A year ago, playwright Tracey Scott Wilson’s “Buzzer” premiered to deserved huzzahs at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. Director Marion McClinton’s lyrical production landed on many best-of-year lists, and actor Hugh Kennedy won an Ivey award. Still, Wilson was not entirely satisfied with the play. So she tweaked it, changing plot points and references.
A new production that opened Saturday at the Guthrie Theater with the same actors and creative team is sharper, funnier and deeper. The cast — Namir Smallwood, Sara Richardson and Kennedy — is exceptionally strong. They do gripping work in a drama that orbits issues of race, addiction and gentrification.
Harvard Law School grad Jackson (Smallwood), who is black, has returned to the rough neighborhood where he grew up. He has invited his white girlfriend, teacher Suzy (Richardson), there. She’s uncomfortable with the looks and comments she receives from the old denizens of the ‘hood. Jackson allows his best friend, recovering addict Don (Kennedy), who is white, to live with them. The trio have complicated histories.
Richardson commits fully to her wily character. She leads with her desires, then justifies her actions after the fact. If we don’t fully get her relationships with the two guys, charge it to the writing, not her acting.
Smallwood is outstanding, giving us a smooth figure who gets played, perhaps willingly. Jackson is not all that likable. He is alienated from his neighborhood — he sees living there not as a chance to give back but to get in on the ground floor of gentrification — yet the actor draws us in by force of his talent and charisma.
Kennedy gives us a twitchy Don who cackles at odd moments. The character makes us nervous —we don’t know if he’s going to steal our wallet, or the scene.
The show breathes a little easier in the larger Dowling Studio, but still has very tight direction. The transitions are sharp and fluid, assisted by Michael Wangen’s deft lighting and by Katharine Horowitz's sound design.
Buzzer” has tons of potential. It is held back by the playwright’s desire to make larger points. In one scene, Jackson and Don, both with bruised faces from a fight with some neighborhood toughs, argue about Don’s role in the melee.
Jackson tells Don that he’s exercising his white privilege. That may be true, but it feels a little academic.
The ending, in which characters seem to revert to racial impulses, also is problematic.