“Sunset Baby” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby is a solidly-crafted, absorbing story about love and loss and the loss of love and the inability to articulate love. It gives us a bitter young woman, her estranged father, and her hot-to-trot lover, who argue and tease, weep and yell, make love and toss insults in a grungy East New York apartment in 2005. If, in the end, it never catches fire, or produces in the audience that frisson we always want to experience, it all comes down to this: we need to laugh.

What, you say? Laugh?!? This is a serious drama – there’s nothing funny here!

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Well, that’s the problem. There’s a difference between “serious” and “solemn” and, unfortunately, Sunset Baby, though well-written, is a little too earnest for its own good. There was only one moment in the evening which got even a moderate chuckle – when Damon (Chris Gardner) delivers a speech so over-the-top you have to smile – but the rest of it was pretty grim.

And that’s fine: the play isn’t a comedy, and shouldn’t be turned into one. But even the grimmest stories have light moments, or moments that should be made light. For when everything is on one level – drama! – we in the audience become inured to it, eventually dulled by the emotional sameness, which makes us care less about the characters. When we’re diverted, made to laugh, forced to forget for a moment how awful the things are that the characters have gone through and might be experiencing right now, when we’re slapped with the drama again, it has more of a sting.

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Some years ago, the great English actor Laurence Olivier played James Tyrone in a television production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, one of the grimmest, most dour (and indeed sodden) plays ever written. Yet Olivier was determined to find humor in the script, and succeeded especially well in a scene at the table with his two sons. As the scene progressed, the three found themselves roaring with laughter, as did we in the audience. Then, without warning, in a momentary pause in the laughter, we – and the men at the table – heard the footsteps upstairs of Mary, James’s wife and the boys’ mother, a drug addict restlessly pacing her room. The moment – as Olivier’s face went from hilarity to realization to misery – was devastating, and refreshed in our minds the horror the family was living.

But that was then, and this is now, and, thankfully, Sunset Baby is blessed with enough good things that you’re almost willing to forgo the one-note tone.

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The striking Nadege August plays Nina, the daughter of two Black Power revolutionaries. Where her parents fought for the greater good, she makes her living as a drug dealer and petty thief. She’s plenty tough, though a lot of the toughness stems from her feelings of abandonment by her father, Kenyatta (Vincent J. Isaac), who left when she was a kid and has been in jail until recently. She’s enlisted Damon as her henchman and sorta-lover, though her feelings for him seem to be way below his for her.

All three actors are commendable: Ms August gives a vibrant performance, strutting like an empress at times, yet showing us the hurt underneath the hard shell. Mr. Gardner is a likable thug, perhaps a bit overmatched by Nina, but in love with her and willing to overlook her, um, harder side. Mr. Isaac, alternating between monologues which he’s recording for his daughter, and scenes in Nina’s apartment, provides a dignified, rueful portrait of an activist who needed to protest and be fierce, but is still a gentleman who can’t get over his dead love.

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Jeffrey Hayden’s direction works well for the most part, though some of the blocking is overly restless, and it’s difficult to believe anyone can be ambidextrous while aiming a gun, as he has Nina do in one scene. Set design by Charles Erven, lighting by Jeremy Pivnick, and the costumes – especially for Nina – by Mylette Nora all make valuable contributions.

Overall, a worthwhile production, but like matzo – yeah, it’ll get you across the desert, but it would be so much tastier and more interesting if it had a bit of leavening to make it less hard and flat

Sunset Baby
Written by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Jeffrey Hayden

Through June 7

Odyssey Theatre
2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Tickets: 310-477-2055 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com


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