Finding its way to New York after productions in Syracuse, Cleveland and Seattle, “Holiday Heart” is both a triumph and an indictment of the current system in which plays are developed at several nonprofit theaters, where they are subject to the whims of any number of directors and dramaturges, not to mention actors and designers.
On the one hand, playwright Cheryl L. West has a strong voice, and a message to boot: “Holiday Heart” is an urban coming-of-age tale with a roster of good characters, a few horrific (if predictable) plot twists, and a great hook in the first-person narrative of 12-year-old Niki (Afi McClendon). On the other hand, the play has been through so many trial runs it’s come out padded, unfocused and stylistically inconsistent, offering up more plot possibilities than its storyline can possibly contain. One moment it’s a feel-good, pro-family, anti-drug afternoon special endorsing love-conquers-all alternative lifestyles — “Torch Song Trilogy” meets “Roseanne”; the next minute it’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” Well, maybe life is like that, who knows?
Holding everything together in a pair of neighboring Chicago apartments is Holiday Heart (Keith Randolph Smith) a big, lovable, no-nonsense drag queen who lives down the hall from Niki and her mother, Wanda (Maggie Rush), a would-be poet struggling — unsuccessfully, it turns out — to stay off drugs.
The cozy trio is shattered when Wanda falls for Silas (Ron Cephas Jones), a smooth-talking chauffeur with a major drug business on the side. Silas cuts Holiday out of the new family configuration, and the results are disastrous.
This would all be familiar territory — and, it’s true, much of “Holiday Heart” is familiar — if West weren’t graced with a generosity of spirit that makes these characters breathe. Thus Silas (who never touches the hard stuff himself) really does love Wanda and Niki, and he even comes to respect Holiday. And when the crazed Wanda considers selling her daughter’s virginity for drug money, we feel the terrible consequences for Niki long before they’re spelled out in the play, and we’re moved, not to say shocked, by the whole fated-seeming horror of it.
McClendon is quite personable, if a bit too polished, as Niki, and West has saddled Holiday Heart with so many abashed cliches that even so garrulous and appealing an actor as Smith finally bends under the weight of them. Rush is vivacious in the beginning scenes, her descent all the more convincing, and Jones is equally persuasive as the self-justifying Silas.
Director Tazewell Thompson keeps things moving even when they go on far too long. Riccardo Hernandez’s set is ugly — a rarity for the Manhattan Theater Club — but Jack Mehler’s lighting smooths the transitions from scene to scene, and Tom Broecker’s costumes are dead-on.
Had this been a first production on the company’s second stage, it would demand nothing but encouragement. As a finished work, however, “Holiday Heart” represents promise only partly fulfilled.