Bad Manners

There are things about On Strivers Row -- a handful of performances, a couple of funny line readings -- worth waiting around for. But only if the many moments that surround these praiseworthy crumbs don't drive you from Black Theatre Troupe's borrowed space at Phoenix College, where the company is ending a long run of carefully chosen, well-executed plays with this half-assed comedy of manners.

Abram Hill's script is thoughtful and occasionally funny, and its message about people rising above expectations is one worth hearing. But its story is told in quippy drawing room chatter and executed with nearly nonstop movement by its large cast, most of whom just aren't up to the challenge.

The story owes more to Noel Coward than August Wilson: We're here to witness Cobina Van Striven's society debut, an event the young woman, natch, is mortified by. She'd rather run off with the working-class ne'er-do-well she's taken up with, but first she must endure social niceties with her mother's rich friends, among them gossip columnist Tillie Petunia and sassy doctor's wife Louise Davis. There's a lot of sniffy banter about appropriate attire and suitable social behavior, and a long speech about the way men treat women, after which the evil rich people are redeemed and the nice black girl takes off with her boyfriend the busboy.

All of this would be more fun to watch if there were more acting going on. Director David Hemphill has executed numerous well-timed entrances and exits by more than a dozen different characters, but has done little to pull performances from much of his cast. Thankfully, that cast includes Rico Burton as a perpetually unhappy, uptight grandma who spends most of the evening snorting and pawing at the ground. No matter -- Burton has a magnificent stage presence, and she plays even the silliest scene as if it were Ibsen. When Burton isn't around, Tameka C. Fox keeps things lively with her hugely funny and wildly un-PC housekeeper, Sophie, a bundle of naughty nerves and head-wagging disdain for "colored folks who put on airs." And André Lee Ellis makes the most of every moment when he appears late in the play as Joe, a flashy shyster in pimp attire who speaks only in rhyme.

There are others. Angela Kenzslowe wears a chiffon dressing gown and clips her speech in an approximation of what wealthy people supposedly sound like, but she's out of her league as a snooty socialite. She remembers all of her lines -- some of them quite long -- and manages to appear both motherly and chic in scenes with daughter Cobina, but she reads dialogue like she's, well, reading dialogue. Billy Williams has done better work than his take on slimy Dr. Davis, and while Kwane Vedrene looks swell in a tuxedo, his performance here is stiff and uninspired.

When I grew weary of all this non-acting, I was content to stare at Thom Gilseth's attractive set design, which gathered together a lot of showroom furniture and inexpensive moldings and made it look -- in good part thanks to Michael J. Eddy's careful, elegant lighting -- like a real drawing room, one just glossy and well-appointed enough to say "country club."

But who goes to the theater to look at set design? Ultimately, On Strivers Row proves too much for Hemphill, who would do better to leave comedy to other directors. On the night I was there, the biggest laugh went to the long, ragged tear in the "mink" coat of the doctor's wife -- a blunder not found in Hill's script. Enough said.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela