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'While I Yet Live' review: Contradictions galore

Elain Graham, Larry Powell and Lillias White in

Elain Graham, Larry Powell and Lillias White in "While I Yet Live." Photo Credit: James Leynse

Billy Porter, who won every award the theater can give for his star turn as Lola in "Kinky Boots," has some stories to tell about his life. How we wish he had decided which one or two to tell.

"While I Yet Live," an autobiographical serious comedy he has been working on for years, has so many back-stories and changes of tone that his big rich cast -- including the wondrous S. Epatha Merkerson as the mother -- seems whiplashed from the contradictions.

This is a memory play about growing up gay, black and Christian in a Pittsburgh home dominated by lots of strong, vibrant, scripture-quoting women. There is also a man there, his stepfather, who sexually abused the boy for years. And maybe, just maybe, his mother, born with a mysterious degenerative palsy, knew it.

We travel through many years in the two-story house, designed by James Noone so we can feel close to all the action all the time. Porter and director Sheryl Kaller are impressive at conveying the fun-loving side of these boisterous relatives, who banter and holler and balance piety with playfulness in scenes as revealing as they are amusing.

But the revelations, the doggedly pursued theme of forgiveness and the earnest pronouncements are more repetitious and manipulative than a marathon of Oprah melodramas. The abuses and confessions, piled one on top of another, are as blunt and off-putting as is the arch title.

Still, Merkerson is fearless as Maxine, the pious mother whose physical indignities compound as her understanding of her son grows. Her character has lovably irreverent scenes with her best friend (Sharon Washington), who is dying of cancer and burdened with guilt over what's perceived as a sin. Lillias White has a delightful wicked streak as Maxine's mother, who, naturally, also has a guilty secret, while Elaine Graham makes us care about the difficult aunt who gets dementia.

Larry Powell is empathetic as Calvin, the playwright's stand-in, who abandons the family to find fame in musical theater, while Sheria Irving has startling chameleonic mastery as his baby sister, who narrates as she grows up. The ghosts are put to good use, but Porter piles on the sins-of-the-father accusations until they threaten absurdity. Finally, a huge plot point is left unsolved at the end, which leaves us with a "Huh?" when, after all this, we really need a resolution.


WHAT "While I Yet Live"

WHERE Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd St.

INFO $70; 646-223-3010; dukeon42.org

BOTTOM LINE Inconsistent tone, heartfelt story.

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