Parks's "F**king A," Stephens's "On the Shore of the Wide World" Lesser Works From A-List Playwrights

In the F**king A program note, Suzan-Lori Parks pens a self-incriminatory confession about how she came to write this one of her two Red Letter Plays. She relates that the idea came to her on a 1997 canoe outing when she spouted to her canoeing partner that she was going to compose a riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, this despite her never having read the classic American novel.

Sticking to her abrupt utterance, she thumbed through the revered tale—“This is really interesting,” she says of it—and then launched into the first of many drafts, not liking along the way what she’d constructed. That’s until she got companion play In the Blood done, returned to F**cking A and “easily” finished the work revived now at the Signature Theater.

She should have kept revising. Instead, she’s settled on something that hits the resistant ears and astonished eyes as an homage to Bertolt Brecht by someone who hasn’t yet assimilated the points the German playwright was trying to get across.

Perhaps some patrons, searching for a reason that this play exists, will give it the benefit of doubt as a Brecht spoof. Borrowing the name of Hawthorne’s protagonist, Parks intros abortionist Hester (Christine Lahti, welcome back to a New York stage nonetheless) who goes about her chosen profession(?) dutifully, often aided by hooker Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango). She’s also being courted by Butcher (Raphael Nash Thompson). Much of what Hester and Butcher have in common is that they both wear bloodied aprons.

Hester’s town—perhaps a present locale, since the word “cyberfraud” gets dropped—is presided over by The Mayor (Marc Kudisch), whose mistress is the above-mentioned Canary Mary and whose First Lady (Elizabeth Stanley) has been unable to give her philandering hubby the son he longs for.

Sad sack Hester (Emilio Sosa designed the sad sack she wears, Rachel Hauck the sad shack Hester calls home) lives only to reunite with her jailed son. He’s known here as Monster (Brandon Victor Dixon), because he’s now an escaped convict, perpetrating several crimes—among them, robbing Hester, who doesn’t notice the scar on his left forearm that matches the one on hers. She had bitten them into being when Monster was hauled away to prison.

The horror Parks sees in a world made only of horrors becomes predictable when viewers realize that here’s a playwright brashly setting out with a simplistic weltanschauung. (The German term is invoked for what should be obvious reasons.) Does the First Lady bear the child she finally conceives, if, perhaps, not by her husband? Do Hester, Monster and some others escape the plot with their lives? Mum’s the word here.

Oddly enough, F**cking A might be better as a song cycle, since Parks regularly interrupts the hoary, hairy action with hard-edged numbers—also like Brecht’s works when Kurt Weill was handy. One called “Hard Times” is sung beautifully by the entire cast (the others being J. Cameron Barnett, Ben Horner, Ruibo Qian). This “Hard Times” is not to be confused with the Stephen Foster “Hard Times,” but it’s a worthy new approach. Is a CD in the offing? It would be nice if it were. Otherwise, Hawthorne may be spinning in his grave. More likely, he’s chuckling.

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For some time now, Simon Stephens has established himself as one of England’s foremost contemporary playwrights,--perhaps the best known example stateside being his stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But as, as with all the best playwrights, not every new work is top-drawer.

Which brings us to On the Shore of the Wide World, at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross. Three generations of one family endure trial after tribulation as they scurry up and down the staircase on Scott Pask’s two-level house. First spotted are Alex Holmes (Ben Rosenfield) and girlfriend Sarah Black (Tedra Millan) at the beginning of their young adult romance, a bond complicated shortly by younger brother Christopher Holmes (Wesley Zurick), who has a crush on Sarah.

Subsequently, parents Peter Holmes (C.J. Wilson), a house painter-handyman, and wife Alice (Mary McCann) show up to bicker and then suffer the after-effects of a family death. On their heels, grandparents Charlie Holmes (Peter Maloney) and wife Ellen (Blair Brown) materialize.

For two acts and through many scenes—which by the latter part of the second act become too many scenes—these six find reasons to quarrel in every imaginable combination so that audience members have to begin thinking, “Uh-oh, what now?”

Alex and Sarah tire of their North England existence and leave for London, despite Peter and Alice’s wishes. They don’t jibe with London and so return. Peter takes platonically to homeowner Susan Reynolds (Amelia Workman), in part because he thinks Alice is having an affair, the someone being John Robinson (Leroy McClain), the man involved in their family tragedy. Charlie gets abusive with Ellen—with Christopher an inconveniently, dramatically convenient witness.

And those are only some of the contretemps that this character bundle—including drug dealer(?) Paul Danziger (Odiseas Georgiadis)—gets into. Stephens fires the complications like buckshot against a barn wall. Some stick and some don’t. When they do, it’s thanks in large part to the excellent cast—Wilson, Maloney, McCann and Rosenfield the standouts. Neil Pepe certainly directs them all well, but he hasn’t entirely found his way around the play.

Importantly, On the Shore of the Wide World takes place in Stockport, just outside of Manchester, in 2004. (Stephens was born in Manchester and undoubtedly knows many things about Stockport.) So the troupe members, good as they are, need to speak with a Stockport accent. It so happens I know a few Stockport folks, and these supposed Stockport denizens don’t sound much like those with whom I’m familiar. (The production dialogue coach is Stephen Gabis, who’s probably done the best he can here.)

Where Stephens is concerned, the thing for the Atlantic—or some producing outfit—to do is mount A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, which he co-adapted for the stage with David Eldridge (who wrote the novel) and Robert Holman. Now there’s a beauty of a play, and it’s never been seen here.

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