By David Patrick Stearns
INQUIRER CULTURAL CRITIC
Upon encountering Thomas Gibbons' play Permanent Collection by InterAct Theatre Company, you're likely to think: "Didn't this play start here?" "Didn't we live this drama?" "Do we have to go through it again?"
The answers are yes, certainly, and indeed. The play premiered at InterAct in 2003 and went on to tell the world about the Barnes Foundation's agonized journey into the real world, focusing not on the move from Merion to Philadelphia but on the first stages of undoing Albert C. Barnes' wishes by Richard Glanton, the foundation's African American president in the 1990s. The main issues are overt and covert racism directed at the man enacting what Philadelphians hate most: change.
The twist in this new production is that director Seth Rozin, in collaboration with the playwright, sets the play in contemporary times. Newspapers are read on iPads, conversations are recorded on iPhones, and an African American U.S. president is referred to. Thus, the play's issues can't be viewed from a safe distance. And in the intimate confines of the Adrienne Theater, this play is, rightly, uncomfortable and provocative with zingers that crystalize rather than diminish the argument.
Plays can say things journalists can't, and from moment one, the racial issues are out in the open. While driving to his first day of work, Sterling North (the stage version of Glanton) is pulled over by a cop for DWB (driving while black), described in searing detail, dissecting the power dynamics between a police officer who believes the driver has stolen the Jaguar and a driver who has earned every bit of it the hard way.
Two hours and several fatal slips of the tongue later, the characters are suing or not speaking to one another - all of them "right" in their own ways - in a conflict revolving around a longtime education director who has devoted his life to the collection and the new director, who in so many ways reflects the renegade sensibility of the man who built the collection (named "Morris" here).
This is where the message gets even larger: Racism is portrayed as a means of inner isolation among individuals who judge and objectify those around them, taking little at face value. The final result is embittered aloneness - as embodied by Morris, who appears for delightfully whacked monologues, brilliantly played by Tom McCarthy at the outer edges of eccentricity.
The two leading actors have been with the play since 2003, and it shows in the best way. Frank X turns in a magnetic, bravura performance as the hyper-articulate Sterling while Tim Moyer traces the education director's progression from withdrawn art nerd to formidable foe. Nothing is tentative in this hair-trigger pas de deux that leaves lives ruined.
Supporting characters often have the best surprises, and are played by actors who always know what to reveal and what to hide. You never know whether Maureen Torsney-Weir, as a savvy reporter, is part of the problem or the solution. Karen Vicks' characterization never hints that the museum's most low-key employee is to become an instrument of change. As the faithful secretary, Lynnette R. Freeman is the Everyperson: She paves the way to the audience's disillusionment.
Only one problem: Morris (Barnes) is a pervasive stage presence. Is he a ghost? A flashback? Or simply lost?
Contact David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.
Through May 5 at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. Tickets" $30-$35. 215-568-8077 or interacttheatre.org.