Three timely plays given superb productions offer stark contrasts to the Broadway blockbusters you probably can’t get into anyway, as well as some of the best performances on view anywhere.
• School Girls; or The African Mean Girls Play. As the title suggests, Jocelyn Bioh’s drama draws some inspiration from Tina Fey‘s film. So while you’re waiting for the musical version of the movie to arrive on Broadway this spring (the Washington tryout run just received money reviews), warm up with this remarkable journey into a Ghanaian girls’ school, where queen bee Paulina (the outstanding Maameyaa Boafo) lords it over her devoted clique. Paulina waves a hand or snaps a finger and the others fall into line, nodding even as she natters about a soccer-star boyfriend no one’s ever seen, designer clothes of suspect provenance and U.S. relations who work at what she assures them are high-class venues called White Castle and Wal-Mart.
Set in 1986 and based on a true story, the play concerns Paulina’s (and the rest of the girls’) preparation for a visit by the representative of the Miss Ghana Pageant, with its promise of escaping this backwater. Paulina’s ruthless control of the other girls and her hopes of a place in the beauty contest are upended with the arrival of Ericka (perfectly cast Nabiyah Be), the classic beautiful New Girl, who has lighter skin, real sophistication and, trumping almost everything else, an instant read on Paulina’s cruel game. The fact that Ericka is probably not a real Ghanaian is of little consequence to the interviewer, Eloise (Zainab Jah, coiled and sympathy-free), who is determined to “discover” a winner that will in turn raise her own profile.
Staged by Rebecca Taichman (last year’s Tony winner for Indecent) with an irresistible combination of verve and sensitivity, School Girls is pretty impossible not to love, even as the play takes a predictable turn into heart-on-sleeve coming-of-age territory. The ensemble is flawless and so engaging that this MCC Theater production has now been extended twice at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village.
• Actually. This two-character drama by Anna Ziegler, on the Manhattan Theatre Club’s smaller stage at City Center, is set on the Princeton campus and concerns two upper-classmen: Amber, who is white, Jewish, neurotic and “pretty enough,” and Tom, who is African-American, buff, attractive and has a reputation. The question, as it is set out almost from the outset, is whether, after a night of drinking, dancing and increasingly suggestive flirtation, Amber was raped by Tom. Zeigler allows Tom and Amber to address us and each other in making their cases, which differ not so much on what happened but on the unsettling question of consent. What could be more of-the-moment?
Lileana Blain-Cruz’s exquisite staging of this one-act drama underscores Ziegler’s devotion to a kind of dramatic fair play (even as she indulges standard stereotypes). If you’re familiar with David Mamet’s plays on similar themes, I would describe Actually as Oleanna if Oleanna had been written by a human being. Absent stacking of the deck against either Amber or Tom, they emerge as complicated young people determined not to let their ambiguities undermine their conviction about what happened that night. Understanding all that is what gives the terrific actors, Alexandra Socha and Joshua Boone, a dreamlike power in which a gauzy truth gradually and painfully comes into sharp relief.
• Jesus Hopped The A Train. Stephen Adly Guirgis would win the Pulitzer Prize for his play Between Riverside and Crazy, and a lifetime supply of asterisks for The Motherf***er With The Hat, which memorably starred Chris Rock, Bobby Cannavale and Annabella Sciorra on Broadway. Earlier, however, Guirgis broke out with Jesus Hopped the A Train, which is now getting a feral revival under Mark Brokaw’s direction at the Signature Theatre.
Set in the lock-down wing of the prison on Riker’s Island, the play is essentially a Socratic dialogue about the existence of a beneficent God, carried on by two men of perfervidly opposing views. Charged with attempted homicide and spitting expletives in machine-gun volleys, Angel (Sean Carvajal) has just arrived, having shot the leader of a cult he believes has stolen his best friend. In his neighboring cell, Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi) revels in the sunlight that filters down through the bars for a brief hour or so each day and who works out with a ferocious regimen as he joyously names the 39 books of the Old Testament in reverse order, Micah to Genesis. From his demeanor and soulful determination to break through to Angel, you might assume Lucius to be a rehabilitated model prisoner in on some minor charge. You would be horribly wrong.
Three other characters – Angel’s determined public defender (Stephanie DiMaggio) and two guards (Ricardo Chavira and Erick Betancourt) fill out the dramatis personae and draw out Angel and Lucius. But the fireworks come from the two prisoners and a playwright whose gifts for street poetry and philosophy are not attenuated by niceties. I would say he takes no prisoners but the opposite is the case. Especially as played with uncompromising ferocity by Carvajal and Gathegi, Angel and Lucius set the stage ablaze, in a production that has no business closing this week and ought to be on Broadway.