If you go: ‘White Noise’ runs at the Public Theater through May 5. 425 Lafayette St., publictheater.org.
Leo, a well-educated African-American male, has an idea — the sort of idea that most people are bound to find absolutely offensive, discomforting, disgusting and bewildering.
Following years of insomnia and insecurity, and finally pushed to the edge by an incident involving police brutality, Leo eagerly announces to his friends that he would like to be purchased — and treated like a slave — for 40 days in exchange for a hefty sum. He even had a contract drawn up. And believe it or not, they proceed to sign (and even notarize) the contract.
What kind of person would do such a thing? What kind of person would write a play with such a scenario? And what kind of theater would produce it?
“White Noise” is the latest play by the Pulitzer-winning, experimental, African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog,” “Venus”). It is being produced by the Public Theater (and staged by its artistic director, Oskar Eustis), with Tony winner Daveed Diggs (the original Thomas Jefferson in “Hamilton”) playing Leo.
Following Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play” at New York Theatre Workshop, “White Noise” is not the first play this season written by an esteemed African-American writer and produced by a major Off-Broadway theater in which contemporary individuals engaged in master-slave role play in an attempt to resolve deep-rooted psychological problems.
The not-for-profit Off-Broadway theater has long been a place where risk-taking and critical-minded playwrights have enjoyed the freedom to make audience members uncomfortable. But is there a point where theater-makers can go too far?
These are questions and issues that go beyond the context of a single theater review. Notwithstanding its far-fetched and questionable concept, “White Noise” (which runs exactly three hours in length) is mostly engrossing and provocative. It is also overstuffed, with portions that are jumbled and stagnant (including rambling confessional monologues), suggesting that the play would benefit from further revision.
Eustis’ intimate and intense production (staged with an eye and ear for sharp verbal exchange) is built around a quartet of electrifying, multilayered performances.
Diggs remains unsure and agonized as Leo until ultimately taking a stand. As Leo’s pal Ralph (who was born into wealth but just suffered a professional setback), Thomas Sadoski undergoes a creepy change in personality, finding that he enjoys his new position of power over Leo. They are joined by Zoë Winters (as Leo’s high-wired, morally dubious girlfriend Dawn) and Sheria Irving (as Ralph’s girlfriend Misha, who plays up caricature-like behavior on her distasteful live web series “Ask a Black”).
Visually, the production is accentuated by heavy lighting and numerous television screens. Many scenes take place at a bowling alley, leading to an inventive scenic device that allows the characters to roll bowling balls forward into a gutter area.
As with "Slave Play," audience reaction to “White Noise” is bound to be extremely divisive. At one point in the play, an unseen individual calls the experiment “a shameful and ridiculous stunt” — a criticism that could be leveled at the play itself were it not for Parks’ earnest efforts to dissect the characters and difficult cultural and historical issues.