Theatre Exile concludes its 20th season with Tracey Scott Wilson's explosive drama Buzzer, confidently directed by Matt Pfeiffer. The production packs a lot of thematic material and interpersonal drama into a taut 90 minutes.
The play’s title refers to a gentrified urban apartment building's security system, which allows tenants to screen who can enter. It's broken, of course. Thom Weaver uses a long wall of the intimate Studio X space to suggest the refurbished building's vastness, lining it with lots of old window frames revealing a brick-wall view.
Recovery, social and personal
Gentrification leads to subjects of race and entitlement. Akeem Davis plays Jackson, who grew up in the neighborhood (probably Brooklyn, though it's not named) and returns as a successful lawyer to buy a home in a neighborhood he imagines will soon be populated by Starbucks, trendy restaurants, and other middle-class people, erasing his memories of a frightening childhood. Jackson’s white girlfriend Suzy (Alex Keiper), an elementary-school teacher, still sees the old 'hood, not its potential: "We wouldn't come here if we didn't live here," she protests. Matteo Scammell plays Don, Jackson's white childhood friend who wants to crash during his ongoing effort to beat drug addiction. "I need a job, a woman, and a place to stay," Don says, "in any order."
Don insists on "family meetings" and total honesty, as his recovery teaches, but he and Jackson have too many secrets between them to share openly. Through fluid scenes punctuated by Larry D. Fowler Jr.'s authentic urban soundscape and pounding music and Weaver's sharp lighting changes, we see how Jackson -- Don's "guardian angel, male soulmate" -- is roiled by conflicting loyalties. Race is a persistent issue: Suzy fears and despises the black men on the street corner who harass her daily. Don wants to reason with them (they feel pushed out and disrespected, he reasons) while Jackson wants to challenge them.
Not an issue play
While those men outside lead to the play's violence (terrifically staged by J. Alex Cordaro), I wouldn't call Buzzer an issue play, though it certainly addresses modern socioeconomic concerns. Wilson builds the challenges of sharing space believably, making this a very personal story about what's more destructive, secrets or truth, and resists preaching and pat answers. The trio's brilliant acting, occurring only a few feet from us, keeps us enthralled; their messy emotions and desperate attempts to solve their problems feel real. Madison Auch, Frank Nardi Jr., and Jahzeer Terrell make brief but meaningful appearances as neighbors, the outside world penetrating the triangle.
Ultimately, the strength of Buzzer is its personal relevance. One character asks, "So you lied to me to protect me?" But all three could ask, and be asked, that question. Couldn't we all? The drama’s haunting final moment, perfectly realized by Keiper, challenges us to imagine what lies or truths we dare tell our loved ones and ourselves.