nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 6, 2007
Thomas Bradshaw's new play Purity—in its world premiere at P.S. 122, directed by Yehuda Duenyas—challenges its audience in two different ways. On the one hand, the script, which is centered around a very successful African American English professor at an Ivy League university, confronts issues of entitlement and self-hatred that feel hugely resonant and relevant; Bradshaw's major triumph here is to accomplish this neatly in a satirical vein, so that Purity is both pointed and hilarious.
On the other hand, this production features a good deal of simulated sex, much of it involving a nine-year-old girl (portrayed by an adult actress). Bradshaw and Duenyas are very consciously pushing the envelope here, smashing a taboo to shock the audience; which is not necessarily a bad thing—but Purity comes close to crossing the line into pornography, and it does so to the detriment of its main theme.
The protagonist of Purity is Vernon, born and bred in the affluent New Jersey suburb of Short Hills, and now a rich college professor with a beautiful white wife (Lisa, a surgeon). Dave, his best friend, also white, is the head of the English department where he works. Vernon and Lisa and Dave and Dave's wife Michelle are great pals, and great abusers of alcohol and cocaine. Vernon and Dave share another passion, for child pornography. At the beginning of the play, the two men decide to act on their fantasy and go to Ecuador, where they "rent" a little girl from her father for $500.
Following this episode, Purity actually gets down to its main order of business, introducing the character of Carl, a new member of the English department. Carl is black and his specialty is African American literature; he grew up in Newark in the ghetto, where his mom was a single parent who could barely afford to feed her family and his dad, a drug dealer, was in prison. Vernon forms an instant dislike for Carl (which he explains rather cogently, if disturbingly, in a terrifically wrought speech near the end of the play).
The play veers between fantasy and reality for the remainder of its running time, staying focused mostly on Vernon's growing hatred of the "ghetto nigger" Carl and his concomitant senses of entitlement and/or guilt vis-a-vis working so hard to "assimilate" in the all-white community in which he now finds himself. The play mines this provocative territory incisively and compellingly, without sacrificing its satirical intent; actor James Scruggs is magnificent in the role, taking us through Vernon's descent, subtly shifting from a reasonable-sounding raconteur with whom we can relate to a scary, hate-mongering bigot who makes us very uncomfortable. The shock of recognition figures prominently in the dynamic here: racism is the stated issue, but the kinds of feelings that Carl arouses in Vernon can easily be translated into prejudice against fellow gays, fellow Jews, fellow Muslims, fellow theatre critics...you name it.
It's so authentically hard-hitting and provoking that I, at least, was bothered by the distraction of the pedophilia subplot. My sense is that Bradshaw has put this into the mix to demonstrate the utterly amoral avarice of his privileged characters (in which case Michelle and Lisa should probably be pedophiles as well). But spending roughly a third of the play's running time on Vernon and Dave's pursuit and conquest of their nine-year-old prey seems like severe overkill—a wickedly telling detail suddenly takes centerstage and a play that seems to be about one thing is suddenly, if temporarily, about something else. For me, that something else was mostly concern for actors who are required to take off their clothes and simulate intercourse in a very intimate space. I wasn't shocked, but I was pulled completely out of the story.
But when Purity sticks to its focus it's very good indeed, and well-served by an expert cast led by Scruggs and including Albert Christmas (Carl), Daniel Manley (Dave), Alexa Scott-Flaherty (Lisa), Kate Benson (Michelle), Jenny Seastone Stern (Maria, the object of Vernon's lust), and Spencer Scott Barros (Maria's father, and also a Genie who figures in an excellent fantasy sequence at the play's climax). The design serves the piece well, particularly uncredited masks that figure prominently in that same dream sequence.
Chances are good that you won't see very many plays more viscerally provoking than Purity this year; Thomas Bradshaw wants to use the theatre to poke and prod his audience away from complacency and toward social action, and this piece contains that capacity. There's more Bradshaw coming up next month (a double bill of his Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist and a new work, Cleansed). It's all work that's designed to make us think and feel after we leave the theatre; that's got to be a good thing.