Return Editions, with Magnetic Additions, Off-Broadway
Posted February 9, 2018 9:04 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — She looks so much like Jacqueline Kennedy, if Jacqueline Kennedy had been dressed in black instead of pink on the day her husband was assassinated at her side. This is another widow, though — Betty Shabazz, wife of the civil rights leader Malcolm X, and the simple lines of her dress and the flip of her hair place her in the same era as Camelot.
But don’t let that demure strand of pearls trick you into underestimating her. In Roslyn Ruff’s instantly commanding performance in Marcus Gardley’s “X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation,” Shabazz is no whisper-voiced helpmate. Angry, aggrieved, utterly composed, she is out for justice on behalf of her slain husband, prosecuting a case in some cosmic court. She’s seeking to hold members of the Nation of Islam accountable for his murder, 53 years ago this month at the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.
Shabazz wants to prove the guilt of those men “categorically, putting to bed all ifs, ands and a few butts,” she says in her opening statement, aiming her contemptuous pun straight at the accused. Who wouldn’t love her immediately?
The show’s run at the Theater at St. Clement’s is a return engagement for a production that won praise in a brief run last year at the New Victory Theater. Directed by Ian Belknap, it has largely the same cast this time around, with Jimonn Cole once again playing Malcolm X.
Ruff, however, is a new addition, and she is magnetic.
Gardley’s play is a time-bending riff on Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” with a similar clutch of back-stabbing conspirators. It demands — and, with Ruff, gets — a Betty Shabazz who is bold, comic, romantic and fully capable of searing you with the pain that burned into her on the day her husband died. This is a fantasy version of the real Shabazz, and a rose-colored vision of her marriage, but in Ruff’s hands there’s not a speck of historical dust on her. Her Betty Shabazz is gloriously alive.
Downtown, at the SoHo Playhouse, there’s another show — more subtly about civil rights, and at a very different phase of the fight — that also has a terrific new replacement in the cast.
Well, OK, it’s a one-man show; he is the cast. So the tiny jolt of psychic readjustment that comes with Jeff Hiller’s solo curtain call, in “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns,” is just the rational part of your brain grabbing the wheel from your imagination, which was so sure that there were four people on that stage.
One of them, obviously, is Hiller’s character, Gerry — a long, tall, extravagantly coked-up chatterbox whose verbal inhibitions have been given the night off as he swills a slew of potent drinks on the patio of a vacation rental in Palm Springs, California. The three guys out there with him are also guests at tomorrow’s wedding: Gerry’s best friend and ex, Dwayne; Mack, Dwayne’s much younger boyfriend; and Neil, Gerry’s nemesis.
Sure, you can’t hear or see them, but in Hiller’s pauses as he listens to their side of the conversation, they are as present as Gerry is. That’s part of the wonder of his riotously funny, surprisingly nuanced performance in this play by Drew Droege, its original star.
Directed by Michael Urie, who knows his way around a solo show, “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns” gets its title from a sartorial prohibition on the wedding invitation. It seems that the mother of one of the grooms would like the gay guests to tone it down and blend in. This shaming sets Gerry off into a frenzy of comic vitriol, but there’s something deeper at work, too: his fear that gay culture, so assimilated now, no longer has room for loud, lonely misfits like him.
By the time he lets his vulnerability show, he has hit the quiet, contemplative phase of extreme drunkenness. It would be easy for the performance to turn saccharine there, but Hiller deftly doesn’t let it. Flashing that big smile of his, he gets wistful, and a play that had seemed mere shallow fun displays its depths.
— Event information:
‘X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation’
Through Feb. 25 at the Theater at St. Clement’s, Manhattan; theactingcompany.org.
‘Bright Colors and Bold Patterns’
Through Feb. 25 at the SoHo Playhouse, Manhattan; brightcolorsandboldpatterns.com.