What could be more genteel than a 19th century Kentucky horse race? Anything up to and including a bar brawl, apparently. The disagreement over equestrian breeding that opens Carlyle Brown’s “Pure Confidence” descends into a display of poor-quality human breeding encompassing some of the foulest ethnic slurs in the canon. It’s like the Ascot scene from “My Fair Lady” gone horribly wrong. Brown’s play is full of these surprises — rarely does a courteous exchange go by without a racially charged twist. On its surface, this drama looks fairly prosaic, but its familiar trappings mask some daring questions.
Brown’s hero is Simon Cato (the energetic Gavin Lawrence), a young black jockey enslaved to a pair of wealthy white orphans not yet old enough to have full ownership rights. Instead, their lawyer hires him out to Col. Wiley Johnson (a wonderful Chris Mulkey) to race the colonel’s horses — something Simon does better than anyone else in town.
The two men bond over their love of the sport to the extent that Simon begs Johnson to buy him. Then, Simon explains, he can work as an indentured servant, rather than a slave, paying off his buying price with his cut of the winners’ purses he keeps bringing in. In addition, Johnson will get a top-flight groom for his stables.
The play’s longer first act gives us all this information in the first few minutes. Brown’s whirlwind exposition slows only for snatches of charged dialogue, like Simon’s gratifyingly insolent exchange with sore loser George Dewitt (Mark Sieve), who gets so riled, he challenges a visibly embarrassed Johnson to a high-stakes grudge match.
That quick little micro-play is the first thing we see in “Pure Confidence,” and the presentation of slave and slaveholder as a team of lovable conmen puts us off our guard. Is Johnson secretly an abolitionist? Will he fight for the noble Union against the craven rednecks of the Confederacy?
Thank God, no. The two characters demonstrate Walker Percy’s observation that “an old-style Southern white and an old-style Southern black” will have an easier time talking to each other than, say, Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson.
If “Pure Confidence” occasionally loses its grip on the subtleties of this decorous banter (occasionally delivered in that I-do-declare accent indigenous to theaters north of the Mason-Dixon), it deserves serious kudos for attempting them in the first place. The lack of nuance is not the fault of the author. The performances are uniformly interesting, but they’re not uniform in any other sense.
Johnson’s wife, Mattie (Karen Landry, perfectly walking the line between sweet old lady and overbearing harridan), has a less complex but more surefooted relationship with her house slave Caroline (a rock-steady Christiana Clark). The two women like each other, but Mattie’s outsize personality, which doesn’t brook opposition on her best day, leaves no room for Caroline to say anything more complicated than “Yes’m” and “No’m.” When Caroline finally does get a word in edgewise, though, it’s worth the wait.
Brown barely pauses for breath during his first act, so when the second act, set 15 years later in 1877, opens, it’s a shock for a lot of reasons. Chiefly, it’s surprising to see that the whole thing plays out in one scene, in Saratoga, where the locals are, if anything, more inclined to mistrust and dislike a man based on his skin color. The Johnsons may have benefited from slavery, but they love their friends. On the other hand, does that even begin to make reconciliation possible?
The long, sometimes painful scene that plays out between the freed-but-miserable black couple and their defeated former owners is too odd and heartfelt to spoil, but it will likely be something New York audiences haven’t seen before. Everything about Marion McClinton’s production, from the nonthreatening design elements to the familiar period, seems custom-made to put audiences at their ease, but Brown’s play is nothing if not ultimately unsettling.