Strong direction and acting propels this exploration of friendship outside a NYC apartment building.
The Purists, Huntington Theatre at Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through October 6. bostontheatrescene.com.
By Jules Becker
Can an apartment building stoop serve as a regular meeting place for music enthusiasts and an early ersatz performance place? Such was the case for this critic vocalizing pop and rock tunes across from Dorchester’s Jeremiah E. Burke High School as an adolescent. So it also goes for the five very different characters enlivening a New York City counterpart in the warm and winning Dan McCabe world premiere play “The Purists” at the Calderwood Pavilion in the Boston Center for the Arts.
Under the strong direction of amazing talent Billy Porter (Tony winner for “Kinky Boots,” Emmy honoree for the current FX series “Pose” and an acclaimed recent revival of “The Colored Museum”), a spirited quintet make McCabe’s witty dialogue seems to dance to its own disarming rhythm.
Set at an apartment building in present day Sunnyside, Queens, the stoop in question takes center stage as a pivotal part of Clint Ramos’ vivid design with resident Gerry Brinsler’s well-detailed apartment at stage left. White Brinsler and his African-American counterparts have distinct though sometimes overlapping musical tastes.
Teledirector Gerry has a strong preference for Broadway musicals—demonstrated in part by visible show posters on his apartment’s wall (especially a large one for the original staging of “Follies”) as well as his knowledge of musicals and their composers—with his favorites being Jewish composers Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim.
Lamont Born Cipher, a former legendary rapper and a kind of purist in his very specific views about hip-hop, can be quite judgmental in his approach to specific artists—for example Eminem—and early and contemporary musical styles.
Mr. Bugz, a genial DJ, counts Lamont as a longtime friend and yet seems drawn to Jerry. A kind of male answer to Imelda Marcos, he speaks of having 400 pairs of shoes. Young budding performers—rapper Val Kano and hi-hip and show fan Nancy Reinstein—engage in an eye-catching competition during the second act. Reinstein may be somewhat of a cultural Jew (considering her last name) with her feeling for show music, though the play does not identify her as such. If respect for each other’s musical preferences becomes a kind of common denominator by the end of the play, the strongest relationship development involves Gerry and Bugz.
In the latter part of the first act, Gerry massages Bugz’s calves and admits to a real emotional attraction to him. Gerry comes across as gay though he speaks of having slept with a woman in his past. For his part, Bugz appears to surprise his good friend Lamont and even himself as he becomes aware of his own hitherto closeted attraction to men. While McCabe could say more pro or con in the second act dialogue about their feelings, he does make each character sympathetic. In the long run, the play certainly puts down labeling of characters and their respective relationships, choosing instead to see sexuality as fairly fluid.
Cast members give fluid and natural performances. Morocco Omari has the right combination of tenacity and sensitivity as Lamont. Omari and Calloway as Bugz are very convincing as enduring friends. Calloway finds Bugz’s nonchalance as well as his angst. John Scurti makes the most of Gerry’s preference for the old-fashioned—for example, the film “On Golden Pond.” Calloway and Scurti’s first act tenderness is a clear highlight. Analisa Velez is properly cocky as Val, while Izzie Steele displays impressive style as Nancy.
“The Purists” possesses a blend of humor and human understanding rarely staged with such rich vitality. On the strength of “The Colored Museum” and this disarming keeper, Huntington has found its alchemist, and his name is Billy Porter.