‘Fairview’: Go See This: It’ll Make You Feel Just Awful
Posted June 17, 2018 7:56 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Let me give you fair warning on “Fairview,” Jackie Sibblies Drury’s dazzling and ruthless new play: If you see it — and you must — you will not be comfortable.
That’s not because the seats at Soho Rep., where this extraordinary show opened Sunday night, are any harder or lumpier than those of most small, downtown theaters. But you will undoubtedly be squirming in yours.
You will also wind up questioning your basic right to sit there, especially if, like the majority of New York theatergoers, you are a white person. And some time after the show has ended, when you’re thinking straight again, you’ll realize just how artfully you have been toyed with before the final kill, as the mouse to one canny cat of a play.
Directed with disarming smoothness and military precision by Sarah Benson, “Fairview” begins amicably enough, or so it would appear. What occurs in its protracted first scene isn’t all that different from a standard-issue sitcom episode of, say, the mid-to-late-1980s.
A middle-class, impeccably coifed and made-up mom, Beverly Fraser (Heather Alicia Simms), is anxiously preparing for a party in her fastidiously appointed, beige-on-beige home. It’s her formidable mother’s birthday, and Beverly wants everything to be perfect.
But her loving husband, Dayton (Charles Browning); their teenage daughter, Keisha (MaYaa Boateng); and especially Beverly’s officious sister, Jasmine (Roslyn Ruff), aren’t being very helpful. Will the carrots be peeled and cooked, the cake baked and the table set as it should be before Grandma, who is upstairs, makes her entrance?
Sounds like a snooze, doesn’t it? Still, you may detect an occasional tear — so small it barely lets light through — in the glossy expositional blandness. For instance, the music Beverly has on melts and mutates for a microsecond; every now and then, the expression on her face turns lost and wary; and the geography of the characters’ entrances and exits feels strangely illogical, when you think about it.
And that, really, is all I can say about what happens in “Fairview,” at least without spoiling one of the most exquisitely and systematically arranged ambushes of an unsuspecting audience in years. Oh, I do need to mention that the Fraser family is black.
I know, I know. That distinction is immaterial in the 21st century, at least in reference to what appears to be a kind of every-person generic comedy.
Yeah, right. And I have a miracle diet I’d like to sell you.
Drury has been a playwright to watch for several years, with intellectually probing, form-questioning works that include “Really” and “We Are Proud to Present ....” But nothing she has done previously has prepared audiences for “Fairview,” starting with a title whose resonance fully registers only after the play is over.
Examined element by element, “Fairview” presents nothing theatrically new. Many of its tools of subversion date to the early days of the Absurdists and the mind games of Pirandello and Ionesco, while others — more technologically sophisticated — are staples of the contemporary European avant-garde.
But Drury and Benson have assembled vintage ingredients with a purposeful, very American ingenuity that restores the shock value to such classic audience baiting. And I found myself thinking that this must be what it was like to come upon the work of Edward Albee — the tutelary deity of the theater of discomfort — off-Broadway in the early 1960s.
“Fairview” is structured as a series of perspective-altering surprises, and they keep coming at you even when you think its creators must surely have emptied their bag of tricks. You begin watching by feeling mildly amused, then uneasy, then annoyed, then unsettled. And then abruptly you’re free-falling down a rabbit hole, and there’s no safe landing in sight.
This sustained act of sabotage is realized by an impeccably synced team. As the artistic director of Soho Rep., where she staged Sarah Kane’s “Blasted” and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” Benson is a past master of the drama of disruption, and she is at the top of her game here.
Every aspect of “Fairview” has a slyly manipulative raison d'être. That includes Mimi Lien’s tidily framed set, with its invisible mirror of a fourth wall; Montana Levi Blanco’s increasingly outrageous costumes; and the “gotcha!” lighting (by Amith Chandrashaker) and sound (Mikaal Sulaiman).
But don’t underestimate the importance of Ryan Courtney’s props, which assume alarmingly multifarious roles, and Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography. Dancing is a big part of “Fairview,” but it isn’t there for entertainment purposes, or not for long, anyway.
As for the ensemble — which also includes Hannah Cabell, Natalia Payne, Jed Resnick and Luke Robertson — it does exactly what the play requires of it, which is saying something. The women, especially, inhabit their artificially constructed roles with an in-the-moment immediacy, only marginally rimmed with unease.
Playing the youngest family member, Boateng also winds up with the heaviest acting duties, and she executes them with unblinking, confrontational clarity. “Isn’t she cute?” a part of you may say when her Keisha bounds onto the stage. You will be punished for ever having thought so.
As you may have inferred, “Fairview” is all about race, and especially about how white people look at black people. More broadly, you might argue, it’s about the defective lenses through which we view one another and the world around us. But, no, it’s all about race.
It may seem untoward to suggest that anything good is emerging from the ethnically dis-United States at this frightening juncture in its history. But it’s worth remarking that racial alienation and division have been the basis for the most exciting American plays of recent years, including “An Octoroon” and Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell’s “Underground Railroad Game.”
“Fairview” is a galvanizing addition to this gallery. It is also a glorious, scary reminder of the unmatched power of live theater to rattle, roil and shake us wide awake.
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Credits: By Jackie Sibblies Drury; directed by Sarah Benson; choreography by Raja Feather Kelly; sets by Mimi Lien; costumes by Montana Levi Blanco; lighting by Amith Chandrashaker; sound by Mikaal Sulaiman; props by Ryan Courtney; hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan; fight director, J. David Brimmer; dramaturge, Madeleine Oldham; production manager, Will Duty. Presented by Soho Rep.
Cast: Jed Resnick (Mack), MaYaa Boateng (Keisha), Luke Robertson (Jimbo), Charles Browning (Dayton), Roslyn Ruff (Jasmine), Hannah Cabell (Suze), Heather Alicia Simms (Beverly) and Natalia Payne (Bets).
Through July 8 at Soho Rep., Manhattan; 866-811-4111, sohorep.org. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.