David Roberts, Chief New York Critic, Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk Member
New York, NY - Charlotte and Doug Walker’s son Kai will be home from prison in three months to begin his court remanded probation. Kai is a white university student athlete who was convicted of raping a black female student behind a dumpster at the school and is half-way through his six-month sentence. Kai’s transgression has shaken the Walker’s world and rent any sense of normally asunder. Choosing not to focus on the survivor but rather on the family of the criminal, playwright Selina Fillinger walks a fine line between redemption and reclamation.
Kai’s mother Charlotte (a passionate and searing Kathryn Erbe) decides to escape from her “clean, lonely house in upper-middle class suburbia” and volunteer “undercover” at “an overstuffed, inner-city Center for Sexual Assault” to somehow assuage her guilt and discover her own path – and a path for her family – toward recovery. Charlotte begins to bind with the center’s director Joey (an intense and gentle Christopher Livingston) a twenty-something young black man who is a victim of rape.
Ms. Fillinger spins a tale of parallel lives – those of Charlotte and her estranged husband Doug (a listless and compliant Daniel Jenkins) and Joey and his boyfriend Tim – that often skirts the significant themes of systemic racism and white privilege that only occasionally find their way into the script’s conversation. The central theme here is “scrubbing” the reality of racism and privilege clean with spray bottles and wipes drenched in fantasy and fiction. The playwright wants the audience to somehow accept alternative facts – sexual predators and their families are more important than survivors and their trauma.
So, Charlotte “just call me Charlie” dons yellow rubber gloves and is determined to make “something clean” of the mess made by her son Kai. She scrubs so hard on the dumpster she fails to come clean herself. She is dishonest with Joey, with her husband, and with her own superego. Kathryn Erbe and Christopher Livingston bring authenticity and grit to their performances of Charlotte and Joey. Their craft manages to transcend the holes in the script and the audience leans into their portrayals of brokenness (Joey) and arrogance (Charlotte).
The script is problematic on many counts. Although Kathryn Erbe and Christopher Livingston attempt to flesh out their characters – Charlotte/Charlie and Joey respectively – those characters lack consistent authenticity and believability as does Daniel Jenkins’s Doug – the weakest of the characters and therefore the least compelling of the performances. Perhaps most problematic is believing that Joey would not immediately see through Charlotte’s insincerity and arrogance.
Margot Bordelon directs “Something Clean” with the briskness of a broom that sweeps across Reid Thompson’s relatively expansive set in the Black Box Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. She cleverly divides the spaces between the Center and the Walker homestead with carpet tiles of differing subdued colors and provides three exits for the actors to accommodate the play’s rapid-firing short scenes. The scene of the sexual assault, the dumpster on the university campus, is revealed behind sliding panels that comprise the wall of the Center.
Although all’s well that ends well for the play’s on-stage characters, the offstage nameless survivor and her rapist have miles to go before either will be restive of body, mind, or spirit. Kai will hopefully examine his life and his actions with care and the nameless survivor will spend the rest of her life wondering who next will pull her behind a dumpster and violate her body and soul. Unfortunately, “Something Clean” does not deal with these important issues choosing instead to whitewash trauma with the white picket fence that surrounds the Walkers and protects them from the incursion of grief and confession.
“Something Clean” features Kathryn Erbe as “Charlotte,” Daniel Jenkins as “Doug” and Christopher Livingston as “Joey.”
The creative team for “Something Clean” includes Reid Thompson (Sets), Valérie Thérèse Bart (Costumes), Jiyoun Chang (Lighting) and Palmer Hefferan (Original Compositions and Sound).
“Something Clean” runs at the Black Box Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
(111 West 46th Street) through Sunday June 30, 2019 on the following performance schedule: Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 7:00 p.m. with Saturday matinees at 1:30P p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. All tickets for Something Clean are $30 General Admission tickets. Call 212-719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org for more information. Running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes without intermission.
Photo: Christopher Livingston and Kathryn Erbe in “Something Clean.” Credit: Joan Marcus.