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Review: 'American Son,' with Kerry Washington, is a painfully topical, if imperfect, Broadway drama

Review: 'American Son,' with Kerry Washington, is a painfully topical, if imperfect, Broadway drama
Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale star in 'American Son' on Broadway (Peter Cunningham / Peter Cunningham)

NEW YORK — The setting is uncertain in the opening moments of “American Son,” an acutely topical new Broadway drama by Christopher Demos-Brown. But it is clear from the intense performance by Kerry Washington that Kendra, a woman waiting alone, is rifling through worst-case scenarios as she sits in a room accustomed to writhing strangers.

The windows open out onto a rainy night in Miami, but an even bigger storm is brewing inside. Whatever you might surmise about the locale, the look in Washington’s eyes leaves little doubt that lives are irrevocably broken here.

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Kendra’s frantic phone calls clarify that “American Son,” which had its official opening Wednesday at the Booth Theatre, takes place at a police station. The desperate voicemails she leaves her son, Jamal, are the pleas not just of any worried mother but of an African American mother who knows the dangers awaiting an 18-year-old boy who shares her skin color.

Jamal hasn’t come home after a night out with friends. The police have information that his vehicle was involved in an “incident.” But Officer Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), the rookie cop working the night shift, insists he has nothing more to tell her.

Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale and Eugene Lee in "American Son."
Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale and Eugene Lee in "American Son." (Peter Cunningham)

There are protocols that must be observed, Larkin asserts as Kendra vents her frustration at a system that won’t even let her file a missing-person’s report. She wants answers, not cluelessness, stonewalling and microaggression.

Larkin is clearly out of his depth with this psychology professor, who calls him on his racial insensitivity while demanding that he do more than politely offer her stale doughnuts. The opening scene sets the stage and also exposes some of the inexperience of the playwright, a Miami-based trial lawyer making his Broadway debut.

Some of the delaying tactics Demos-Brown employs are intrinsic to the situation. But the playwright’s rudimentary craft is evident in the hammering of the same monotonous notes and in the dribbling out of key details.

When Scott (Steven Pasquale), Kendra’s estranged husband, arrives at the station, the stakes are immediately raised. Scott, an FBI agent, flaunts his badge, which confuses the easily confused Larkin, who assumes this is the lieutenant sent from above to give this incensed mother an update on her son.

It doesn’t occur to Larkin that this take-charge white guy is Kendra’s husband and the father of the missing 6-foot-2 black teen with cornrows who had some mysterious run-in with the authorities. Kendra fumes when Larkin provides Scott with a fuller picture than he offered her. She’s also ticked off by Scott’s nice-guy act with a star-struck officer whose ultimate dream is to join the FBI.

In ways that are sometimes a little too on the nose and sometimes right on the money, Demos-Brown shows the way the prism of race colors reality. Larkin’s clumsy comment to Kendra about the historical reason there are two water fountains at the station seems heavy-handed on the playwright’s part. It’s also a little odd that Scott would use the word “uppity” without thinking of the effect on his wife, who is so politically fastidious about language.

I couldn’t help speculating on how the author’s own racial identity (he’s white) may have informed his handling of the material. Blind spots and distortions are unavoidable even with the best intentions, but Demos-Brown pursues his drama as though it were a chess match — or, to choose perhaps a more apt metaphor, a moot court on a subject that is rarely out of the news these days.

By rotating the character confrontations, the playwright illuminates the way gender, education, professional status and social class shift perspective on matters of race and justice. “American Son” isn’t the most supple drama. The writing can be strained and mechanical, but it inches toward a greater complexity.

When John Stokes (Eugene Lee at full force), a black lieutenant able to report on what happened to Jamal, finally shows up, the interpersonal dynamics grow explosively complicated. And no, Kendra calling him an Uncle Tom isn’t the tipping point.

The production, directed by Kenny Leon, occasionally hits its marks too insistently. Intensity too often translates into monotonous shouting. Even the lashing rainstorm electrifying Derek McLane’s set seems a tad overwrought.

Jordan perhaps has the toughest road, with a character whose qualities are comically bullet-pointed. But the actor gives as much due to Larkin’s earnest concern as to his redneck naiveté.

Lee, rescuing the production with his veteran caginess, sharply individualizes Stokes. The character might come across as a tool of the establishment, but when the moment is right, the lieutenant offers a glimpse of his hard-earned wisdom.

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Pasquale has a higher-end version of Jordan’s problem: how to make intermittent obtuseness seem credible. But Scott is more dimensional than Larkin, and Pasquale fully inhabits his character’s history with Kendra. Their once-burning intimacy still smolders. And for all the reflexive tension between Scott and Kendra, Jamal, their golden-boy son who’s been going through a rough adolescent patch since Scott left home, is still the repository of all their hopes.

The title of “American Son” is not accidental. The fate of young men like Jamal concerns more than a single community. Indeed, the future of the country hinges on how we as a nation collectively deal with a system of justice that is shot through (tragic pun intended) with injustice.

The drama depends on the sustained pitch of Washington’s portrayal of a mother ferociously battling forces larger, though not greater, than herself. The “Scandal” star could use more modulation in the early going, a fault of the direction as much as the writing. But the anguish of Demos-Brown’s play is coiled inside a performance rooted in one character’s story but containing real-world multitudes. Washington honors all the shattered loved ones who have gone through Kendra’s experience.

“American Son” isn’t a play for the decades, never mind for the ages. But it speaks directly to our grievous times. If the playwright’s limitations are conspicuous, his knowledge of criminal-justice realities brings an uncompromising verisimilitude to an ending that should leave Broadway audiences gasping for breath.

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