The Waiting Room
A comedy of over-the-top characters and revelations
Playwright Samm-Art Williams was in the audience for the opening night of The Waiting Room. After the performance, the the Emmy and Tony-nominated Morgan State University alumnus came to the front of the theater and said, “I’ve seen a few performances [of The Waiting Room ] and none was better than this,” ending the night with some damning praise of his own work.
The play takes place almost entirely in a hospital waiting room in small town North Carolina. Pullen Innes has had a heart attack and his sister Jessie (Jaye Nicole), brother Pat (William Walker), and son Riley (George Buntin) gather at the hospital to await news of his condition. There they meet other people waiting on sick relatives, such as Rachael Johnson (Tennelia Engram), whose daughter is ill.
Uncle Pat has decided that Pullen’s close call is a truth serum of some sort and lays on Rachael not only that the woman she thinks is her mother is actually her aunt but that he thinks all her children’s names are ridiculous. He calls them “made up African names,” which he feels is an insult to their former slave ancestors, who had regular names. Rachael responds, and rightly so, “You know what Mr. Innes? You are a practicing asshole” before stomping off, presumably leaving her sick 5 month old in the hospital unattended because people do stuff like that.
Meanwhile, the waiting room is quickly becoming the hottest pick up joint in town as Cookie (Kendra Banks), a female farmer who coats herself in motor oil to ward off mosquitoes, flirts mercilessly with a very interested Uncle Pat and Nurse Hannah (Elle’ Blackwell) decides that the married Riley is fair game because there aren’t enough eligible men in town. Riley serves as the beleaguered everyman amid all this foolishness, though he clearly enjoys Hannah’s attention.
Things get more complicated when Gordon MacInnes (Joe Del Balzo) and his son Casey (Erik Vassiliev) come to visit Pullen. Riley is pissed off to see Gordon, who comes in sporting a Confederate flag on his t-shirt, and the two go at it, fighting over whether or not the flag is inherently racist. Meanwhile Pat and Jessie are hinting with all the subtlety of a hammer to the forehead that there is stuff Riley doesn’t know about his family and pretty soon the revelations are flying. We won’t spoil them here but if you can’t see every single one of them coming from a mile away, get your eyes checked.
All the characters are stereotypes and some even repeat—Cookie and Hannah are practically the same person with a few years and idiosyncrasies separating them—and the actors add little to flesh them out. Buntin shines in the scenes where Riley gets mad but falls flat in all others, and Vassiliev’s performance is somewhere between after school special and high school play. There were a few stand outs among the cast. Blackwell manages to make husband stealing likable as Hannah, Walker’s Uncle Pat is over the top but his energy eclipses most of the cast, and Del Balzo puts in easily the most nuanced performance of the show as the good hearted but decidedly un-PC redneck, Gordon.
The audience had a blast on this night though, laughing at every sitcom-ish bit of hijinks dished out. Unfortunately, it felt like they were watching a different show. What inspired all those guffaws? The preposterous plot that rolled out the unsurprising after the predictable? The performances that varied from full blown ham to positively leaden? The writing that, despite a few clever turns of phrase, felt like a book report on the Southern black experience? Or the uninspired blocking from director Amini Johari-Courts?
Whatever it was, this reviewer couldn’t see it. Williams was nominated for a Tony for his play Home in 1980 and has been nominated twice for Emmy’s for his writing and story editing for TV, but The Waiting Room displays little of that talent.
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