Over the excessive course of playwright B.J. Tindal’s “Goodnight, Tyler,” the show is partly an acerbic satire about race relations, and partly a juvenile bromantic comedy. It’s also partly a thoughtful and heartfelt examination of racial identity, and somewhat a hard-hitting sociopolitical tragedy about yet another young unarmed black man shot and killed by yet another white police officer.
The 2019 winner of the Alliance Theatre’s 15th-annual Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, “Tyler” marks a homecoming of sorts for director Kent Gash, who lived and worked in Atlanta for eight years as the Alliance’s associate artistic director back in the 1990s. During his time with company, his many noteworthy credits ranged from staging such important dramas as “King Hedley II” and “Topdog/Underdog” to such splashy musicals as “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Sophisticated Ladies.”
Gash might be able to do it all when it comes to demonstrating his varied directorial talents – in this case, both a flair for well-timed comedy and a subtle touch for intimate drama – but Tindal isn’t always quite so versatile or effective in his writing processes. Veering from one extreme to the other routinely makes for an uneasy mix in this premiere production of “Goodnight, Tyler,” a split-personality of a play that rarely coalesces into a satisfying, cohesive whole.
We first see Tyler (Travis Turner) at the very start of the play, walking into his apartment to announce, “I think I died tonight.” Indeed, as we soon discover, he has – the victim in that aforementioned cop shooting. Tyler’s spirit is visible only to his longtime friend and gay roommate, Davis (Alex Gibson), who seems barely fazed by the otherworldly apparition. When the two of them aren’t trading quips about Roseanne, Steve Harvey or the “Real Housewives,” they’re debating “black student activism” and the “prison industrial complex.”
Soon enough, we meet Tyler’s bubbly fiancée Chelsea (Alexandra Ficken), too, and his jocular best friend, Drew (Chris Harding), both of whom, like Davis, happen to be white. We also meet his protective and disapproving grandmother, Fannie (an imposing Andrea Frye), who raised him, and even a casual acquaintance named Shana (the driven Danielle Deadwyler), a confrontational lesbian who’s planning a protest march in his honor.
Somebody makes a passing reference to “intellectual mind games,” but the characters are just as prone to engage in a silly drinking game to determine which of them was Tyler’s “favorite,” or bickering about how to distribute his possessions. The play’s many transitions between the supernatural present and the eventful past are sometimes hard to follow. In one scene, Tyler grapples with “selling his soul” as a “token black friend.” In the next, he’s curled up on a couch watching scary Scooby Doo episodes on TV.
For the most part, Tindal can’t really have it both ways. A few moments, however, cut right through. In one, Gibson registers strongly with an emotional speech as the ever-platonic Davis, finally articulating his unrequited love for the dearly departed Tyler, and essentially casting his spirit out, once and for all.
And, in the best of them, Turner and Ficken deliver varying accounts of that fateful night of Tyler’s murder. Gash orchestrates the scene powerfully, and lighting designer Liz Lee beautifully illuminates it – alternating back and forth between their respective spotlights, and almost imperceptibly incorporating faintly flashing red and blue police lights behind them, as Tyler’s spotlight gradually fades to truly haunting black.
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Through March 10. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays (excluding March 10). $20-$60. Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000. alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: A problematic case of arrested development.
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