A well-detailed miniature set on the occasion of the hanging of a "Negro" horsethief, The Hanging of Razor Brown convincingly conjures the social hypocrisies and conventions of Southern culture not long after the Great War. The author stumbles into derivative territory in his depiction of some of the supporting characters, but that doesn't diminish the vivid character study at the center of the play.
photo: Kymm Zuckert
THE HANGING OF RAZOR BROWN
Reviewed by Patrick Lee
It's a blisteringly hot day in a small town in Florida, circa 1918, as Genevieve LeCompte chaperones three of her students to a grassy knoll under the guise of permitting the girls their French lesson outdoors. As the knoll overlooks the preparations for the hanging of a "Negro" accused of stealing a horse, it's increasingly clear that the girls have been escorted outside to learn a hard, insidious life lesson from their teacher: know your place, and suffer it with dignity.
When LeCompte, the central driving character in Le Wilheim's absorbing new play The Hanging Of Razor Brown, holds forth about the place of women, men, and Negroes in their socially-constricted society (which is most of the time), the play is on its most fertile ground. She's a striking character, something like the inverse of the protagonist in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, advocating not passionate action but calculated poise and passivity to deal with the world. Her belief system is practical but appalling and hypocritical; her young charges have already begun to see through it, and not only because of her resignation about the hanging that is soon to unfold before them.
Le Wilheim's depiction of her is carefully and skillfully drawn: a whole world of Southern culture comes to clear life when she speaks, exposing a variety of prejudices, hypocrisies and social conventions following the Great War. It also exposes the crushed, lonely woman underneath the defensive, socially correct facade. As Tracy Newirth portrays her, with many shades and levels in her performance, she is always understandable even at her most chilling. Note the genuine disbelief, despite one of the girls reading it from a book, that a gentlemen such as William Blake would have ever written a poem about a colored boy.
The play is less successful in its depiction of its male characters. Although Jon Oak does excellent, detailed physical work as the villain of the piece, the character is written in broad strokes that border on stereotype. The list of the character's offenses pile up high enough to make plain the difference between the "larger than life" that is intended and the "singularly monstrous" that results. It starts to feel as if he wandered out of a rough draft of Williams' Sweet Bird Of Youth, finally rejected for being too grotesque. There's a long scene involving a boy who is close in age to the girls; the point it makes about the submissiveness that is expected of women is important, but is the length and the laxness of the scene really needed to make it? (On the other hand, I'd hate to see anything cut that gives Erin Singleton, playing the most naive and innocent of the three girls, something to do. She's exceptional.)
Finally there is the character of a drunken war veteran, who appears to serve as the play's moral center despite circling in on the schoolteacher with raw carnal menace. Although this character also seems derivative, the author has at least given him a strong dramatic arc. Pity that this production hasn't made enough of it. His interactions with the schoolteacher are too often unclear here, and are further diminished by a lack of chemistry between the actors. Their final scene together lacked the intended chill.
But more often than not, when the teacher and pupils are engaged and front and center (or when they are visited by the wife of the man about to be hanged - played with appropriate gravity by Anastasia Morsucci) the play is both an absorbing, well-detailed miniature of a particular time in Southern culture and a vivid character study. Are these strengths enough to hold the play together? Yes.
Please note that two casts alternate during the run of this production; I have reviewed the "A" cast.
59E59 (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets: (212-279-4200) $18
Performances: (thru 8/26) Tue - Sat at 8:30pm; Sat at 2:30pm; Sun at 3:30pm and 7:30pm
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