive behavior.

Among the other performers, Elizabeth Rodriguez provides some welcome comic relief as the opinionated, fast-talking Jessica, and both Whitlock and Doman possess the necessary intensity to lend credence to their roles. Unfortunately, Long's Daniel is blandly enacted. Chris Chalk and Anna Chlumsky -- as lovers Spike and Missy -- don't generate much chemistry despite an overwhelmingly sexual first appearance together. Yolanda Ross, as Newton's wife Tracie, wanders through her scenes without making much of a mark, even during a supposedly emotional breakthrough she has with Geer's lackluster Gary.

Wing-Davey emphasizes mood over action, giving the production a stylized, surreal feel to it. Despite the volatile emotions it depicts, the pacing is often slowed down to a measured, methodical speed. This is greatly enhanced by Japhy Weideman's lighting with its shadows and half-light, and Bart Fasbender's sound design, particularly when nearly entire songs are utilized to underscore otherwise silent scenes.

Mark Wendland's versatile scenic design has different set pieces and partitions slide in and out to suit the needs of the play. Staged in the round, the scenes play out a little differently depending on where you're seated. This can be somewhat annoying when you're mostly seeing the actors' backs, but it also provides a thematic reinforcement of the limited perspectives that the characters themselves are able to witness.

Sadly, the provocative racial issues that the playwright raises end up feeling under-explored. And the storylines themselves come to predictable conclusions with forced, and at times, melodramatic endings.

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