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Tough Love

A play with big ambitions fails to deliver

Avery Brooks rests in the arms of Gretchen Hall.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 2/24/2010

Let There Be Love

By Kwame Kwei-Armah

Through Mar. 7 at CenterStage

Alfred is an asshole. He's a bigot and a bully, saying horrible things to his grown daughters and throwing ethnic slurs about as if they were confetti. And the problem with Kwame Kwei-Armah's play about him, Let There Be Love, is that in order for it to really resonate, we have to care about Alfred. Something that, in this production at least, it is impossible to do.

Avery Brooks (Spenser: For Hire, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) plays Alfred, a man from the Caribbean who immigrated to London and raised two daughters there. His relationship with those daughters is strained. One kicked him out of her house after he called her husband a white devil. The other, Gemma (Pascale Armand), tries to care for him, but is rebuffed and maligned at every turn. And we're not talking funny old curmudgeon stuff here. When Gemma comes to look after her father after he has been to the hospital, he screams "pussy hole" at her over and over again until she leaves.

Unable to deal with their father themselves, but concerned that his health is too poor for him to care for himself, the daughters hire Maria (Gretchen Hall). Maria is an immigrant, too, who only recently came to London from Poland with her boyfriend. Alfred attacks her with his cane at their first meeting, but, eventually, lets Maria care for him. And she does, more than her job description requires. She becomes his surrogate daughter and wife--the girls' mother left him long ago--listening to his stories and becoming his confidant. And it is Maria that Alfred gives his love, his kindness, and his trust to, telling her and not his children that he has terminal cancer. While Alfred is all rage, frustration, and hard edges, Maria is warmth, softness, and relentless optimism. Their relationship reveals a softer side of Alfred and gives the play its human heart.

It is hard to like Gemma, even though you can't help feeling sorry for her--she is grasping and almost as closed off as her father. But Maria's goodness is almost overwhelming. She is more angel than person, a Billy Budd who dreams of nothing more than a trip to Ikea and will do anything to help Alfred and his family. The problem is they never manage to deserve it. Despite a whirlwind of activity in the second half that magically and unbelievably allows Kwei-Armah to have both an ultra-happy and tragic ending to the play, Alfred never really changes. He is selfish, narcissistic, and cruel until the curtain call, leaving this reviewer wondering what the point of this play really was.

The set is striking. Rather than use the whole space, set designer Riccardo Hernandez chose to place the living-room set (the only setting in the play) in a pentagon surrounded by a vast field of blue. The shape makes Alfred's London living room look like a church, but it is never clear why this choice was made.

Brooks, Armand, and Hall all commit to their characters and are entertaining to watch, but none of them really turns his or her character into a human being. With Armand, I often felt like I was watching her act. Gemma's switch to a Caribbean accent from her usual British burr felt studied rather than like an unintentional lapse. Brooks is overpowering and harsh as Alfred, not creating enough believable vulnerability. When he begs Maria to come back after chasing her off, it feels hollow, as if he is teasing her rather than making a genuine plea. Hall puts in the strongest performance as Maria, but still can't overcome her character's lack of depth.

This is the American premier of Kwei-Armah's play. A man of Caribbean descent living in England, he knows his subject matter intimately. He clearly had lofty goals for this play, examining issues of home and belonging from an immigrant point of view and the clash between generations and cultures as children grow up in a world their parent's chose but don't really understand, with a dash of race relations and sexual politics thrown in. His ear for witty repartee and wordplay--during an argument with Gemma, Alfred intones "What don't you understand about the letters 'N' and 'O' when they are in close proximity to each other?"--ensures that the play is entertaining, but it never quite attains those larger goals. In the end, it just feels like the story of a mean old man and the people trapped in his life.

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