By my count, 16 basketball shots were taken on opening night of the drama “Samuel J. and K.,” with six makes, for a shooting percentage of .375. Not bad and, coincidentally, those are the same words I’d use for the play.
The latest from Gremlin Theatre is a rare outing without founder Peter Christian Hansen in the cast (he’s in “Rule of Thumb,” opening this week at Park Square Theatre). It’s a promising 2010 drama from Mat Smart, whose subsequent plays were produced this season at Artistry (“Tinker to Evers to Chance”) and Park Square (“The Agitators”) and whose fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center resulted in the Minnesota-set “Eden Prairie, 1971.”
What’s freshest about “Samuel” is how gleefully Smart deep-sixes all three of Aristotle’s rules of drama, which held that a play should involve a single action that happens in one place on one day.
“Samuel” covers seven years, moving from Naperville, Ill. (Smart’s hometown), to Cameroon as it investigates what it means to be a brother.
Samuel J. (Paul LaNave) and his bro, Samuel K. (Wariboko Gabriel Semenitari), are contesting a one-on-one basketball game as the play opens. K., who is adopted, is set to graduate from college and J., 10 years older, is about to present him with a gift he doesn’t want: a trip to Cameroon. “I was born there,” says K. “So what? I don’t remember a damn thing about the place.”
The way Smart lays out the five scenes of “Samuel” feels too programmed, so intent is he on giving the scenes in the U.S. and Cameroon equal weight and on making sure, almost literally, that the brothers walk in each other’s shoes.
The play gets clunky, which is not aided by a couple of longish scene changes, and I kept wishing Smart dove more deeply into the theme of an adopted person’s mixed feelings about the place they were born. But Smart manages to end the first act with a doozy of a dilemma, one that has the potential to sever the brothers’ relationship in the same way a buzzer-beater can alter a team’s destiny.
Spoiler alert: It isn’t severed, not completely. There is a second act. Seven years have passed by the time it begins, revealing the depth of the actors’ performances. Semenitari, in particular, conveys that his Samuel has aged. Half-formed and a little babyish in the first act, Samuel K. has become a confident man, one who is haunted by the siblings’ rift. Can he heal it, and does the fact that they don’t share DNA factor into that?
I think Smart wants us to weigh what these out-of-sync brothers have done to each other and to decide whether their wounds are forgivable. In some ways, “Samuel” resembles David Mamet’s twisty (and problematic) “Oleanna,” in which theatergoers are meant to switch their sympathies between two characters. But, unlike Mamet, Smart is willing to allow that it’s possible that neither character is in the right. Or that, somehow, both are.