nytheatre.com review by Jason S. Grossman
May 19, 2008
Beef is a powerful new play by Lawrence Dial inhabiting the 78th Street Theatre Lab. The play is set in the winter of 2001 in Alphabet City, New York City. The famous hip-hop battle between Jay-Z and Nas being played out on the radio serves as a backdrop to the story. Shorty and a young hustler named Spade are startled out of sleep by an unannounced late night visit by Shorty's childhood best friend and old roommate Dickie. Shorty has been taking care of Spade whom he saved after a beating suffered in the neighborhood. Dickie, a white free-style rapper, wants back into Shorty's life. Shorty has just taken a job at Starbuck's and doesn't want any part of a precarious life on the streets. Dickie's arrival raises many questions: Does Dickie know Spade? Is Spade really pregnant? Will Spade stay with Shorty? Beef explores the sensitive issues of what constitutes a contemporary family and what are our responsibilities to members of such a family.
Dial's provocative script crackles from page one. The first act rhythmically hums along as Dickie and Shorty, two lifelong friends, do battle. Shorty wants to carve out a life for himself and Spade. Dickie needs Shorty's help, because he's in deep trouble. Dickie warns Shorty that Spade is simply trying to hustle him. Dickie's love for Shorty, the man he considers his brother, is palpable. Shorty, already estranged from his ailing father, is torn between being loyal to his friend and needing to escape the clutches of a life of crime and violence. Helping Spade may or may not be a way out. The action culminates at the end of Act One with a profound wager. Writer Dial challenges the audience by scripting Act Two to take place one month prior to Act One, allowing us to fill in only some of the questions there. Tensions mount in Act Two when Shorty is visited by his affable cousin Marly ("The Messenger") who may just have ulterior motives.
Director Adam Knight has done an excellent job in allowing the taut script to simmer and explode. His staging empowers Dial's characters to come to life. And the 78th Street Lab Theatre has never been put to better use.
Robert Karma Robinson excels as the world-weary Shorty. Robinson inhabits his character completely; he's hardened but well-meaning. His street swagger has diminished to little more than a stagger from the constant pull of his "family" members. There's a sequence in Act Two where Shorty becomes stoned—a spectacular bit of acting by Robinson.
Jacob Ming-Trent smoothly plays Marly and is appropriately charismatic and manipulative. We feel there's something dark lurking behind his jovial demeanor. His Marly is nothing to be messed with.
Nick Mills is simply superb as Dickie. He embodies the soul of a wannabe white street rapper with great style and passion. He is so focused and honest in his role, one might be disappointed he isn't present for the entire play.
Kristin Friedlander gives a raw performance as the young Spade, belligerent and bleary from a life of physical and mental abuse.
The details are exquisite here; the theatre has been completely transformed into a rundown apartment on Avenue D. Lauren Duffie's lighting is elegantly somber and creepy (a real window is effectively lit and used as part of the set). Wes Grantom's sound design is also excellent, from the buses outside to the scratchy old LPs. Also of note is Adam Rihacek's realistic fight choreography which heightens the dramatic tension.
The Slant Theatre Project has done an exceptional job with this production, and we eagerly look forward to their next show.