“Good Faith,” a new play that is enjoying its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, is one of those plays that draws the adjective “important” to it like a magnet draws metal filings. Why? Well, it deals with important issues, a whole laundry list of important issues. As a matter of fact, I don’t think playwright Karen Hartman has missed a single contentious topic that bubbles on or beneath the surface of the troubled waters of 21st-century America. Does this make for an enjoyable or gripping evening of theater? Well, I guess that’s in the eye (or, perhaps more accurately, often the ear) of the beholder.
As directed by Kenny Leon, this exercise in touching all of the politically correct and incorrect bases was birthed when Yale contacted the playwright and asked her if she would like to write a play about the Ricci v. DeStefano court case that was initiated after 118 New Haven firefighters took a test in 2003 to see who would qualify for promotion to lieutenant.
The results of the test were contested, based on the claim that the test was biased. This led to an investigation by New Haven’s Civil Service Board, which failed to certify the test’s results, which meant all promotions were frozen. Twenty firefighters, primarily white, brought suit on the basis of reverse-discrimination. The case reached all the way to the Supreme Court (2009), which ruled in favor of what had become known as the New Haven Twenty. A subsequent lawsuit was filed by a black fireman, arguing that how the test was constructed and weighted was discriminatory. After a financial settlement was offered to him by the city, the case was dropped. Of course, there’s more, much more, but your eyes are probably already starting to cross (if you want or need clarification – and you may just – read the show’s program).
So, how do your craft a play about all of this? Well, Hartman decided to write a play about how she went about researching to write the play, along the way interviewing many of the key players, these interviews providing the subtitle for the play: “Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department.” Does it work? Well, yes and no.
The play opens with the Writer (an engaging Laura Heisler) telling a family story and then setting the stage for what follows, which is the appearance of four people she interviewed who were involved in the lawsuits: Frank, a white firefighter (Ian Bedford), two black firefighters, Mike (Billy Eugene Jones) and Tyrone (Rob Demery), and Karen, (Rene Augesen), the attorney for the New Haven Twenty who won the Supreme Court case.
The rest of the two-plus hours consists of some insights into how firefighters are trained plus what the playwright heard and recorded at these interviews in scenes in which the Writer mostly sits quietly listening to what is being said. There’s a lot of contention in these interviews, first between Mike, who is erudite (sometimes making up his own words when real ones won’t suffice) and seems to be a walking encyclopedia of race relations in America over the past three centuries, and Tyrone, who eschews flights of philosophical musings mixed with sociological theory for a more down-to-earth look at race relations.
These two characters have a lot to say…I mean, a lot to say. The problem is, they often talk over each other – not just biting into each other’s lines but talking, often at high volume, at the same time for extended moments. The result is an avalanche of words – you hear the rumble and tumble, but it’s often well-nigh impossible to capture what each character is actually saying. Phrases pop out like stones tossed from the avalanche, but there is little to no coherence when this is going on, and it happens several times. Thus, as with being caught in an avalanche, if you survive you cannot help but feel a bit bruised and broken.
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), the second-act’s extended scene in which the Writer interviews Karen, the lawyer, quickly turns into a monologue in which what the lawyer says is never truly contested…she just gives her views on the case, on sexism, on politics and how it affects the judicial system and, along the way, takes to task Sonia Sotomayor, who ruled against the plaintiffs when the case came before the Second Court of Appeals in 2007. Her ruling later became a topic when Sotomayor was testifying prior to her confirmation for a seat on the Supreme Court. It all comes off as a guest appearance by a well-known lawyer at some high-profile law school’s seminar, with the play’s audience in attendance, whether they wish to be or not.
The most effective of the “chats’ is the final one, when the Writer finally gets Mike and Frank to sit down and talk. It’s effective because the two men, coming at all that has happened from two different perspectives, both make valid points, and although they do interrupt each other, there is none of the double-dialogue that mars the “chats” between Mike and Tyrone. It’s a strong way to end the play and you just wish there had been more of this type of staging (and writing) earlier on.
I may have truly become a citizen of Curmudgeon Land, but after the very engrossing scene between Mike and Frank, the play ends somewhat gratuitously. As flames roar above them, (compliments of projection designer Zachary Borovay), the characters assemble on stage and essentially ask the audience who is there to save them when they are caught in a fire? Well, of course, it’s the firefighters. Well, as true as that is, and with no disrespect to those who risk their lives battling fires, the moment is a manipulative throw-in and has little to do with what the play is essentially about. In essence, it’s a cheap shot to generate a “feel-good” emotion as the audience exits the theater.
The basic problem with “Good Faith” is that the audience is often twice-removed from what occurs on stage due to Hartman’s decision to frame the play in terms of what the playwright saw and heard during her research (and the fact that the Writer is always there, watching). In essence, we are seeing what the Writer saw rather than experiencing the “chats” and inherent confrontations on our own. It’s like Ibsen is a character in “The Doll’s House,” telling us what he saw as he took meticulous notes while observing the goings-on in the Helmer household. Nora does finally slam that door, but Ibsen is there watching.
“Good Faith” runs through February 23. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org.