In a play called "Buzzer," it's ironic that the intercom system doesn't actually work.
Yet the broken buzzer in Tracey Scott Wilson's 2012 drama is a deliberate plot device. It sets up a highly symbolic (and uncomfortable) final tableaux for a play that already goes out of its way to push buttons over touchy issues of gentrification, class and American race relations in a so-called "post-racial Obama age."
"Buzzer"★ ★ ★
Location: Goodman Theatre's Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800, goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday (also Tuesday, Feb. 25), 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (no evening show March 9); through Sunday, March 9
Running time: About 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission
Parking: Paid lot as well as street parking
Rating: For teens and older; mature language and subject matter
After two well-received runs in Minneapolis, "Buzzer" makes its Chicago debut in a strong production by director Jessica Thebus at Goodman Theatre, which previously tackled Wilson's "The Story" in 2005 and "The Good Negro" in 2010. "Buzzer" is a welcome addition, and it's poised to generate lots of heady and potentially heated discussions.
The plot centers on an African-American Harvard-educated lawyer named Jackson (Eric Lynch) in his late 20s. A self-proclaimed "gentrifier," Jackson buys a recently renovated apartment in the troubled Bronx neighborhood that he grew up in with the hope that he will be a part of an incoming wave of professionals who will transform it into something more fashionable and upscale.
Complications ensue when Jackson invites his longtime girlfriend, Suzy (Lee Stark), and his closest friend, Don (Shane Kenyon), to move in with him at the same time. Suzy and Don, both white, have issues with the sketchy neighborhood, not to mention a disputed past over a vacation incident years before in Florida.
Though she teaches at a tough inner-city school, Suzy (affectionately called "Suz" by Jackson), finds it tough to feel safe in her new neighborhood. And as a recovering heroin addict who previously spent two summers in the neighborhood when it was at its most drug-riddled, Don is full of amusing, if harrowing, stories that give him a potentially risky sense of overconfidence.
The soap opera-style twists that result don't feel entirely organic -- though they do draw gasps from the audience.
Yet, Scott's dialogue, filled with lots of great pop-culture references and comic one-liners, is a gift for the cental trio of talented actors who keep their complicated characters grounded as real people facing devastating love and friendship fractures.
Kenyon is particularly adept at showing the endearing and attractive side of Don, which does wonders to help explain why Lynch's upstanding and ambitious Jackson has stuck by his friend despite multiple drug relapses. Stark is also extremely engaging as Suzy, either when sarcastically joking about her character's tough time at school or when she's pushed to emotional extremes.
In the Goodman's more-intimate Owen Theatre space, audiences become part of the action since set designer Walt Spangler has incorporated a seating area as part of the graffiti-tagged scenery that surrounds the upscale fixtures and furniture of Jackson's new apartment. Sound designer Mikhail Fiskel's contribution of urban noise also skillfully adds to the mix of reasons the characters in "Buzzer" are so often unsettled.
At times, Scott pushes her articulate, self-aware characters dangerously close to becoming types sprouting talking points about the issues. Jackson even goes so far as to emphasize that he will not become a "magical Negro" stereotype, who offers sage advice to troubled white people.
The issues they address, however, are inescapably timely and full of dramatic weight. "Buzzer" succeeds at pushing emotional buttons, making you reconsider your own personal views.