Off-Broadway Review: “A Strange Loop” at Playwrights Horizons

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  • David Roberts, Chief New York Critic, Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk Member

Last season, two off-Broadway plays – “Daddy” and “Slave Play” (both by Jeremy O. Harris) – highlighted significant issues about the self-identity of young black gay and queer men and raised rich and enduring questions about the role of family, friends, culture, and “indifferent yet fetishizing white gays” in that process of discovery. This season, Michael R. Jackson’s original musical “A Strange Loop,” currently playing at Playwrights Horizons, similarly “sorts through layers of self-perception and the perceptions of the world around him” as his protagonist Usher (an impressive and transparent Larry Owens) explores “what it can feel like to be a ‘self’ in general and a black queer self in particular.” Usher’s quest is further complicated by his thoughts that interrupt his writing of a musical about his self-perception.

Usher’s inner cogitations are shared with the audience through the words and songs of six on stage “Thoughts” (Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson, Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, and Jason Veasey). This gifted ensemble cast batters Usher with his obsessive reflections about self and world as both individual and cacophonous choral thoughts and creates a fascinating and original “conversation” with the one having the apprehensions. The actors not only sing through Usher’s thoughts but portray all the characters inhabiting those thoughts. Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes bring appropriate energy to each character.

Usher “thinks” about changing his life forever, his relationship with his loving religious mother who worries for Usher’s soul, his homophobic and verbally abusive alcoholic father, his “inner white girl,” his doctor who thinks he should have more sex, online sex sites, sex role stereotypes, fetishes, HIV/AIDS in the black community, Tyler Perry constructs of black “America,” the white Inwood Daddy who likes boys of color, and the possibility that his “sense of self is just a bunch of meaningless symbols moving from one level of abstraction to another but ending up back where they started” (cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter’s “strange loop”).

Usher’s self-identity “crisis” is parsed by layers of rich and enduring questions that reverberate with deep authenticity and believability. Under Stephen Brackett’s direction, Larry Owens and the cast of “Thoughts” determine whether Usher is capable of change, needs to change, or is simply “stuck” with who he is. They raise the rich question of whether Usher’s struggles are unique to the black queer community or have connections and relevance beyond that specific community. Arnulfo Maldonado’s “multiple doors” set, and Jen Schriever’s lighting give the “Thoughts” the perfect to “express” themselves.

Despite the importance of the discussion Michael R. Jackson initiates with “A Strange Loop,” the play’s repetitive style and content and its dependence on what might seem unnecessary vulgarity often detract from the inner strength of the script. The final scenes in Usher’s home and in the church are overwrought and depend too heavily on lavish and expensive sets. There is enough genuine grit in Michael R. Jackson’s script to carry his important conversation with the minimalism suggested by the multiple subtle explosions across Usher’s cranial synapses that bring his inner world to outer examination.

 

A STRANGE LOOP

The cast of “A Strange Loop” features Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson, Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens, and Jason Veasey.

The creative team includes Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic Designer), Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Designer), Jen Schriever (Lighting Designer), Alex Hawthorn (Sound Designer), Cookie Jordan (Hair, Wig and Makeup Designer), Charlie A. Rosen (Orchestrator), Rona Siddiqui (Music Director), Michael R. Jackson (Vocal Arrangements), Tomoko Akaboshi (Music Coordinator), and Erin Gioia Albrecht (Production Stage Manager).

“A Strange Loop” runs at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street) through Sunday July 7, 2019. For more information, including the performance schedule and ticketing information, visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes without intermission.

Jason Veasey and Larry Owens in “A Strange Loop.” Credit: Joan Marcus.