WHERE Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center
INFO $30; 212-239-6200; lct.org
BOTTOM LINE Provocative family/racial drama with too few answers
Mother is comatose in a hospital bed after a stroke. Her two grown children and assorted family members gather around her. But since the play is called “War” and the playwright is the unstoppably provocative Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, you may assume the familiar situation is just the jumping off point into . . .
But into what? This is not ultimately clear. The uncertainty may be the objective of the playwright, whose “Gloria” was a finalist this year for the Pulitzer and whose work often roils blatant and subtle assumptions about both personal and racial identity.
And yet there are so many backstories, so many challenging ideas in “War” that its inability — or unwillingness — to coalesce leaves an unfinished feeling. You see, two of the family members at Roberta’s bedside claim to be her half-black, half-sister (Michele Shay) and the woman’s adult son (Austin Durant). But they have just come from Germany. The woman has early stage Alzheimer’s and understands little English. And neither Roberta’s hyper-achieving son (Chris Myers) nor her less confident daughter (Rachel Nicks) know anything about the strangers and their inheritance claim.
Then there are the gorillas. Stay with me here. A male nurse suddenly slumps into ape posture and talks to Roberta’s lost spirit in sign language, with supertitle translations. And Roberta — beautifully played with long expressive limbs and irrepressible lyricism by Charlayne Woodard — is sliding, almost floating around director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s multilayered, hallucinatory production, explaining the family saga to us in an internal monologue.
We learn that, after World War II, Roberta’s soldier father impregnated a woman in Germany, where villagers made monkey sounds at him. We learn the world is stranded in racial history and everyone is trapped in a primal zoo. We also learn we wish we knew more.