Fantasies can be difficult to review. The usual dictums regarding character and plot development just don’t apply, since fantasies set up and proceed on their own logic. Suzan-Lori Parks’ fantasy “White Noise,” which received its world premiere Wednesday at the Public Theater, is written as if a very important amendment to the U.S. Constitution never existed, and proceeds from there. (Paul Beatty used the same subject matter to spin his own Swiftian tale, “The Sellout.”)
The four characters in “White Noise” aren’t so much characters as they are archetypes of race, class and privilege who level stinging barbs at one another that would immediately vaporize any other real-world interracial friendship or affair. And that’s true before Parks drops the play’s big bomb.
Where “White Noise” quickly and repeatedly sheds its more fantastical elements are in the four remarkable monologues interspersed throughout this two-act, three-hour drama. There’s the white college instructor Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), who loses out on a tenured professorship to a person of color. His girlfriend, a black woman named Misha (Sheria Irving), takes angry telephone calls from viewers of her livestream show, “Ask a Black.” Their good friend Dawn (Zoe Winters) is a white lawyer who’s defending a black teenager who’s actually guilty of the crime as charged. And Dawn’s boyfriend, Leo (Daveed Diggs), is a black artist who suffers from insomnia for all those things that sum up Ralph, Misha and Dawn, and more.
Leo’s alternately funny and painful monologue kicks off “White Noise,” and Diggs turns this rambling reverie into a plea for understanding that prepares us (almost) for the character’s outrageous wager to his best friend, Ralph. The actor’s Tony-winning turn in “Hamilton” was only a warm-up for the ways in which he grounds “White Noise.”
After this opening tour de force, the other actors are at a distinct disadvantage in our warming to them — until, one by one, each gets a turn to speak to us directly. Each monologue is a veritable essay on the subject of race in America, and yet each is as personal and heartrending as Leo’s woozy sleep-deprived meditation. Oskar Eustis’ even-handed direction makes sure that Irving, Sadoski, and Winters nearly match Diggs’ sheer intensity and charisma in these individual moments, which turn out to be the most character-driven aspects of Parks’ fantasy.
One of those characters tell us, “Some folks are doing their best to make things right, but to really fix the s—, you gotta go all the way back. Back through the portal of history, back through the rabbit hole, the abyss, the void, back through the wormhole, yeah, the wormhole as wide as the world.”
Before this review reduces “White Noise” to a sermon or lecture, it’s appropriate to note that Parks writes great sketch comedy. And it’s the first play I can ever remember seeing that puts a bowling alley on stage (scenic design by Clint Ramos). It’s a bit startling at first to have the bowling balls coming right at you, and Parks mines that sport (the only one you can play while smoking and getting drunk) for enormous laughs. Even more uproarious is the scene where the rejected Ralph secretly phones into his girlfriend’s show to “ask a black” about his recent job humiliation. Irving’s quick segues from playing a hyper-educated woman to dialing up “the ebonics” for her on-air persona provide a master class in racial stereotypes.
These sketches float the first act of “White Noise,” making it the fastest 90 minutes in recent theater history.
The provocative wager between Leo and Ralph — no spoilers here about its nature — bears immediate positive results: Leo can sleep; he doesn’t even need that white-noise machine. And the previously unpublished Ralph immediately gets a story accepted by the New Yorker. (I told you that “White Noise” is a fantasy.) But those funny sketches turn ugly in Act 2: “Ask a Black” begins to torment Misha; the nights of bowling are now drenched in violence.
A final match at the bowling alley lays out the marriage of capitalism and cultural appropriation, and springs directly from Leo and Ralph’s visit to a secret society of privileged white men. The two men are so hard-wired (see the “some folks” quote above) that they give entirely different monologues to describe what transpired in this private fraternity. Could Parks have called it something other than the White Club? Like those stinging barbs her couples level at each other in the first act, she utilizes short cuts to energize the drama. Making Dawn a lawyer is another short cut.
Parks also creates some convoluted twists to make Ralph both wealthy and neglected by his father. Oh, to be white, male and heterosexual! It’s amazing such a person even dares go to the theater anymore. But to pile on this white/male/straight stereotype, it’s not necessary to give Ralph so much childhood trauma. He’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t recognize his own sense of entitlement and privilege regardless of his upbringing.
More troubling are the play’s two magical bisexuals. Parks uses sexual orientation the way a costume designer switches clothes on an actor: It’s a mere point in the thesis or bump in the plot to keep an audience from falling asleep. You might as well call it gay face.