When Joyce Carol Oates’ “Black,” based on her short story of that title, was produced at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theater Festival in 1992, it seemed, to put it bluntly, unplayable. Retitled “Cry Me a River,” a name it shares with the song now heard at the play’s end, the play is far from sufficiently revised and still lacks basic stagecraft. Although she’s dealing with potentially wrenching subjects (racial, sexual and personal prejudices and hatreds), novelist-playwright Oates is unable to give them even a semblance of theatrical life.
As was also true in Williamstown, the director and cast seem at sea with Oates’ work. They and the play are ill at ease throughout the 78-minute running time, during which a white man (Victor Slezak) confronts his ex-wife (Julia Gibson) over her interracial relationship with a black man (Tony Todd).
Over dinner and too many drinks the trio lose their social inhibitions, the two men lash out at each other verbally, and the ex-husband threatens the ex-wife and her lover with a gun.
Along the way the Berlin Wall, skin color, faith, God, Northern Ireland and African atrocities are mentioned, all too arbitrarily. As the cast remains hopelessly stymied, director Gordon Edelstein seems to give up in despair.
The physical production is no help, from Karl Eigsti’s cut-rate skeletal setting with transparent scrim walls, a huge orange-red abstract painting hovering at the rear and minimal furniture, to Paul Tazewell’s unfortunate satin pants ensemble for Gibson.
Blackouts and semi-blackouts bridged by loud jazz are clumsily handled. This Cambridge production is being promoted as a world premiere prior to New York, but it’s in no shape to travel.