Photo by Michelle McSwain.
BOTTOM LINE: Rivers, a young playwright to be reckoned with, tackles issues of race and sexuality in a small Kansas town.
Paul, the protagonist of Harrison David Rivers' When Last We Flew, is "obsessed" with Angels in America. But according to Paul's friend Ian, his obsession is "not the cool kind." Rivers' own obsession with Angels definitely is the cool kind. When Last We Flew is an unabashed homage to Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning plays Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, quoting freely from their texts and riffing on their structure and imagery. I've got to hand it to Rivers - it takes guts to invite comparison with not only one but two of the best American plays in recent memory.
There are marked departures from Angels: the play is set in small-town Kansas rather than NYC, and the majority of its characters are African-American. Like Tarell Alvin McCraney's Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, (seen last season at the Public Theater) the play is essentially about one young man of color reconciling his gay identity with himself, his family, and his community. And River's aspiration to significance, even greatness, is evident in When Last We Flew. There is boldness and great sensitivity here, yielding rich emotional rewards.
However, I found the play's poetic introduction precious and strained. More problematic is the young man at the center of When Last We Flew; Paul is the play's least interesting character. Fortunately, the other people in the play (apart from two easy racist caricatures) are fresh and compelling. The best moments are given to two very different mothers, each of whom transform movingly before our very eyes. The cast is uniformly excellent and the direction simple and effective. Given the technical limitations of the Fringe, the production is remarkably fluid.
When Last We Flew comes to the Fringe with an impressive pedigree: development at Lincoln Center and the Sundance Theater Lab. Rivers is obviously a young writer to watch; the opening performance of When Last We Flew was attended by several Broadway producers and at least one top literary agent. Whether Rivers will be our next Miller, Kushner or Wilson isn't yet clear. Hopefully he'll just keep writing plays, being no one but himself.
(When Last We Flew plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street between Hudson and Bleecker, through August 29th. Remaining performances are Tuesday 8/24 at 2pm, Wednesday 8/25 at 8pm, Friday 8/27 at 9:45pm, and Sunday 8/29 at 2:30pm. For more information visit www.whenlastweflew.com. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door, and are available at FringeNYC.com, by calling 866.468.7619, or in person at FringeCENTRAL, located at 1 East 8th Street at 5th Avenue. There is NO LATE SEATING for Fringe NYC shows.)