While the acting in Kristen Greenridge’s “Bossa Nova” is top-notch, the story itself is more like a broken microwave — it heats up, but it doesn’t cook.
From the moment I stepped into the Yale Repertory Theater on Wednesday night, I knew that the show I was about to see was going to be tremendously different from the few I’d already attended. For one thing, the latter were all student-run productions. This play, however, was packed with strong performers, whose portrayal of 1980s racial tensions far transcended the boundaries of the fourth wall. When Dee Paradis (Francesca Choy-Kee) cried and raged at the unfairness of the world, I felt like an intruder in a private moment and squirmed uncomfortably in my seat. When Michael Cabot (Tommy Schrider) extolled the virtues of jazz amidst the “salt” and “brine” and “sweat” — his words, not mine — of concertgoers, I found my head nodding in agreement along with Dee’s, and my foot tapping in tempo with Cabot’s. For another, the audience consisted largely of middle-aged and elderly couples. When I stepped in to take my seat, clad in blue whale-patterned rain boots with my ratty Jansport slung over one shoulder, I felt like a foreigner. What if I laughed at something inappropriate? What if the ’80s pop culture references flew over my head?
Molly Ringwald did not prepare me for this.
“Bossa Nova” is a play about identity, race politics and adolescence all at once. The intelligent, driven Dee has lived her entire life under her mother’s thumb. Things don’t seem to get much better when, as shown through a series of flashbacks, she goes to the elite St. Ursula’s boarding school because “it’s one of the very best,” Lady Paradis (Ella Joyce) says. There, Dee feels she is lost in the “crevices,” stumbling through the background even as she soars academically. Thrust into an all-white school as the daughter of a wealthy, prominent, self-made black man, Dee is ostracized by everyone except her adoring roommate Grace (Libby Woodbridge), and Michael, her energetic — yet clearly unqualified and jazz-obsessed — history teacher.
While the lighting was not memorable, the set design was incredible. For the most part, Lady Paradis was seated behind a large, cosmetic-stocked vanity that faced the audience. During her scenes with Dee, it was implied that they were speaking to each other through a mirror. The furniture was moved with the use of conveyer belts that allowed for smooth transitions between scenes. The soundtrack to the show was bossa nova itself, a Brazilian and samba-infused form of jazz.
Grace provided comic relief as the bumbling roommate in the midst of the polarized sexual tension between Dee and Michael. She steals hearts as she waxes poetic about her plans after graduation: to live in Greenwich Village, sip strawberry wine and never wear deodorant again. While Dee’s character appears to be in favor of these machinations for the future, in her conversations with Michael it’s revealed that the future she covets is much more irreverent than Grace’s. As they sit on the floor of his classroom discussing jazz, Michael tells Dee, “the current of our country is in the belly of the blacks.” There was an audible and collective gasp at his statement from the audience. An exhale came from the excited Dee as she responded eagerly, as though she had been waiting to hear this for a long, long time.
It is during these emotionally charged moments that one begins to notice the disappointing storyline. Dee’s relationship with her mother is the obvious cause of the overpowering need to be loved that leads her into Michael’s arms, but it is only superficially brought up until the very last scene. At that point, Dee demands that her mother look into her eyes — not through the mirror. It is clear that she is rehashing Michael’s words in a cathartic conversation with her mother. Undaunted, Lady Paradis unleashes a biting, vicious monologue that ends with an assertion that reveals her daughter’s true character. This is only one of the many sporadic epiphanies that occur within the last five minutes of the play, in an attempt to reason with and explain the plot.
Have you seen Jarhead? That war movie in which no shot is ever fired? The most unsatisfying movie ever? The only film that Jake Gyllenhall’s presence couldn’t make good?
“Bossa Nova” was kind of like that, minus the desert part.
Catch Bossa Nova at the Yale Repertory Theater through Dec. 11.