Mixed Signals, Crossed Wires

Al’s Business Cards starts with a comic situation that spirals quickly into something darker. Playwright Josh Koenigsberg’s work is presented as part of the Old Vic New Voices initiative of London’s Old Vic Theatre, which is under the artistic direction of Kevin Spacey, and it bodes well for the program as a vehicle for fostering young writers. Al Gurvis (Azhar Khan) and his buddy Barry (Bobby Moreno) work together as electricians, although Al has described himself on his recently ordered business cards with a more high-toned term, “gaffing assistant.” But his cards have mistakenly been delivered to Eileen Lee (Lauren Hines), a real estate agent. Worse, they apparently have a misprint: “gassing assistant.” That all this leads to comic misunderstandings is to be expected, but Koenigsberg’s twists lead the story into unexpected places as well.

Although the first scene seems to wander a bit, it establishes that Barry is a good-hearted dimwit given to casual racial profiling. Not only does he think Al’s “gaffing assistant” is pretentious, but to his surprise, he discovers that Al is half Indian, whereas he thought Al was Mexican. “You think they’re not gonna feel misled when they hire ‘Al Gurvis’ and you show up?” he warns Al. “They think they’re hiring a white electrician and instead they get this lying Hispanic?” Meanwhile, Al assumes that Eileen Lee is Asian because of her last name. Moreover, a reference Eileen has made over the phone to “the program” leads Barry to an instant certainty that she’s an alcoholic. (In fact, Eileen is in recovery.)

Eileen turns out not to be Asian. She is a pretty, composed professional, although she is being stalked by her husband, Daniel, an alcoholic who has resisted getting help. As played with feverish desperation by Malcolm Madera, Daniel unbalances the play: he is the most fascinating character, straddling the line between aching romantic and loony stalker; he’s both venal and victimized. Madera runs with the opportunity: he has some nifty physical business trying to swallow pills without water, and he pulls off a big pratfall with aplomb.

Daniel wants to save his marriage, and he can’t accept that Eileen has moved on. He thinks Al, whom she has met for dinner to discuss selling him a house, is her lover (with some justification). And he has the goods on Al, so he thinks. The private eye he has hired (a gimlet-eyed, no-nonsense Gabriel Gutiérrez) has learned that Al is an illegal immigrant, and Eileen risks her career by selling him a home. Unfortunately, Al's attraction to Eileen never matches the comic frenzy of this subplot.

Koenigsberg's theme is that pigeonholing people can do real, unintentional harm. It’s more than the casual racism displayed by Barry, who seems to feel that Al is getting above himself with printed business cards. It’s also Daniel’s false assumptions about Al’s relationship to Eileen. In every case, preconceptions harm innocent people.

With the recent brouhaha between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and police Sgt. Jim Crowley in Cambridge, Mass., the play’s racial sensibilities cut two ways. On the one hand, it feels timely. On the other hand, the casual discussion of race, even among friends like Al and Barry, comes off awkwardly, since the Gates incident demonstrates that race is a subject most people avoid. Though Al becomes touchy when Barry assumes he’s Mexican, it stretches credibility to think that he has had no inkling of Barry’s attitudes. Has he really not noticed after years of working with Barry that his colleague is in the habit of labeling people by race? And since Al takes offense, why would he be socializing with such a person? Of course, Koenigsberg wouldn’t have any dialogue if his characters balked at discussing the subject, but the situation registers as contrived.

If at times the play doesn’t seem fully developed and focused, the characters are fleshed out persuasively by the talented cast under the direction of Lauren Keating. There’s also a brief, 10-minute curtain-raiser called Haircut and a Cocktail, directed by Zack Robidas and starring Stefanie Estes and Sarah Ries as two Southern women gossiping in a beauty parlor; it too shows the playwright’s ability to mingle comedy with angst, though the characters are stereotypes.

But Koenigsberg shows a talent for comedy that goes beyond rat-a-tat gag writing. He sets up jokes carefully. The payoff isn’t immediate, but it comes and it’s more enjoyable for the wait. That alone is something to savor.

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