A popular entertainer, held hostage in her apartment by an intruder, fears for her life. But it turns out the interloper isn’t there to rob or assault her, but to talk her ear off about racial injustice, diversity, love and other issues. That’s the substance of “Tommy J & Sally,” an intriguing but somewhat tiresome two-character drama by Mark Medoff (“Children of a Lesser God”) in its debut here as a co-production from D.C.’s Theater J and Woolly Mammoth Theater Co.
Medoff has written an intelligent and partly suspenseful drama that is at its core a dissection of race relations and prejudice. Dialogue is witty and entertaining and packaged with originality. But the debate covers no new ground and the playwright loses his way in a banal and maudlin second act. A plot twist that initially shows potential reveals implausibilities that beg for a rewrite.
The proper names of the duo are Tom Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, a clever device that adds context to the discussion. This Tom is black and Sally is white and Jewish, which gives them plenty to talk about as they put their self-absorbed minds to the task. Two capable performers, Craig Wallace and Sue-Anne Morrow, wring the most out of demanding assignments. Morrow has a slightly higher hurdle since she is miscast, registering more as an ingenue.
Act one is taut and gripping under director Bob Devin Jones’ hand as the gun-toting intruder imprisons his victim and teeters on the edge of violence. She quivers in fear as he delivers a racial diatribe and then slowly reveals a personality that is articulate, curious, opinionated and loquacious. They become tempestuous sparring partners as she steadily gains the upper hand.
The implausible twist is that the two probably were acquainted in their youth, although he’s not certain because she’s had a nose job and adopted a new identity. And she mysteriously refuses to confirm if she recognizes him. The device grows tedious in a second act, as his character becomes increasingly weak and ultimately confesses his love.