Now and then you encounter a play so unique and utterly compelling that it defies comparison to any dramatic work that came before.That’s the case with Christina Anderson’s “Man in Love,” a world premiere at Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s New Works Festival. Impeccably directed by Marissa Wolf and sporting fine performances across the board, this disturbing, absorbing drama is amazing in more ways than one.
On one level, Anderson’s play is a thriller. But it’s more than that. She explores discomfiting themes about race, gender and sexuality. Her 90-minute tale, set in an unidentified American city during the Great Depression, focuses on an African-American serial killer named Paul Pare, a seemingly mild-mannered librarian driven by dark impulses beyond his control.
Rufus Burns, who was excellent in the Unicorn’s December production of “An Octoroon,” is even more riveting in this show as he expertly captures the inner torment and endless rationalizing of a psychopath who can’t stop killing. Burns makes Paul Pare all too human, eliciting both sympathy and revulsion.
Anderson’s depiction of a fictional city is plausible and carefully constructed. Between the wealthy neighborhoods and the working class is the “Spread,” described by one character as the section of town that holds the city together like the filling in a sandwich. And then there’s the “Zoo,” where black people live alongside poor whites.
Paul Pare has friendly relationships with Darlynn (a fine Diane Yvette), an agoraphobe supported by her sister, and Bernice (the compelling Bianca Leigh), who throws rent parties in her upstairs apartment as a means of getting by. Neither of them suspects that he’s responsible for the murders of black women that has everyone in the “Zoo” on edge.
Other residents in this vividly conceived world are Leigh (Justin Barron), a worker who lives in a tiny room; Walker (Michael R. Pauley), Leigh’s friend just released from prison and looking for work; and Hazel, a beautiful nursing student (Emily Shackelford) with whom Leigh is smitten.
Anderson’s script is impressive for its often poetic dialogue as well as the subtle way she reveals a darker, more complicated reality as the play unfolds. No character in this play is what he or she seems. On one level this show is about the facades we construct in order to function in the world. On another, it’s about sexuality — especially what could happen when a repressed man’s “love” can’t be expressed in a “normal” way.
Fine work is delivered by lighting designer Jeffrey Cady and costumer designer Caroline Allender. Antje Ellerman’s suggestive scenic design contains enough realistic physical details to create a convincing backdrop for the play. It also allows for quick scene changes. Indeed, my only complaint about Anderson’s script is its cinematic approach — many short scenes and frequent changes (often obliging the actors to carry props on and off stage), which threaten the dramatic flow.
But that’s a minor criticism. This play will haunt you.
“What Would Crazy Horse Do?” by Larissa Fasthorse runs in repertory with “Man in Love.” Although the show has a committed cast working under director Sam Pinkleton (a 2017 Tony Nominee), it fails to coalesce as a satisfying piece of theater.
That’s not to say it doesn’t grapple with worthwhile themes. But the plot strains credulity. Although based on an actual incident, the play’s depiction of two present-day members of the Ku Klux Klan hoping to find common ground with two last remaining members of a Native American tribe fails to convince.
The script mixes elements of tragedy, melodrama and satire, but the director and writer never find the right tone. Kudos to the actors — out-of-towners Roseanne Supernault and Christopher Reed Brown and KC performers Jason Chanos and Amy Attaway — for making the best of the material. They also deserve praise for soldiering through an opening-night performance marred by an overly vocal member of the audience.
“Man in Love” and “What Would Crazy Horse Do?” run in repertory through May 28 at Copaken Stage as part of KC Rep’s OriginKC: New Works Festival. Call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.