“Only truth in this house”, intones the quietly intense Jackson (a charismatic Grantham Coleman) to his live-in girlfriend Suzy (Tessa Ferrer) and crash-padding lifelong pal Don (Michael Stahl-David) in Tracey Scott Wilson’s Buzzer, now playing at the Public Theater through April 26. NYC gentrification gets unwieldy treatment in this new work, and one truly wished it heeded Jackson’s sage advice.
Jackson, a black man enjoying white-collar privilege, purchases a Brooklyn apartment in his childhood neighborhood, where yoga studios are quickly supplanting crack dens. His white girlfriend Suzy, a schoolteacher, is apprehensive after Jackson asks her to move in, not only because of the less-than-welcome remarks she gets from the locals, but also Jackson’s decision to let his recovering-addict friend Don live with them. The trio already has an odd history, but can they survive their new environs in their (presumably) post-racial world?
There’s a sly dark comedy that keeps threatening to break out of Wilson’s design (there’s a great moment where one character threatens to cut off a finger to prove loyalty…and nobody stops them), but the focus is–unfortunately–on the creaky melodrama within the apartment, and Jackson’s relationship to neither Suzy nor Don ever feels terribly real from the start. (If Jackson fully embraces his safe, new, moneyed lifestyle, why on Earth would he allow Don, a self-professed miscreant, anywhere near his daily domestic bliss?). And Suzy, played by Ferrer with a barrage of Sandra Bullock-like tics, never feels fully realized, we see her in virtually no other light other than what the men in and out of the room think of her. Stahl-David fares a bit better as Don; the character is often a pill (no pun intended), but the actor gives him warmer dimensions to hang on to.
Wilson is an excellent playwright (her superb 2009 MLK Jr. piece The Good Negro was essentially Selma before Selma), and there’s no doubt she was truly on to something here (the oft-unspoken racial tension that exists in modern-day Brooklyn is a marvelous, ripe topic for a timely drama). But like the titular device that aggravates the outer-borough dwellers at its center, Buzzer malfunctions more often than it actually works. C