Playwright Lee Blessing says “Black Sheep,” his recent exercise in dated black comedy, is about doubt. But there’s no doubt it’s a very minor, mostly pointless outing replete with deja vu by a scribe capable of such perfectly good plays as “A Walk in the Woods” and “Cobb.”
The doubt that Blessing attempts to explicate in “Black Sheep” is the human race’s inability to know for sure what is real and what isn’t. He does so in an absurdist, mostly meretricious 87 minutes that largely fail to hide his influences, all too readily evoking other playwrights from Guare, Durang, Beckett and Ionesco to Pirandello, Orton and, yes, Gurney, since the dysfunctional (natch) family in the play is for the most part WASP. Blessing has created no actual characters, projects no clear point of view and has certainly failed to write a play with a voice of its own.
The Winship family introduced in “Black Sheep” quickly reveals itself as possibly “the most homicidal family since the Borgias.” Or are they? By the time we get to the play’s trick ending, it’s quite likely nothing that has taken place has actually taken place, that virtually everything may have been just in the characters’ minds.
The WASP Winships are filthy rich and, as the play opens on Andrew Lieberman’s chilly stark-white set, we meet the rather crazed father Nelson (Gerry Bamman, who shouts rather than plays his role) and a young black man, Carl (Daniel Breaker, who’s just fine in the central role and looks good in a swimsuit). Carl is apparently Nelson’s nephew and is just out of prison, where he was sent years before when, as a child, he accidentally shot his white brother fatally. The mantra “They should never have tried you as an adult” is repeated endlessly. Carl is used as a narrator between scenes, his voice amplified to alter it when he’s performing his monologues.
It seems Nelson and his amusingly misnamed wife, Serene (a neatly cast Sally Wingert), plan to adopt Carl, probably because their own son, Max (off-the-wall Haynes Thigpen, mostly clad in jockey shorts), is such a no-hoper (he’s a movie critic who writes one-line raves without seeing any movies). Meantime, sex rears its head (natch) in various permutations.
Before Carl has even settled in to the Winship estate’s guest house, Nelson has offered him a job with the family’s enormously wealthy foundation and asked him to murder Serene and Max. Then Serene asks Carl to murder Nelson and Max. Then Max and g.f. Elle (Sarah Rafferty, who also looks good in a swimsuit), who has been sleeping with Nelson, ask Carl to murder Nelson and Serene. All, of course, for the money. Elle, for instance, needs it because she’s a bit-part actress (you may have seen in her in the movie “All the President’s Hookers”) rapidly approaching the cut-off age of 30.
Whether or not anyone is ever murdered is, inevitably, left in doubt, though Max’s dead body does seem to be dumped out of an oil drum at the end. But can we believe what we see? And do we care one way or the other? Blessing is a professional playwright, and some of his dialogue is slickly amusing, but he has done much better than this self-indulgent jotting from his notebooks.
Director Daniel Fish gives the production a slickly stylized aura, aided by Lieberman’s perhaps overly clever set that includes a suggestion of a swimming pool and a front clear-plastic splash panel, apparently to shield the front rows from spilled drinks. African carvings relieve the stark whiteness, as does a built-in fish tank. One annoying aspect of the set is the several upright posts at the front that sometimes obscure faces. But it does have a bleak personality. Lighting designer Peter West has great fun switching the lights on and off briskly and even allowing some scenes to be performed in semidarkness. Everything’s very chic, but empty — as is the play.