If the words "Apartheid-era Johannesburg" were not enough to sadden or turn off a lot of theater-goers, allow me to just get this out of the way: The Suit is possibly one of the most ill-paced and exasperating pieces of theater I've ever had to watch. The play, which opened last night at A.C.T. after productions in Paris and London, has been billed as "haunting," "surprising," and "musical," and it is definitely one of those three things. The music, which is used for curious purposes throughout, is its strongest asset, but at what should have been a brisk 75 minutes, The Suit is anything but.
The play is set in South Africa in the 1950s, in the impoverished but, we're told, magically musical Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown. The show opens, charmingly enough, with three musicians taking the stage in a slow parade of sorts, with accordion, trumpet; and guitar, and these three play accompaniment through the show and participate in the action at moments. A narrator character, played by the talented Jordan Barbour, sets the scene for us, albeit in the over-dramatic tone of fable, in which a husband and wife awake together happily one morning and the husband Philomen (Ivanno Jeremiah) brings breakfast in bed to his wife, Mathilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa). He then leaves for work, and she breaks into song, singing a slowed version of the jazz standard "Feelin' Good" and proving she has a fantastic voice.
Philomen gets tipped off that his wife isn't being faithful, and he returns home to find her in bed with her lover. He is angry, and she is contrite, and he sets to punishing her by taking her lover's suit that he left behind and forcing her to treat the suit as an honored guest. Humiliated, Mathilda complies, and this forms the remainder of the play's conflict. There is a group scene in which Mathilda performs a concert in the house singing a traditional Tanzanian song, after which she is humiliated again, and this is the play's confusing climax. The denouement is just plain exasperating and I'm not even sure it's worth a spoiler.
It is a plodding, cruel, and vaguely misogynist play, with some nods at a history lesson about Apartheid and oppression, and some pretty melodies in between. And it feels as though director Peter Brook and his collaborator/adapter Marie-Hélène Estienne took about 20 minutes worth of material (a short story by South African writer Can Themba) and stretched it out over 75 minutes. They do this through slow, inarticulate dance movement that could take place underwater; long, arduous pauses in the dialogue and action; jokes that mostly feel forced; and the half dozen, mostly pleasant musical interludes. (Promises that this show would be reminiscent of hugely successful and inventive past A.C.T. productions like the similarly titled The Overcoat and Brief Encounter were empty.) While I can't discount the talents of the musicians and performers, I have to believe that the production the New York Times' Ben Brantley saw at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this year, with a different cast, was more tightly directed and movingly performed, or...something.
As for the Chronicle's rave review from Robert Hurwitt, I'm gobsmacked. Were we at the same play?
The opening night crowd of subscribers did give the finale a 75% standing ovation. But maybe they were all just really eager to stand up and leave.
The Suit plays through May 18th at the Geary Theater.