Over 5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer's, a number set to increase by 40 percent over the next decade, according to the Alzheimer's Association. By 2026, a quarter of America's adult population will be 65 and older. Staggering as these statistics are, they don't even begin to reveal the full implications of an aging (and increasingly senile) population with fewer and fewer care options. Thankfully, Colman Domingo tackles the subject with intelligence, heart, and humor in his magnificent new play, Dot, now making its New York debut at Vineyard Theatre. Through Domingo's sensitive treatment, real flesh-and-blood people emerge from the spreadsheets, engrossing us in their story.
Once upon a time, Dotty (Marjorie Johnson) reigned supreme over her domain: politically active and holding little tolerance for foolishness, she raised three children and sent them off to college, even as the neighborhood seemed to crumble around her. Now the family has reconvened for Christmas at mom's row house in West Philadelphia. Oldest daughter, Shelly (Sharon Washington), thinks this might be the right time to discuss putting Dotty in a home. She's in the early stages of Alzheimer's and pretty soon it will be more than Fidel (Michael Rosen), her Kazakh home caregiver, can handle. Shelly's brother, Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore), and his husband, Adam (Colin Hanlon), seem like her most natural allies in this endeavor, but they're distracted by their faltering relationship and weakened by their latest juice cleanse. Shelly certainly can't rely on her little sister, Averie (Libya V. Pugh), a loudmouthed D-list YouTube sensation. Playing the part of the cherry on top of this dysfunctional sundae, Stephen's ex-girlfriend, Jackie (Finnerty Steeves), has decided to join them for the holidays. The stage is alternately set for an explosive family drama or an uproarious farce. Dot doesn't disappoint on either front.
This is very much an actor's play, full of plum roles and juicy dialogue, some of which causes the forward thrust of the plot to meander off-course. For instance, Jackie doesn't add much to the central themes of the show and her surprise B-plot (no spoilers here) is never satisfactorily resolved (Steeves does her best in this generally thankless role). Despite its shagginess, this kind of digression is preferable to the type of "writer's play" we’re seeing a lot of on stages now, in which the performers are forced to make academic dissertations sound natural and spontaneous. Domingo (a Tony-nominated performer) knows how to write words and situations that actors can knock out of the park, which this cast happily does.
Washington easily embodies the role of Shelly, the middle-aged lawyer with chameleonic hair. She's at her wit's end with mom and frustrated that her younger siblings won't help out. "I sound like such a bitch," she says, exasperated. "Girl, I don’t feel like myself. This isn’t me. I’m fun. Fun! Right?" Certainly, many American women will commiserate. Moore and Hanlon are masters in the kitchen whisper fight, while Pugh is just plain fun as Averie, the life of the party. Everyone has spot-on comic timing.
It is Johnson, however, who truly astounds us with her performance. Somewhat cruelly named, Dotty is a woman used to being on top of everything. Over the course of the play, Johnson navigates a dozen little realizations that her memory is slipping each hitting us like a punch in the gut. We can see the disappointment and fear washing over her face. It is one thing to be completely gone (like Momo in The Humans), but to see one's oblivion coming, powerless to stop it, is truly terrifying.
In addition to thoughtfully portraying this too-common scenario for the elderly, Domingo should be applauded for writing the character of a Central Asian immigrant: those exceptional children of the Soviet twilight who move our furniture, peddle our pedi-cabs, and have not hitherto been portrayed in our theater (to my knowledge). That ends with Fidel, a dynamic character made even more real through Michael Rosen's nuanced performance. Quietly speaking Russian, he engages in a fraught Skype conversation in the corner, but keeps his bad news to himself (which is easy since any interest expressed by his navel-gazing American employers is fleeting). He sublimates his pain as he shuffles around the house, cleaning up and serving coffee with a plastered smile. Like Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel before him, Rosen proves that there's no such thing as playing "just a maid."
Accustomed to helming giant musicals like Bullets Over Broadway and The Producers, director Susan Stroman has marshalled the cast and designers in an intimate yet captivating production, with utmost attention given to the little details. Allen Moyer's first act set looked like it was plundered from my grandmother's house, all yellow cabinetry and busy fruit-print wallpaper. Ben Stanton's natural lighting trickles through the ground floor windows of the townhouse, slyly alerting us to the passage of time. Costume designer Kara Harmon exhibits a remarkable handle on her characters and their fashion choices: from Fidel's baggy jeans and fleece to Averie's knee-high boots. Nothing seems out of place.
And that is another reason we can forgive Domingo's verbosity: When the design is this perfect, the acting this good, and the one-liners this witty, we have no desire to hastily vacate the theater. Full of laughter and heartbreak, Dot is an evening well-spent.