In its 38-year history, the New Federalist Theater has supported a bevy of minority artists, including Ntozake Shange, David Henry Hwang and director Kenny Leon. Given that legacy, it’s surprising that the company is now mounting “Three Travelers,” a play whose inelegance is matched only by its racial insensitivity. Written by Richard Abrons, an investment banker turned dilettante artist, the script aims for satire, but delivers crude, archetypal characters and an incomprehensible plot.
The vessel for both is a nameless Indian guru (Kenneth Maharaj), who has wacky methods for helping three white people feel enlightened. He gets them to tango and answer silly questions, prompting them to own up to their adultery, covert lesbianism and history of white-collar crime.
In other words, the guru is an ethnic stereotype — a foreigner whose otherness makes him wiser and more spiritual than misguided Caucasians. Maharaj’s exaggerated Indian accent helpfully underlines his difference.
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The white characters — two Americans and a Brit — are just as schematic. All three are narcissistic and whiny, and we’re obviously supposed to blame capitalistic excess for their dead souls. When the guru asks the gang to play 52 card pick-up, Travis (Stephen Schnetzer), an embezzler with the hots for his wife’s best friend, puts his hands on his hips and says, “They don’t pay me a million a year to pick up cards.”
Still, even if the material’s not great, the actors should pretend to be interested. Instead, the cast’s work is sloppy, as though eye contact and emotionally varied line readings are too much trouble.
Other creatives just seem lost. In a climactic scene, when characters confess their desires to one another, director Jay Broad keeps his actors far apart. By the time they have raced across stage to reveal their secrets, the sense of spontaneity is gone.
Meanwhile, set designer Dan Llewellyn creates cartoonish-looking ruins, with broken columns resembling giant lipstick tubes and a painted backdrop of men on elephants that looks like a children’s book illustration. His work would be incongruous if the show weren’t already such a mess.