Any new play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog / Underdog”) demands — and deserves — attention. And in its premiere production at the Public Theater, her latest, “White Noise,” opens with a burst of brainy energy that lasts through the first act. But it takes a nosedive in the sloppy second half, confounding the assured direction of Oskar Eustis and the best efforts of a small, ace cast headed by the magnetic Daveed Diggs.
It’s not a good sign when a play opens with an interminable monologue. But at least this one is delivered by Diggs, who is personably loose and fun while playing it technically tight and focused. His character, Leo, is a seemingly together painter whose problem right now is that he can’t seem to paint — or sleep. Leaning in to his insomnia, he regales us with the story of his life as a kid from a middle-class African-American family (“We were urban, but none of us were extreme urban,” he assures us) who grew up to become an artist.
Leo’s childhood was stable, if not entirely without incident (the pediatric insomnia saw to that) — but “through sheer force of will” he made it through the perils of adolescence and into manhood. “And so,” he concludes with honest pride and ironic humor, “I’m the fractured and angry and edgy black visual artist.”
Nice to meet you, Leo, but couldn’t you talk your friends out of delivering their own interminable monologues? Leo’s best friend, Ralph (Thomas Sadoski, in a nicely relaxed performance), is a well-spoken white college professor. Leo’s girlfriend, Dawn (Zoe Winters, on top of this role) is a lawyer with places to go and money to make. Ralph’s girlfriend, Misha (a knowingly sassy Sheria Irving), is building her brand by live-streaming her broadly satirical one-woman talk show, “Ask a Black.”
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Director Eustis has created a warm environment that allows the romantic affairs, close relationships and casual couplings to feel natural and unforced, especially when the couples are hurling bowling balls down the fully operative lanes supplied through the wizardry of set designer Clint Ramos.
Although well-played by the likable actresses, the female characters are hardly developed at all. (Not knowing quite what to do with them, Parks shoves them into a casual sexual relationship that feels strained.) The real dynamic is between the two men, which takes a turn when Leo is arbitrarily beaten up by a couple of cops, and when Ralph fails to get the academic promotion he was expecting.
Theatergoers wary of spoilers should stop reading now: Consumed by anger with the racist cops, Leo directs his rage at Ralph, challenging his white friend to pay $89,000 (the price of Leo’s student loans) to rent him as his personal slave for 40 days. “The promise of freedom is just some bulls—,” Leo says, explaining why he suddenly feels like a slave, “because the world don’t support it.”
Everything that happens in Act II might easily be played as a goof, but for the shocking presence of an antique slave collar — heavy, metal, aged, ugly, hurtful — that Ralph forces Leo to wear.
Predictably, the friends sink deeper and deeper into their master/slave roles. The punishment collar is an extreme theatrical gesture, for sure, but although Parks pounds her outrageous symbol with a vengeance, it never becomes a cause for action. In fact, the sheer reality of the device renders all the talky soul-searching about race a strained artificial contrivance — and the entire second act a talky treatise that feels as heavy as that collar.