Just because Laurence Fishburne can successfully portray a young black man struggling against his circumstances—as he did in John Singleton’s seminal 1991 film, Boyz N the Hood— is no reason to assume that he can also successfully write a play about young black men struggling against their circumstances. There’s also no reason to assume that a theater company can successfully produce it. This is all by way of introducing the idea that, based on Riff Raff (playing through Saturday, Oct. 1; 206-325-6500), Fishburne can’t—and neither, unfortunately, can Theater Schmeater.
Fishburne wrote Riff Raff in 1994 and, according to press notes, has said, “It’s about the guys who didn’t make it out of my neighborhood.” I have no reason to contradict Fishburne’s claim, but I would add that Riff Raff is also about his memories of David Mamet plays, his respect for the work of August Wilson, and his inability to reach high and cut deep into America’s absolute abandonment of issues like race and brotherhood (something which Suzan-Lori Parks would later illuminate in her searing 2002 Pulitzer winner, Topdog/Underdog). Fishburne’s script sounds like a lot of other, better plays without really saying anything at all.
Even the setup is instantly familiar. “20/20” Mike Leon (Beethovan Oden) and his recently discovered half-brother, Billy “Torch” Murphy (G. To’mas Jones), have just barely pulled off the heist of some heroin from a New York City underworld bigwig named Manny. Now the tentative siblings are stuck in a garbage-laden hovel pondering their next move—Billy shot some kid, and got his own hand shot in the bargain, and Manny is out there somewhere wanting revenge. Neither Mike nor Billy completely trusts one another, and Mike isn’t helping matters by swearing that his faultless read on people (thus his “20/20” nickname) assures the trustworthiness of his goomba pal Tony “the Tiger” Rawlins (Sean Morrone), whom Mike has called for assistance. When Tony arrives, it means, of course, three men, one room, a gun, a lot of heroin, and an uneasy alliance.
If you think that someone is bound to double-cross someone, you’re right. If you think that Riff Raff can make the wait for the double-cross either tense or telling, you’re wrong. The plot seems nothing more than Fishburne’s excuse to alternately ape the rhythms of Mamet’s foul-mouthed dialogue duels—there’s a lot of “motherfucker” thrusts and parries—and to embrace Wilson’s arialike confessionals. But Fishburne doesn’t have a facility for either flourish. The rat-a-tat-tat exchanges are idle, actorly imitations, and the monologues accomplish even less—they stop the show cold every time. By the time each speech is over, you’re not quite sure why you’ve been listening. Aside from a few “twists” tossed in at the expected intervals (Billy knows heroin more than he initially admits; Tony knows Manny more than he initially admits), most of what’s being said hardly moves the story or the characters further ahead at all. Tony’s Act 2 opener, in which he inexplicably entertains his comrades with a rhymed-couplet account of his sexual travails, may be meant to imply the Tiger’s popularity at mobster poetry slams but is more indicative of the play’s lax chatter disease, a condition that causes supposedly nervous hoodlums to talk, talk, talk when there are, clearly, more pressing concerns. (Does Fishburne really think Billy, holding a filled syringe, would elucidate his addiction before shooting up?)
Director Aimée Bruneau tries to delve into Fishburne’s inch-deep exploration of betrayed male bonding, but only casts further light on the play’s inauthenticity. Fishburne doesn’t appear to have a real grasp on the situation, so neither does she. She also doesn’t seem quite sure how to get her actors grounded in the world of the play, such as it is. Oden is an attractive guy with a disarming grin, but his presence doesn’t suggest the body memory of a Rikers Island refugee (and it’s touch-and-go with whatever Eastern urban accent his tongue is slipping on); Jones, while more comfortable in Billy’s uncomfortable skin, lacks the technique to pull off two hours of jonesing junkie; Morrone, laden with gold chain and leather jacket, gives the show’s most consistent performance, yet keeps playing to that casting director from The Sopranos who may be in the audience.
Riff Raff won’t bore you—if anything, you can pass the time admiring the fine fetidness of Timothy Posey’s set—but there isn’t anything or anybody holding you to this room. You leave feeling little more than you felt when the play began, which is, to quote Tony, “Goddamn, this place is fucked up.”