Wrestling the Alligator
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
June 13, 2009
In Wrestling the Alligator, Sergei Burbank creates exciting dramatic tension as he tackles big topics like slavery and discrimination. This might seem ambitious for a play of less than 60 minutes. But, Burbank wastes no time in drawing a strong anti-hero who is smart, accomplished, verbally dexterous, and fatally flawed—a winning formula to captivate an audience. It is a shame, then, that the playwright loses his focus as the play progresses by wandering into additional territory that distracts from the play's strength.
The play takes place on a college campus, where Ron Smith, a confident and controversial professor of African American studies, walks a fine line between mentoring and abusing his teaching assistant, Maurice, who grades papers, provides student papers with constructive comments that should be written by Smith, and works on his thesis on which he awaits Smith's long-delayed approval. Their banter is interrupted by the arrival of Emily, a columnist for the student newspaper who has been maligning Smith for banning whites from his class. There's an immediate face-off, but it is a confrontation out of left field that introduces not one but two love stories, brings into question the identity of the white reporter, and debunks the accomplishments of Smith with an easy out: plagiarism.
Instead of providing intelligent answers that might illuminate an activist African American viewpoint, Burbank destroys his character. The irony is that Burbank has created a strong enough character in Professor Smith to make his weaknesses in the second half of his play lack credibility. It is not so difficult to believe that Professor Smith may be unethical as it is to accept that he would sacrifice both his career and his bully pulpit. Burbank raises many questions, too, among them, what prompted Smith to call Emily into his office at this time? Why is he so eager for Maurice and Emily to hit it off? What does he stand to gain by upending Emily's world? Also, disembodied taped voices are difficult to identify and further muddy the waters.
It is in the beginning of the play that Burbank demonstrates how bigotry takes on many guises. His dialogue is strong and lively. However, he misses the mark when he introduces "white talk." What mother ever said to her daughter, "Come home. We'll talk of forbidden things." Or what college coed ever said, "Do you want to bed me?"
Adam Karsten directs with a keen ear for passionate people who need to make their positions heard. James Ware stands out as Professor Smith, giving him a likeable, playful demeanor while he intersperses demands and insults. Burbank plays Maurice and brings an understandable subservience to the teaching assistant, but he is a reluctant love interest for the columnist. Amanda Nichols adds spark and dimension as Emily. Kina Park's set uses suspended bookshelves and hanging African artwork in minimal but expressive ways. Ryan Mueller designed artful lighting that reflects African tribal influences. Daonne Huff designed appropriate costumes.
Wrestling the Alligator is produced by Conflict of Interest Theater Company and is part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. Of each ticket sold, $2 will be donated to City Harvest.