Black Russian

InterAct Theatre Company, Arts Bank, Broad and South Sts., through Nov. 10 (893-1145).

Black Russian's parallel scenes are rich with fertile images of culture and identity, of visibility and invisibility.
On one side of the stage, it's 1996, and Misha (Mikhail Lincoln Lenin) Smith (played by Frank X), a Russian historian, is clearing immigration at Kennedy Airport, visiting the United States, the birthplace of his father, for the first time. On the other side of the stage, it's 1936, and the Louisiana-born agronomist Eugene Smith (Johnnie Hobbs, Jr.) is clearing immigration in Leningrad, volunteering to work for the fledgling Soviet Union by helping to develop a new strain of cotton for cultivation in Uzbekistan.

Black Russian, Thomas Gibbons' new play for InterAct Theatre, is filled with such parallels. Gene dreams of a Soviet Union, the world's last best hope, as a land of justice and prosperity (his motto throughout is "what will change the world is the quality of our hope"), while Misha dreams of an America of freedom and opportunity. Gene's Soviet colleague (Joe Guzman) see nothing but bureaucracy and Stalinist oppression; Misha's emigre friends (Tim Moyer and Susanne Sulby), having left one imploding superpower, see America as next in line for implosion.

In the most stunning parallel of the evening, at the close of the first act, Gene accepts Soviet citizenship, denouncing his friend in the process, while Misha preens in front of a mirror in his new American clothes. "Who is this man?" Misha proudly asks his mirror image downstage, while Gene, upstage, announces to his Soviet sponsors, "I thank you for my new life."

Black Russian's parallel scenes are rich with such fertile images of self, culture and identity, of visibility and invisibility. Gene is planting the seeds for the future, Misha is uncovering his African-American roots. Like the cotton seeds that Gene carries to Tashkent in a briefcase, and the seeds that Misha carries back to Louisiana in his pocket, they're both hybrids.

Gibbons' play (commissioned by InterAct, and developed last summer at the prestigious National Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center) is complexly plotted and intricately crafted (at one point there's a downstage-right flashback within an upstage-left flashback of a downstage-right scene), and each scene builds inexorably to its dramatic point, punctuated by a beautifully honed turn of phrase (I jotted down over a dozen of them in my notebook during the performance).

All these features play to the same strengths that director Seth Rozin brought so stunningly to his staging of Gibbons'6221 several years ago. And the play has all the signature minor weaknesses of the Gibbons-Rozin collaborations: it's somewhat overstated, a bit heavy on exposition and its sense of humor is a bit strained.

And Gene's side of the plot, with its story of betrayals, denunciations and purchased silences, isn't as well told as the much simpler story of Misha's rediscovery of America. Too many of these scenes (including a crucial one, in which Langston Hughes [Bruce Burton Robinson] visits Gene in Uzbekistan) are staged behind scrims. And Johnnie Hobbs is more compelling and convincing as the earnest idealist of the '30s than he is as the stony octogenarian party aparatchik, and so the scenes of his disillusionment and death don't carry the weight of their somewhat bloated writing.

Nor is the stormy relationship between old Gene and young Misha, told in flashbacks, established clearly enough or emotionally enough to add the necessary resonance to the final scenes of the play.

That's a shame, for these scenes are the loveliest in Gibbons' script. First Misha learns to pronounce "y'all" from a young black Louisianian (Bridget Jones) -- a scene that, significantly, does not finally mirror its parallel scene, much earlier on, in which Gene teaches his Soviet wife-to-be (Catherine Slusar) to say it. And then Misha and the spirit of his dead father together plant seeds along the banks of the Mississippi -- hybrid seeds, borne from the land of oppression, that must be planted whether or not they can ever sprout and blossom. In these scene, Gibbons definitively proves that he is a poet of the theater, and not just a skilled storyteller and polemicist.

The cast (which also includes Barbara Winters Pinto) plays a wide variety of other roles. The sets (with towering images of Stalin and Coca Cola) and costumes are by Andrei Efremoff and Larisa Ratnikoff, themselves Russian-emigre descendants of an American-born Soviet parent.

-- Cary M. Mazer