For the past half-century, Adrienne Kennedy has carved out a unique niche for herself in the American avant-garde. Her one-act plays, such as Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), A Rat’s Mass (1966) and Ohio State Murders (1992), are dense with allusions to pop culture, especially the movies, and fascinated with European royalty. Though riffing on Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, they are often semi-autobiographical, animated by Kennedy’s experiences as a black woman in America but shaded by her time abroad in Ghana and London. Elliptical and surreal, they cut right to divisions and hypocrisies at the heart of American society. He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, Kennedy’s first new play in a decade, may be her most narratively straightforward work yet, but even at a svelte 45 minutes it is no easily digestible scrap.
What little story there is concerns two young people connected to a “boarding school for colored” in 1941 Georgia who have long watched each other from afar. Chris (Tom Pecinka) is the son of the school’s founder and town father, and Kay (Juliana Canfield, making a striking New York debut) is a multiracial student there. Both are without mothers; Chris has just buried his earlier that day, and Kay’s died in mysterious circumstances (alluded to in the play’s title). Though they talk about moving to New York so Chris can be on the stage, and then to Paris, the shadows of the past loom inescapably. Chris’s mother always accused his father of loving “those Negro children” more than his own family, but even though he considers them all his offspring, the only thing they will inherit from him is the inequality he entrenched in the town’s design, condemning the “coloreds” (in an eerie echo of last year’s breakout film Get Out) to live in the “sunken” part of town. Signs designating separate white and “colored” areas are a recurring motif throughout.
Christopher Barreca’s two-story tall brick set is cut vertically in half by a long stairway that ends at the top of the second floor with a set of double doors that never open. At the bottom of the stairs sits a platform with three chairs on either side, piled with clothes for the characters to change into. The white mannequin on the front stage left chair stands in for all the men like Chris’s father who hold sway over the young people’s lives without even having to be present.
Evan Yionoulis directs with a fluidity born from experience with Kennedy’s work (she staged the 2008 Off-Broadway revival of Ohio State Murders). Her actors pursue each other up and down the stairs in a pas de deux that gives Chris and Kay’s relationship a weight not present in Kennedy’s cerebral text. Though Pecinka’s bearing and accent are understandably more imperious than Canfield’s, both actors speak in a languorous molasses drawl, which makes it all the more astonishing that the play is able to say so much in so little time.
If anything, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box may be trying to say too much. Less a straightforward narrative than a Beckettian dream play, the production begins simply, mingling the characters’ shadows on Barreca’s vertiginous set with the shadows of those who came before. Yet video designer Austin Switser’s kaleidoscopic projections become increasingly chaotic and overstuffed, literalizing what Kennedy’s spare poetic language has only suggested. The impulse is understandable, as the text is perhaps too spare, proceeding in sluggish chunks and never approaching the gonzo transcendence of Kennedy’s other work.
Yet the production has one more trick up its sleeve, a dialogue-free ending that involves a blind retreat down the stairs and an image of wordless lovers that recalls the unflinching urban photography of Weegee, the mid-20th-century ambulance-chasing poet of the underworld. As Chris and Kay retreat to their own sunken place, the audience is left with the anguished cry of a titan of the theater, wondering why so little has changed in 50 years.
The world premiere of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box runs through Feb. 11 at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. There will be an additional performance at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 8. For tickets and information call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit tfana.org.