Brotherly bonds get tangled up in knots in Mat Smart’s muddled play of identity, “Samuel J. and K.,” which receives its world premiere at the Williamstown Theater Festival. The playwright fails to make credible this story of two brothers of different races and abilities, and overrelies completely on the considerable charms of his actors to keep audience interest.
In his late 20s, Samuel J. (Justin Long) is a likable white guy, but he’s adrift as he watches his younger adopted black sibling, Samuel K. (Owiso Odera), graduate from college. Somehow, Samuel J. has saved enough money from his low-paying job to buy two airplane tickets to the African country of Cameroon, where Samuel K. was born and abandoned at the age of three. For his graduation present, Samuel K. would have preferred an iPhone, but after much dribbling and friendly dissing on the basketball court, he reluctantly agrees to the brotherly excursion. Once in Africa, surprisingly, it’s the white brother who disappears into the African night after Samuel K. says something profoundly hurtful.
Narrative and interest pick up seven years later, in the second act, when the prodigal white son returns to their suburban Illinois home to find that things have dramatically changed. Good thing, too, because there’s not much in terms of drama, character or ideas in the first act, most of it filled with fraternal horseplay and aimless chatter.
Unfortunately, the flood of revelations of the conflict-filled second half comes unearned. Samuel J.’s great escape to his newfound country makes little sense — as does his return. Really, an appreciation of wondrous African night sky does not seem to be that compelling a reason to switch continents, especially for a person who can’t decide what to order at Duncan Donuts.
For all the brotherly banter there’s little sense of who these two Sams are and what they are searching for. Samuel K. is painted with the bland brush of the good and responsible son, and so it comes as a surprise to learn of his later actions. Meanwhile, Samuel J. bounces from being sweet goofball to sensitive soul to son of Africa.
Long and Odera both have the natural rhythms of two brothers, and they share compelling stage presences and a decent skill-set with a basketball. Their perfs are aided by director Justin Waldman, who helms with an easy-going pace and a good sense of contempo tics. There are also solid production design values, especially Adam Stockhausen’s set that effectively transforms from an outdoor basketball court to a shack in Cameroon to a Illinois living room.