In the first scene of Jeff Augustin’s new drama “The New Englanders,” which opened Wednesday at Off Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club, Teagle F. Bougere’s Aaron is braiding the hair of his biracial daughter, Eisa (Kara Young), as they complain about the unidentified movie they just watched.
“Yeah, white people love to watch other sad white people silently live their lives. They find it moving,” he says. “We can only teach lessons on race and class. Be victims who overcome. We never get to just live…. Cause white people can’t imagine our lives beyond the color of our skin. They can’t imagine that we bake cakes and have daddy issues.”
What follows, though, is a smart but underwritten drama in which the color of a character’s skin is anything but peripheral: whether it’s Aaron’s white husband, Samuel (Patrick Breen), who has grown distant from his family but can’t imagine moving away from their quaint New England suburb, or Eisa’s white teacher (Crystal Finn), who refuses to give her a pass on whiffing an assignment just because she’s “the only smart kid I teach,” or Aaron’s ex-lover Raul (Javier Muñoz), a Latino man who returns to town hoping to reconnect — and borrow money, supposedly for his own estranged daughter.
Aaron and Eisa do get the opportunity to show real agency during the course of the 100-minute, intermissionless play — and even to rebel against the strictures they feel have been imposed on them. But these outbursts, including one that has major life-altering repercussions, don’t always feel organic. Nor do they fit the overall tone of the play, which at its best can be witty and jaunty in individual scenes that often sparkle under Saheem Ali’s direction.
This is the rare play that may actually be too short to achieve its dramatic intentions — Augustin’s story might actually be more suited to a 10-episode limited TV series where he could flesh out all of the characters so that big plot twist doesn’t seem so jarringly out of place.
That said, there are some strongly written scenes throughout here, and Adam Langdon is a real standout as a white high school classmate who crushes on Eisa and bonds with her over their shared appreciation of one of “the oldies”: Lauryn Hill. The fact that he also sells weed out of Chuck E. Cheese — but never to kids, he explains, and he never lights up himself — makes him a far more interesting and rounded personality than Eisa, who remains mostly a cipher even as the plot narrows its focus on her.
She acts, and she acts out, but she never gets to just live.