A teenage boy goes missing, and his foster sister embarks on an urban odyssey to track him down in the Playwrights Realm’s brazen production of The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll'd. Early-career dramatist Jonathan Payne unleashes a Pandora’s box of theatrical devices, including symbolically named characters, direct audience interaction, screen projections, a live-streaming cellphone, and actors not only breaking the fourth wall but breaking character as well. Veteran Off-Broadway director Awoye Timpo molds it all into a bracing panorama of societal failures amid institutional racism. That is, until the final scene when, with the play’s momentum waning, she and Payne risk one last gambit that unfortunately swallows up all that came before it.
The story begins with a misdirect as a Greek chorus of street denizens introduces us to an inner-city neighborhood known as the Oblong, replete with drug dealers, gang warfare, failing schools and many flavors of fraud. We meet two of its elder citizens, a wise coot named Curtis (Keith Randolph Smith) and a sketchy funeral parlor owner known as Madam Rose Profit (Lynda Gravátt), who insists her name is pronounced Pro-fee. Either way, she is apparently in it for the money. She is dressed in black so as to mourn the lost boys of her city, the “boy-bodies that flood my viewing room, that wear down my embalming table.” And she claims that we, the audience, the “quiet stagnant mass,” must share in the blame. Then the tale’s focus pivots from its elders to its youth, as Karma (Kara Young) emerges from a back row of the house to inquire of the Madam if her foster brother, Terrell, is one of those fallen boys. Assured that Terrell has not turned up on the madam’s slab, the good Karma ventures off on her mission, encountering victims, hustlers and exhausted do-gooders, each surviving in their fractured social systems, along the way.
Payne, a social worker by day, writes well of what he knows. So, we meet Mr. Meyerson (Kenneth Tigar), a broken-down teacher in a broken-down high school who can no longer keep his students’ names straight. And then there is Terrell’s former foster mother (Deonna Bouye), who is still collecting the government check for the missing boy while harboring another child, the 12-year-old Dante (Donnell E. Smith).
This young lad is not drawn subtly. He speaks his first lines out of character: “Dante is twelve years old. As you can see, I am not twelve. I am a full-grown adult. And this is on purpose...for a point…” Soon thereafter he presents a biblical interpretation of his fallen hometown, instructing that “God wasn’t dead, just depressed by what he saw.” His monologue is accompanied by a series of childlike drawings projected onto a wall. After all, if you’re going to illustrate the presence of a supreme being, what better metaphorical tool to employ than an overhead projector?
As Karma, Young hustles the audience for loose change, brawls with the thugs who get in her way and finds a layer of tenderness underneath her tough façade that leads to a standout performance. Madam Profit reappears throughout the night, and if Gravátt seemed unsteady with her lines in her first scene, her director solves the problem in the next by blatantly seating her behind a music stand with the script at the ready. Tigar nicely embodies the weary old teacher, then reappears later as an Irish patrolman who cannot keep in character. Turning to apologize to the audience for having to endure such a minor scene, he compensates by providing the cop’s entire backstory before promising, “I’m going to play him now. Like I played Willy Loman at the Irish Classical Theatre in Buffalo.” It’s a particularly enjoyable bit of business, given Tigar’s long career as a film and TV character actor, dating back to Barney Miller.
As for the conclusion, Karma’s last stop is an especially bad part of town where she hangs out with two hoodlums named Death and Youth. What transpires between them is perhaps meant to make the audience reflect on the problem of being that “quiet stagnant mass.” Instead, there is the disappointment spurred by a surprise ending that is severely abrupt in terms of the plot, yet painfully drawn out in its staging. Stunned into a confused silence and deprived of a curtain call, the crowd can only offer up a smattering of applause before being ushered out of the mean streets of Karma’s youth, and into the rushing, gentrified streets of the Great White Way.
The Playwrights Realm’s production of The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll'd runs through Oct. 6 at The Duke (229 W. 42nd St.) Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday. For information and tickets, visit playwrightsrealm.org,