The set up:
Henry hates Abe and Abe hates Henry. Yet the two single elderly black men meet almost daily on the same big city park bench to argue and comb through their collective past. Daily? If they truly hate each other? Really? Well, as Elie Weisel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate; it's indifference.” Playwright Gus Edwards is no fool, he knows that indifference is anathema to lightly comedic drama. So it’s hate with begrudging and unspoken love between Abe and Henry that we get in his Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking.
It’s an astutely descriptive title. Two guys. Both black. Sitting, sometimes standing or even walking around on occasion in a pastoral park setting (nicely realized by Janelle Flanagan). Just talking. Well, mostly yelling actually. Over a woman of all things. Seems the pair, who know each other from their young factory working days, fell for, bedded and had a relationship with the same woman.
“She never loved you”, says Henry to Abe. “It was always me on her mind even when she was going through the motions of intimacy with you.” The string of expletives that pepper the dialogue after this taunting ensures this is a play best not to bring the kiddies to. But despite the distinctly adult language and occasional sexual reference, the slight but mildly pleasant Two Old Black Guys is not exactly a mature kind of narrative.
Two-handers heavy on talk and light on action have become a mainstay on our stages of late and they come in many forms. There’s the intellectual thinky-talky of Red that uses painter Mark Rothko’s life to raise heady issues of fading fame and power. There’s the relationship musical, The Last Five Years, that gives us intimate insight into the start and demise of love. On the bluer side, Venus in Fur has all sorts to say about gender expectations and human desire. Two Old Black Guys is none of these. It’s not even the skin on the pudding in any of these substantive shows.
Organized in a series of sketch like moments in the same park setting, each scene plays out to a similar tempo mix of drama and comedy. The men tell each other off, trade fluffy stories about their past and spew unremarkable opinion about growing old and the trouble with kids these days. Occasionally Edwards drops in something different such as when Henry admits to insomnia caused by seeing family ghosts in his room or when Abe, back turned to the audience, cries for a moment over who knows what. And of course there’s the inevitable health crises that forces the men to realize that underneath their hate is a bond that’s bigger than distaste for one another. But these wedged in “emotional” moments are so thinly drawn and without heft that any chance we might have of latching on to character or issue disappears like the sweetness of cheap gum after you’ve chewed it for 30 seconds.
This is a narrative aiming for the surface in every instance and firmly sticking the landing. There are no ah-ha moments where our eyes are opened to the curiousness of human condition. Abe and Henry provide us no great understanding of what it’s like to be in their aging minds and bodies. Our funny bones are ticked once or twice by these cantankerous men, but the jokes soon play like a broken record as the men keep sparring and name calling over the same issues.
Director Eileen J. Morris doesn’t help the repetitive and ultimately dull nature of the script with her choices. Apart from the two characters, Morris populates the stage with the looping presence of three other park personalities – the businessman, the homeless garbage picker and the teen roller-skater. Morris pads the set between each of the seven scene changes with these silent extras playing out the same motions and taking far too long to go about it. Rather than provide some kind of persistent visual cue, the lack of diversity in these moments drags the already slow moving play to a halt between scenes.
When it comes to her main characters, Morris does a decent job letting the gents stretch their legs around the confines of their small park setting but her lack of perceptiveness is notable. The opening scene of the play has Abe doing laps around the park. Before he begins, he drops his gym bag at his regular bench and then takes off on his run. Rather than watching him sweat through his laps or gain insight on who this character is, we are left to wonder what kind of fool would leave a bag full of personal items unattended in a big city park?
So where does the pleasant part come into play? Well that rests solely on the shoulders of the performers who both do the utmost with a weak script and flabby direction. Both Byran Jacquet (Henry) and Alex Morris (Abe) give personality performances that fill their simply drawn characters with as much soul as possible. Morris wonderfully uses his hulking presence to threaten and peacock while also easily folding into the gentle giant when a softer side is called for. Jacquet is equally snippy as
Abe and manages to bring as much gravitas to his more serious moments as is possible. We may see every turn coming and we may be frustrated that the script doesn’t work harder to give us something more insightful, but at no time can we say that we aren’t happy to be watching these talents on stage. These are actors that deserve better roles in order to truly show off their talent and charisma with one another.
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If you really want to find meaning in this show, I suppose you could say that Abe and Henry are men that would rather be with someone who they detest than be alone and lonely. In the absence of anyone else, the enemy becomes the only friend. Not a bad notion to chew on. But if you are looking past the barest of examinations of this dramatically or comically, you’ve come to the wrong play.
Two Old Black Men is a show about not much with a duo that doesn’t do much. And not in that Seinfeld way of saying so much with so little. Any ambition beyond slightly amusing or making us think is just not on offer. Fluff can be fun and a welcome soft landing. But fluff that we all know could have been so much more is just disappointing.
Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking continues through May 31 at The Ensemble Theatre 3535 Main Street. Purchase tickets online at ensemblehouston.com or by phone at 713-520-0055. $23 - $44.