Monday, January 15, 2024

Review: Purlie Victorious

Review of the Saturday, January 6, 2024 evening performance at The Music Box in New York City, NY. Starring Leslie Odom, Jr., Billy Eugene Jones, Jay O. Sanders, Heather Alicia Simms, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Noah Robbins, Noah Pyzik, Bill Timoney and Kara Young. A play by Ossie Davis. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Emilio Sosa. Lighting design by Adam Honoré. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Direction by Kenny Leon. 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission. Closes February 4, 2024.

Truly one of the biggest delights of this season, the revival of Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch was also one of the most pleasant surprises I've had in years. Funny, poignant, infuriating and disturbingly current, this play by the late, great Ossie Davis goes down like a glass of sweet tea, but with the kick of a well-mixed mint julep. Actually, believe it or not, it reminds me a great deal of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a similarly themed work, whose author, Mark Twain, also schooled the bigots and anti-abolitionists of his time with broadly drawn characters and themes much as Davis does here. 

The story is simple in plot - a fast-talking preacher is manipulating his way around a stuffy white Southern gentleman to regain a stolen church and get some revenge in the process. The delivery of that plot is ingenious, with well-drawn characters who cleverly outwit the foolish old man who clings to antiquated, racist Southern ideals while having thoroughly convinced himself that he, too, has moved on. Though the way it all turns out is never really in doubt, it's the getting there that makes this play a wonder. 
Brilliant and not to be missed.

Director Kenny Leon and his creative team have created a theatrical caper that is highly stylized from the moment it starts (the cast enters, greets the audience, and begins by taking their costumes - quaintly designed by Emilio Sosa - off an onstage rack and dressing before us). It is then that the vertical clapboard empty box set (brilliantly designed by Derek McLane and lit by Adam Honoré)- begins its first of several transformations. The final set change is a real jaw-dropper. Leon makes excellent use of his fine cast and an extraordinary attention to detail and change-on-a-dime delivery styles. He has, in fact, fashioned a lightning fast evening that leaves you breathless from laughing and shaking your head in disbelief that everything and nothing has changed over the years.

The truly amazing cast works together like a well-oiled machine, never missing a beat, change in tone or bit of physical comedy. And yet the entire thing feels completely spontaneous. 
Noah Pyzik and Bill Timoney as the deputy and sheriff, respectively, make the most of their dimwitted stock characters. Vanessa Bell Calloway brings a sharp if world-weary presence to the role of a woman who serves the old white guy and has practically raised his son. She serves the play well as a barometer of just how serious things are in this slow to integrate enclave in rural Georgia. Noah Robbins, always a delight, plays Charlie, the son of the old white captain with a comic flair that is fun to watch and even more fun to listen to - his over the top accent is a riot and a taut example of satire all at once. Charlie's liberal views and political savvy, cloaked in false praise, are slickly slipped past his father. 

Heather Alicia Simms
 is boisterous fun as the realistic and somewhat long-suffering wife of the equally boisterous trickster (aptly named Gitlow) played by 
Billy Eugene Jones who is a master of what we'd call code switching today. He is an absolute delight every time he slips into a minstrel show style of speaking and returns (sometimes in mid-sentence) to his truer, more intelligent way of thinking. Gitlow is smart enough to know how to manipulate the man who could ruin his life, and is even smarter to think for himself. Both are friends and supporters of the titular Purlie, and as such, figure largely into his plots and machinations.

At the center of all the mayhem is the dumb as a stone but quite potentially dangerous Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee, wealthy white land owner stuck in the Old South mentality, played with an outrageous arrogance and sweet oblivion by Jay O. Sanders. Large of stature and Southern fried in his line delivery, he calls to mind the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn. And, of course, there's the star of the show, 
Leslie Odom, Jr., who has more than earned the role. He owns the stage and our attention every time he enters. With the fast-talking cadence of a snake oil salesman, but with the righteous indignation of a serious preacher, Odom's presence is the perfect match for the character he plays. I suspect he won't be forgotten come Tony nominations time.

As wonderful as everyone in the cast is, two-time Tony nominee 
Kara Young, almost steals the show. With comedic timing and physical skills that Lucille Ball would admire, she takes over the stage like a tornado and is a true wonder. Her raspy voiced drawl and shrewd delivery make you root for her the moment she enters the room. She's been brought in to help Purlie gain his inheritance and the church by impersonating a now-dead relative. What is so great about her performance is that for all of its broad strokes, the real genius is in the finer details, be it a subtle change in her expressive eyes, or in the smallest of adjustments to her posture. This could very well be her first Tony-winning role.

With only a few weeks left before the limited engagement ends, you really need to get yourself to the Music Box. You will laugh. You will be dazzled by a stellar cast. And you may just learn a little something, too.

📸: M. Franklin

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