Nine Lives

It’s become trendy in recent years to take seemingly disparate storylines and explore the volatile ways in which they connect. Paul Haggis’ 2006 Oscar winning Crash followed a diverse array of characters as their segregated worlds collided in Los Angeles; the following year Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film Babel applied the same format to an international scale. How appropriate, then, that the New York version of this story is not a Hollywood blockbuster but a crackling piece of downtown theater. Publicity materials describe Unconditional, by Brett C. Leonard as “nine New York stories [that] converge in a racially and sexually charged tale of rage, love, justice and betrayal.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a piece that would better typify the LAByrinth Theater Company’s mission of “producing new plays reflecting the many voices in our New York City community.”

Under the direction of Mark Wing-Davey, Unconditional is staged in the round at The Public Theater, where the issues of perspective so central to each character's trajectory are slickly embodied by Mark Wendland’s scenic design. The set is comprised almost entirely of white peg board, with peg board dividers sliding in and out to frame different areas of the stage. The dividers are highly effective in delineating divisions of the performance space; still more effective is their conspicuous absence as the play reaches its meaty center and the character’s stories become increasingly intertwined.

Though the layout of the space is uniquely theatrical, at times the play runs like a tightly-packed television program, covering a lot of ground in a necessarily short amount of time. Bart Fasbender’s sound design underscores otherwise silent scenes with music that goes a long way toward creating ambiance. That furthers the production’s cinematic sensibility, as does Japhy Weideman’s light design. When the peg board dividers disappear, lighting directs audience focus, often creating brief moments with enough intensity to feel like complete scenes.

But then, nearly every scene of the production is marked by both brevity and intensity. At just over two-hours, the convergent storylines pack in a lot: lynching, battery, drug abuse, spousal abuse, theft, racism, fetishism, loneliness. The actors do well with the material most of the time, especially John Doman, who nails the difficult role of Keith by balancing bitter anger and dry dejection with dark charm. Other standouts include Saidah Arrika Ekulona as Keith’s occasional lover, who exudes ambivalent power shaded with quiet desperation, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr., whose sheer conviction rescues the play’s most didactic monologue.

But it’s Elizabeth Rodriguez’s Jessica, the character with the least drama-filled trajectory, whose final scene best exemplifies the hopeless isolation faced by each of the characters. As a spirited, opinionated friend, Rodriguez takes a role that might otherwise serve simply as welcome comic relief – and the play’s sole voice of optimism – and infuses it with a sense of loss that matches those of the other, more wildly tragic characters.

Yet, the fact that the character with the least substantive storyline has some of the play’s most heart-achingly poignant moments indicates a problem. At best, the problem is structural. Balancing nine characters and numerous storylines is a difficult task, and the team behind Unconditional deserves credit for making a play with such a bleak outlook so consistently entertaining. Audiences need not worry about getting bored over the course of the production, and anyone looking for a dark winter evening at the theatre will probably enjoy it. Still, Unconditional suggests that witnessing a likable character suffer subtle loss can prove both more potent and more sophisticated than violent murders and gritty sex scenes. At least, that’s the case here.

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