Writer-performer Daniel Beaty begs to differ with John Lennon: Whatever gets you “Through the Night” is not necessarily all right, particularly when your crutch of choice — food, sex, self-deception — is inimical to your physical and spiritual well-being. Beaty’s solo impersonation of a dozen wounded fellows, wives and lovers is overlong and not a little preachy, though it’s an impressive personal showcase whose heartfelt poetry and earnest insights will captivate many Geffen playgoers.
Through the Night
In his award winner “Emergency,” a 2008 Geffen tenant, Beaty shape-shifted among contemporaries and historical figures in order to warn the African-American community against losing sight of its bittersweet legacy. Now, in a production that began at New Jersey’s Crossroads Theater, he’s intent on turning the communal gaze inward, by way of remedying whatever can be chalked up to carelessness or a lack of personal responsibility.
So an influential clergyman addicted to junk food is reduced to scavenging discarded snack cakes from the trash. His son Isaac, a music-company marketing exec, struggles with sexuality — his own, as well as his industry’s predilection for tarting up its teen superstars — while Isaac’s high school mentee Twon may not make it to Morehouse College without first leaving in his girlfriend’s body something more than a memory.
The distinctive voice and physicalization assigned to the six interconnected protagonists (and to their women, often some of Beaty’s best turns) bespeak an actor in full command of his instrument.
Yet even as we admire the execution, we start noting the laundry list of personal demons he has taken pains to shoehorn into the action. (HIV? Check. Drug addiction? Check. Rootlessness, excessive pride, lack of business savvy? All there.) Everything on the roster is provocative and he has interesting things to say about all of it, but the superstructure smacks of contrivance and even overkill.
So many issues are hashed over, it’s a relief when dialogue fails and the characters switch into poetry-jam mode or outright singing (the play is subtitled “A Soul Aria”). Beaty’s pure, plangent voice backed up by his showbiz chops “sells” his verse reminiscent of, if not beholden to, Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls” as he extols the family matriarch or exhorts his peers to “Run, black man, run.”
If the play feels like a song cycle, helmer Charles Randolph-Wright conducts it like a fugue. Having introduced the individuals at length, Beaty tells their stories through accelerating counterpoint, Randolph-Wright deftly crosscutting among them with the aid of Alexander Nichols’ precise lighting.
We never get all the way through the urban night, as the overlapping stories all play out from 6 p.m. to midnight. That’s the witching hour, and there’s a certain amount of witchcraft in the way one character comes to everyone else’s rescue. Beaty’s recourse to the supernatural will strike some as charmingly apt, others as a trivial response to real-life crises about which the writer may hector without offering any meaningful solutions.
Say this for him, he assures no one a happy ending. But so sympathetic is the actor-playwright’s vision, we depart reasonably certain that by the time dawn rolls around, each of his protagonists will still have a fighting chance.