Seeking “The Light”

Mani Masden, McKinley Belcher III (Photo Dean Van Meer)

 

 

by Ron Fassler

 

There are a number of reasons to rejoice upon entering the brand new theatre complex on West 52nd Street that MCC Theater Space, the thirty-three-year old producing organization has finally built for itself as a permanent home. Not only is it a welcome addition to the bevy of small, well-appointed playhouses in the theater district (if slightly to the west at 10th Avenue), it is also debuting a smart and riveting new two-hander, The Light, by Loy A. Webb. An insightful and provocative look at a young couple’s relationship, it feels more than just contemporary: it throbs with an electrical current that gives that word a double-meaning, since it is as genuinely up-to-the-minute as any 2019 play can be.

According to her Playbill bio, Ms. Webb’s credits are as a playwright, attorney and theater journalist. Hailing from Chicago, where The Light takes place, she has a distinct ear for realistic dialogue, and is damn near expert at taking each of her two character’s smart and passionate positions in equal measure on where their relationship is (and where it may be heading). This is undoubtedly where her legal training pays off, as the drama escalates, and the push/pull of her writing resulting never becomes too one-sided. Even if the audience’s allegiance has only one right way to fall, the person in the wrong still gets our empathy, which is what makes the heat that is generated burn high and stay true.

When the play began, I had some initial worry that the problems of these two beautiful people might not be of particular interest. The home depicted on stage is that of an upscale Hyde Park, IL apartment outside Chicago, that is both trendy and meticulous (and nicely designed by Kimie Nishikawa). And by “beautiful people,” I mean that thirty-ish Rashad (McKinley Belcher III) is strikingly handsome and well-built (further proof—as if it were needed—come when he takes his shirt off a few minutes into the play and shows off a killer body and abs). Also a hard-working fireman and single dad of a four-year-old daughter, he is matched in beauty and intelligence by his girlfriend, Genesis (Mani Masden), whose home this is. She is a school principal, dressed for success, highly educated, and who seems (at least at first glance) as someone who can fight her own battles, thank you very much. As their date night progresses, we learn that they are celebrating their two-year anniversary as a couple. And when Rashad presents Genesis with an engagement ring, her perfectly exhilarated response seems as if to shout up and out of her very soul. The audience’s heart is uplifted, too, but of course, this being a drama and not a rom-com, her heart is soon to sink, as does ours. Once that engagement ring makes its appearance in the first twenty minutes, there are fifty more fierce and tension-filled ones to go. Directed at a perfect pace by Logan Vaughn, by the time the play’s full time is up, and we are at its finish, we feel as wrung out and raked over the same coals as the characters—which is exactly how theatre is meant to make you feel.

I haven’t mentioned as yet that both characters in the play are black (although their names might have given that away). And that is not an incidental thing. This is a play where Rashad and Genesis’s ethnicity is central to who they are, and how they view and experience the circumstances that befall their relationship. I’m being purposely elliptical here, as I’m not one to offer spoiler alerts in plot descriptions, but suffice it to say that I found the machinations of the plot believable and built upon a solid ground for the demanding arguments the play sets forth.

 

Mani Masden McKinley Belcher III (Photo: Joan Marcus)

 

Presented as the first play at the newly built one-hundred seat Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater in the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space (as it is officially named), I can’t think of a better way to inaugurate a new performing arts center in Manhattan, and strongly suggest that you head for The Light.

 

The Light is at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 W 52nd Street, New York, NY 10036 through March 17th. MCC’s next production, Alice by Heart is currently in previews at its 245-seat Newman Mills Theater, a new musical from Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening), and directed and co-written by Jessie Nelson (Waitress). Inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it opens February 26th.

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