Packed with emotion, adolescent angst and eventfully picaresque, The White Dress is playwright Roger Q. Mason’s passionate autobiographical saga of a “gender non-conforming queer person of color.” It’s boldly presented and contains vivid performances, but the amorphous structure and idiosyncratic writing dilute its momentum.
“Fourth wall address is one of the backbones of this play…,” states Mr. Mason in his stage directions. So, we get characters announcing, “Lights shift.” “A school bell rings.” “They try to make each other’s mouths melt together.” “They laugh.” These are an illustrative fraction of the heavy usage of this technique. “In stage directions we learn who people really are, what they think about each other, what their hopes and dreams and fears do to them.” It’s a lofty rationale for this arguably irritating, distracting and time wasting meta contrivance.
The time is now and “the future present” possibly in Los Angeles. Theo is a successful black lawyer and Hazel is his Filipino wife. The marriage is strained because Theo is a closeted gay man. Their son Jonathan is the central character of the play and we follow him from the age of eight to his twenties. Also integral is his childhood friend Winnie. Their complex relationship begins in childhood and continues to young adulthood. Through their connection, the issues of gender, sexual fluidity and intimacy are explored.
Mason has crafted a number of arresting scenes. Theo hiring a prostitute for sexual roleplay and then discussing Tennessee Williams, Hazel coming in on and them, her Southern boyfriend leaving her, and Theo and Jonathan trying on a pair of women’s shoes together are among the standouts. However, between the reciting the stage directions routine and other bits that come across as filler, they stall the play’s full potential. Still, Mason has created an intriguing work dramatizing compelling subject matter that’s fitfully engrossing.
Before the play begins there is an extended dance scene introducing many of the characters and there are several other lively dance sequences throughout. These are the superior handiwork of director and choreographer Adin Walker. Employing expressive movement, rich tableaus and melding the vigorous technical elements, Mr. Walker has surmounted the difficulties of this complex material and brings it for the stage as successfully as possible. In addition, the cast Walker has assembled strongly embodies each role.
The wiry, youthful and appealing Stanley Mathabane is commanding as Jonathan. Mr. Mathabane beautifully conveys the character’s coming of age anguish and confusion with his charming sincerity while also majestically dancing. The captivating C. Bain is equally entrancing in depicting Winnie’s gender journey.
With fury and piercing humor, the charismatic Atticus Cain has the powerful essence of an August Wilson hero as the volatile Theo. Mr. Cain veers from matter of fact to grand histrionics as he achieves his enthralling characterization. The animated Aurea Tomeski’s explosive performance as Hazel is wrenching.
One of Mason’s more effective tools is the figure of “Everyman.” Clad in a David Bowie-style body suit all of the time, the sprightly Ian Smith portrays a series of subsidiary roles with distinction, verisimilitude and flair. From the impish sex worker to the good old boy and a wistful gay construction worker, Mr. Smith is magnetically flawless.
The theater is configured as a three-sided runway with two rows of seats in each area. Accentuating the play’s shifting times, locations and states of being is scenic designer Riw Rakkulchon’s shredded plastic curtains that adorn the walls of the playing area and that invoke a cerebral dimension. White cubes continually rearranged by the company swiftly connote the differing locales.
From strings of globular light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and other sources, lighting designer Victoria Bain creates a luminous environment.
The Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” is but one of the evocative songs from various areas that are smashingly rendered by Caroline Eng’s soaring sound design that gives a pulsing vibe to the production.
Sarafina Bush’s costume design of inspired street clothes and specialty pieces crisply realizes each character. There is also a gleaming white dress that a character holds and dances with. It serves as symbolism as the play’s title is never stated anytime during the evening.
Though narratively problematic, The White Dress’ heartfelt tone and stimulating production endows it with resonance.
The White Dress (through July 20, 2019)
Access Theater, 380 Broadway, in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission