The second play in the Signature Theatre Company’s Red Letter Plays tandem productions was Suzan-Lori Parks’s Fucking A, which began previews under the direction of Jo Bonney (see my reports on By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, 27 May 2011, and The Mound Builders, 27 March 2013) in the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, the company’s variable-space house, on 22 August 2017 and opened on 11 September. Extended a week from its original closing date of 1 October, it had its last performance on 8 October; my friend Kirk (who went to In the Blood with me, too) and I saw it at the 7:30 performance on Wednesday evening, 4 October (after having been canceled out for 13 September due to an undefined “actor emergency”). The Red Letter Plays were Parks’s final productions in her 2016-17 Residency One at STC; she will be followed in that slot for the 2017-18 season by Stephen Adly Guirgis. (Guirgis will be presenting three plays at STC, starting with Jesus Hopped the 'A’ Train, which I’ll be seeing on 27 October; a report on that production will follow soon after.)
Fucking A premièred at the DiverseWorks Artspace in Houston, Texas, for Infernal Bridgegroom Productions on 24 February 2000; directed by Parks. It was presented Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre, opening on 25 February 2003; directed by Michael Greif. The Signature’s staging is the first New York revival since the Public’s production. (It’s also the first time the two Red Letter Plays, which were written separately, have been staged in tandem. For a brief description of Parks’s account of how she came to write the two plays, see my report on In the Blood, posted on 12 October. There’s also a profile of the playwright in my report on The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World on 1 December 2016.)
Like Parks’s In the Blood, which was composed and staged first, Fucking A is a riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. (As I said in my ITB report, it isn’t necessary to have read The Scarlet Letter to follow Fucking A. You can look the novel up for yourself, so for now, I’ll just say that it’s set in Puritan Boston in the 1640s where Hester Prynne, married to a man believed lost at sea, gives birth to a daughter whose father she refuses to name. Cast out of the community, she’s forced to wear a red letter A for “Adulteress” embroidered on the bodice of her dress.) Neither play is an adaptation of or sequel to Hawthorne’s novel; like its sister play, Fucking A, a tragedy with songs for which Parks wrote the music and lyrics (played in lofts overlooking either side of the stage by cast members doubling as musicians directed by Todd Almond), uses elements of the novel to explore and examine modern-day issues Parks considers important to contemporary society: poverty, class structure, marginalization, systemic prejudice against women, motherhood, fatherhood, among others.
Set in an unspecified time and place, “a small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere,” Fucking A takes place in a dystopian world where towns are fiefdoms ruled by autocratic mayors. Hester Smith (Christine Lahti) is an outcast living on the margins of her town’s society. She bears the letter A branded into the skin above her left breast. Unlike Hawthorne’s Hester, though, Parks’s isn’t being punished for adultery; her A is for “Abortionist.” The brand bleeds afresh every time a customer comes, but her status is ambiguous: reviled in public for her trade, in private she’s sought out and employed by the same people who shun her. The brand, which must by law always be visible, serves as both an indictment and an advertisement, bringing customers to her.
As Fucking A opens, Hester is talking to her friend Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango) about the son Hester hasn’t seen for 20 years. Boy Smith was sent to prison as a child for stealing a piece of meat from the wealthy family where Hester scrubbed floors, and Hester was forced to become an abortionist or join him behind bars. The “little Rich Girl” who fingered Boy is now the wife of the despotic Mayor (Marc Kudisch), who runs the town like a tin-pot dictator.
Hester tells Canary (who, incidentally, wears a bright yellow dress—which Ben Brantley of the New York Times called “curve-hugging,” and, man, is it ever!) that she writes to her son in prison and had been saving her fees to buy Boy’s freedom, but in the meantime, she’s paying installments into the Freedom Fund toward a “reunion picnic” with him. (Some of Hester and Canary’s conversation, as well as other dialogue throughout the play, is in a language called TALK which only the women of the town speak—used principally when they talk about sex or women’s private parts. The English translation of these passages is projected on the back wall of the set. The projections are designed by Rocco Disant.) The two women’s banter includes their calling each other “Whore” and “Babykiller.” Hester and Canary sing the “Working Womans Song.”
Canary in turn reveals that she’s become the Mayor’s mistress and that the First Lady (Elizabeth Stanley) can’t give her husband “an heir or heiress.” The Mayor’s planning to “bump off” his wife and Canary thinks he’ll marry her. Hester, who (like Hester, La Negrita in In the Blood) is illiterate, asks Canary to read her last letter from Boy and Canary gives her a gold coin she’s gotten from the Mayor.
Hester goes to the Freedom Fund to make another payment towards her reunion with her son. The Freedom Fund Lady (Marlene Ginader), a figure certainly inspired by Kafka who keeps the payment records, tells Hester that Boy’s “picnic price” has doubled because he’s “committed a few crimes” since her last payment. Later, Canary walks through a park “in the middle of nowhere,” where she meets an escaped convict from “up north,” Monster (Donovan Mitchell). She notices a scar on his arm he says is “from a long time ago.” After a few moments, she goes on her way.
In a tavern, three Hunters (J. Cameron Barnett, Peter Roman, Ginader), fresh off a successful capture of an escaped prisoner (from whose mutilated body they’ve kept souvenirs: his feet, a finger), lament that they won’t have a shot at catching the “famous convict” Monster for the bounty since he escaped “up north.” They sing “The Hunters Creed.” Hester comes in looking for Scribe (Kudisch) so he can write a new letter to her son. She meets Butcher (Raphael Nash Thompson), who protects her from the abusive Hunters. Following a confrontation with her husband and then encountering Hester on the street, a distraught First Lady meets Monster in the park. They exchange some kind words and he remarks on the same scar Canary had noticed. At the end of their conversation, the First Lady asks if she can kiss Monster. He agrees, and they kiss.
Late at night in Hester’s house, she finds Butcher sitting in her front room; they’re both wearing bloody aprons from their respective jobs. They talk about their children and we learn that Butcher, too, has a child, a daughter, in prison. Hester learns that Butcher has been leaving fresh meat at her door and he confesses that he’s attracted to her. He teaches her how to slaughter a pig by slitting its throat so that “it never hurts.” The next morning, Hester comes in from her back room to find that Monster’s broken into her home and he threatens her and robs her of all her money except a gold coin she has hidden in her boot. While he’s holding her, Monster sees the scar on her arm that matches his, but he doesn’t react.
Hester’s finally paid the Freedom Fund enough for her to have her reunion picnic with her son. As she waits in the prison yard, she lays out the picnic spread and the guard brings out a prisoner called Jailbait (Roman), who Hester assumes is Boy. She embraces him and tries to get him to show her his arm; earlier, Hester had told Bucher that when Boy was arrested, she bit him to leave a mark on her son and then bit herself to make an identical mark. Jailbait’s more interested in the food, however, than he is in her, and Hester realizes he’s not her son. Jailbait claims he killed her son in prison; Hester stares at him in shock. Jailbait finishes eating and assaults Hester sexually and rapes her; too stunned to resist, Hester lets him do what he wants. She sings “My Vengeance.”
The First Lady has become pregnant by Monster and at first decides to abort the child, but changes her mind at the last minute and chooses to pass it off as the Mayor’s. Hester’s at Butcher’s shop when the Mayor comes in for an order and announces that he and the First Lady are expecting a child. Hester hatches a plan for revenge against the First Lady for putting Boy in prison so long ago and enlists Butcher and Canary to help her kidnap the First Lady and abort the baby so that the First Lady can echo the pain that she caused Hester all those years ago. The next night, Canary and Butcher bring a drugged First Lady to Hester’s house, where Hester aborts the baby, not knowing that it’s her own grandchild.
After Butcher and Canary leave, Monster runs into the house, trying to escape the Hunters. Hester has begun to piece together the evidence and realizes that Monster is actually her son, but has trouble accepting that he’s no longer the “angel” she believed he was. He sings “The Making of a Monster.” The barking of the Hunters’ dogs gets louder and Monster tells Hester that when they catch him, they’ll torture him to a gruesome death. He begs Hester to kill him; though at first she resists, she finally slits his throat like Butcher showed her. The Hunters enter and although they are disappointed to find that Monster’s already dead, they drag his body away because there’s “plenty of fun still to be had.” Hester sits alone in her house for a moment, reprising “Working Womans Song.” Soon Hester’s back doorbell begins to ring insistently, but she ignores it and gets her abortion tools and goes into the other room to continue her work. Even after all she’s suffered, life simply goes on for Hester as it has for 20 years.
(A few words about casting in Fucking A and the STC staging: In In the Blood, Parks specifies the race of three of the characters, including Hester, La Negrita, leaving the rest open to the directors’ choices. In Fucking A, the dramatist puts no restrictions on the racial make-up of the ensemble. At Signature, for instance, Hester Smith is white, Canary is African American, and the First Lady is white; at the Public Theater in 2003, Hester was African American [S. Epatha Merkerson], Canary was Latina [Daphne Rubin Vega], and the First Lady was African American [Michole Briana White]. In Signature’s revival, Christine Lahti’s “son” is African American while the prisoner she thinks is her son, Jailbait, is Caucasian; in 2003, both men were black [Mos Def and Chandler Parker, respectively]. There’s nothing in the text to contradict any combination of actors’ backgrounds.
(In addition, when the production at STC was extended past 1 October, three members of the original cast left the show and their roles were recast. Ruibo Qian, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Ben Horner were replaced by, respectively, Marlene Ginader, Donovan Mitchell, and Peter Roman. Early press coverage of the production, including most reviews, will feature the first trio of actors.)
Signature’s Fucking A, which is composed in 19 scenes in two “parts” with an intermission after scene 12 and runs two hours and 15 minutes, is performed on a unit set (designed by Rachel Hauck and lit moodily by Jeff Croiter) that serves as all the play’s locales. It’s a generally realistic two-story architectural wall with doors, staircases, and landings, but generalized so that it doesn’t represent any place in particular. It could also be from nearly any period from the Renaissance (say, Hester Prynne’s 17th century) to today. This confirms that Parks means us to be displaced in time and space—neither the program nor the published text makes any mention of the setting, not even in the vague terms of “Here” and “Now” as in In the Blood. (There are several mentions of characters going to Europe, so the locale is probably not on that continent—but anywhere else is possible.) Only Emilio Sosa’s costumes give us an occasional hint about the time; most could be of any period as well, but the First Lady’s scarlet dress and Canary’s yellow one are definitely contemporary. Those costumes are also the only splashes of color in the otherwise bleak landscape of Hester’s homeland. The set is painted a dull, institutional green—“puke green,” we used to call it: the color of school hallways and hospital corridors in the ’50s.
Drawn from the same source of inspiration, In the Blood and Fucking A couldn’t be more different. Still, there are similarities, marks of Parks’s art and dramaturgy. Like ITB, Fucking A is a contemporary tragedy, ending with a horrific act which Parks has rendered completely understandable, if no less shocking, by her storytelling. I’ve noted above some of the topics Parks explores in the Red Letter Plays, but in the end, Fucking A is about the gap between the classes more than the races, which has been more familiar territory for Parks in the past. In the Blood can be seen as the struggle of a poor black woman to survive and take care of her family in the face of systemic discrimination, but Fucking A depicts a struggle in a world controlled by those with power and wealth for those who have none to subsist.
Furthermore, both plays’ plots are astonishing in their unpredictability—one of Parks’s most noteworthy gifts is her boundless, and perhaps restless, imagination—while the plays remain absolutely logical. As one writer has it, “We cannot predict the stories she’ll tell us or even how she’ll tell them”—but once the playwright spins her tale, I nod and think, ‘Well, it couldn’t happen any other way.’
Parks has also employed some distancing techniques as in In the Blood. The race- and gender-blind casting (one of the Hunters is a woman and one of Hester’s waiting clients is played by a man) could be seen as a Brechtian application, though it’s no longer so striking as it once was on New York stages, but the Kurt Weill-like songs dropped into scenes that are largely naturalistic in style are definitely dissociative. When the characters stop to sing, all other action ceases. The ambiguity of the time and place, the character labels instead of names—Butcher, Freedom Fund Lady, Scribe—and the secret language of the women and the projection of the translations are other Brechtian touches. Despite their theoretical origins, though, Parks makes her dramaturgical techniques entirely her own.
All that said, I found Fucking A less appealing as a theatrical experience than In the Blood. (I don’t want to say “enjoyable,” because neither play is intended to be an evening’s entertainment—despite considerable humor.) It’s not that Fucking A wasn’t engrossing or intellectually stimulating—it was—but I found it much more set-up—constructed—than In the Blood, at least in the way the two plays were presented at Signature. I didn’t see either play in its first New York production, so this response may be due to the two STC directors’ concepts—though I don’t think that’s so. Both plays have been described as fables, but it may be that Fucking A is just enough more fable-like than ITB and therefore too much removed from my experience—too distanced, perhaps. (I’ve read the dystopian novels of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Franz Kafka and been engrossed by them, but the films adapted from them have never been as engaging. I confess, I didn’t see the recent stage version of 1984 that ran on Broadway this summer and fall, so I don’t know how well it was translated into performance. I have seen Sidney Kingsley’s stage adaption of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and I recall that worked for me, but that was in the early 1960s and I was a teenager, which may account for its affect on me at the time.) Whatever the reason, I found Fucking A considerably chillier than In the Blood.
One explanation for that may be my response to Christine Lahti as an actress. I’ve always found her cold and hard (if you want to check me out, look back at my blog report on Adam Rapp’s Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, posted on 6 November 2011). As Hester Smith, she was the warmest, most sympathetic, and most relatable I’ve ever seen her on stage or on screen. (This is also the first time I’ve seen her play a character outside the upper-middle social class. Maybe that’s part of the explanation: get her out of her acting comfort zone, and she gets real.) Lahti, however, is still her own Verfremdung Effekt. I can imagine her being excellent in several true Brecht roles, such as Mother Courage or Jenny in The Threepenny Opera. (Several reviews of the 2003 Public Theater production remarked on the warm and human qualities of S. Epatha Merkerson’s Hester; from her other work, I imagine she’d have been more empathetic—but that’s admittedly only in my mind’s eye.)
The other members of the ensemble were excellent, with stand-out turns by Joaquina Kalukango as Canary Mary and Raphael Nash Thompson as Butcher. Kalukango played Canary as confident and unabashed—even when she acknowledges, “I am a whore”—and at the same time, sensible and charming, even breezy. Her rendition of “Gilded Cage,” a ballad lamenting the loss of freedom, was wise and clear-eyed. Thompson was easily the most ingratiating personality on the Linney stage, making Butcher not just a nice man (somewhat bizarrely when he teaches Hester how to slit a throat painlessly, though Thompson handles this almost sweetly), but a devoted protector and guardian. He, too, revealed much in his solo, the tongue-twisting “A Meat Man Is a Good Man to Marry,” a proposal of marriage from a committed carnivore—but Thompson actually makes it sound endearing. In her one scene as Freedom Fund Lady, Marlene Ginader (who also played one of the Hunters and one of Hester’s clients) cut a disconcerting figure in Fucking A, a chatty, friendly personality that disguises a Kafkaesque soul. Freedom Fund Lady has the mind of Joseph Heller’s Milo Minderbinder (from Catch 22) with the instincts of Dracula, and Ginader played her so coolly it sent a chill up my spine.
Based on 30 published reviews, Show-Score computed an average rating of 72 for Fucking A. The highest-scoring review was a 92 for Reviews Off Broadway backed up by three 90’s (including New York magazine and Stage Buddy) and the lowest scores were two 40’s earned by Edge New York and Broadway Blog followed by three 45’s (The Hollywood Reporter, The Wrap, Lighting & Sound America); the breakdown was 66% positive notices, 17% mixed, and 17% negative. My survey includes 18 reviews from the print and cyber media; some of the notices are the same ones I covered In the Blood because the reviewers wrote omnibus reviews of The Red Letter Plays.
In the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, Max McGuinness asserted that Fucking A “tries to turn the story of a beleaguered small-town abortionist . . . into a universal parable of sexism and racism.” He added that “Parks artfully exposes the hypocrisy of those who denounce Hester as a ‘baby killer’ one minute, then anxiously knock on her door the next.” The second Red Letter Play, however, “becomes overstuffed as prostitution, lynching, mass incarceration and Homer’s Odyssey are all thrown into the mix,” complained the FT reviewer. “Moreover,” he continued, “under Jo Bonney’s direction, the stylised dialogue, broadly sketched characters, and off-key musical interludes feel like Bertolt Brecht-by-numbers.” While he praised Christine Lahti for Hester’s “sour wit and brittle dignity,” McGuinness posited that “Fucking A has a lot of points to make, but they’re a little too blunt.”
Matt Windman of am New York described Fucking A as “an explosive combination of gory 17th-century revenge tragedy, ‘Sweeney Todd,’ cabaret performance, confrontational direct address and class warfare.” (Kirk and I both also glommed onto Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd as soon as the performance was over.) Jo Bonney’s direction “gives the production an electrifying edge,” added Windman, “with the broad performances of the supporting players (including Marc Kudisch as the local mayor) played against the protagonists’ grim circumstances.” Overall, the amNY reviewer affirmed, each of the Red Letter Play productions “is an outstanding staging of a bold, difficult and provocative work. When viewed together, ‘The Red Letter Plays’ proves to be one of the most interesting and rewarding theater events of the fall.” Barbara Schuler’s “Bottom Line” on Long Island’s Newsday read: “Suzan-Lori Parks delivers powerful riffs on ‘The Scarlet Letter.’” In this second of two “powerful pieces,” Lahti played Hester “with a potent mix of strength and vulnerability.”
In the Times, calling the Signature production of Fucking A “compelling revival” and a “vibrantly reincarnated work,” Brantley affirmed that the “forthright, comfortably uncomfortable” opening scene demonstrated that “those involved . . . know what they’re doing.” The Timesman asserted that Fucking A “is a dark, didactic entertainment deliberately in the mode of Bertolt Brecht,” whom he affirmed is “difficult for American theater artists to get right.” (Brantley quipped that this was “probably the best American production I’ve seen of a Brecht play that wasn’t written by Brecht.”) He continued, “It would be all too easy for any interpreters of [Fucking A] to be overwhelmed by the play’s disparate influences and intellectual self-consciousness,” but the STC revival, which the review-writer described as “as harrowing as it is witty,” “is light on its feet—quick, sharp and perfectly paradoxical.” The production “has the look of a noir fairy tale. It is steeped, visually and verbally, in Brothers Grimmsian images of slaughter and torture” and the “cast brings humanizing shades of pain, greed and longing to symbolic figures, without ever tearing the play’s somber folk-tale fabric.” Brantley singled out Lahti for her “fierce portrait of ravaging maternal obsession” as Hester. The Times reviewer summed up his assessment with:
Ms. Parks is best known for her dense, expressionistic studies of black lives trapped in the nightmare of American history. [Fucking A], with its color- and gender-blind casting, is untethered by topical sociology. But those looking for parallels to an angry contemporary world divided between rich and poor won’t have to strain.
The New Yorker’s Hilton Als characterized the play as a “story of romance-as-blight” in which there are “[s]o many frustrated dreams” even though “love or the dream of love won’t let anyone go.” He praised Lahti for the way she “was able to use her body to show how Hester Smith’s slow manner was born out of necessity: her gruesome instruments are heavy in more ways than one, as is her letter ‘A.’” The New Yorker reviewer’s further remarks concerned both plays and I summarized them in my report on In the Blood (http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2017/10/the-red-letter-plays-in-blood.html).
Sara Holdren, noting that Fucking A “is closer kin to Brecht than to Hawthorne,” wrote for Vulture/New York magazine that the play is “a fiery, raw-throated shout in the face of hypocrisy, privilege, and injustice.” It’s “an explicit . . . examination of the class struggle and its brutalities,” Holdren declared, “eschewing the colloquial and familiar for a mode of theatricality that calls attention to its own artifice. It’s a heightened, dangerous world—and a gut-wrenching one.” The dramatist “revels in stark, often crass language that cuts across the fourth wall,” she asserted. “Her characters speak directly to us and, when impassioned, break into ragged bursts of song providing commentary on their actions and social positions.” Holdren observed:
It takes the ear a moment to adjust at the play’s beginning, but Bonney and her actors handle the blunt, clipped rhythms of the text with confidence. They don’t overplay the style, nor do they try to force it into naturalism. They trust that we as an audience will listen and will learn the language. And we do.
Holdren lauded Lahti for portraying Hester “with fearsome monomania and frighteningly dead eyes” and complimented Kalukango for a Canary who “is rich-voiced and winning, a striking contrast to the flinty, brooding Hester.” In conclusion, she proclaimed:
Fucking A is a rare play in our contemporary landscape. It reaches across genres and performance styles—musical, Jacobean revenge play, Brechtian epic theater—drawing on the gifts of a multitalented ensemble to touch something frighteningly prescient about a world twisted by inequity and disenfranchisement, a world in which resentment and hatred can bloom into a cancer. The fiery Russian poet and playwright Mayakovsky, in defiance of Hamlet’s famous dictum to “hold a mirror up to nature,” once wrote: “The theatre is not a reflecting mirror, but a magnifying glass”—it can enlarge and, held at the right angle, it can burn. In the hands of Jo Bonney and company, Fucking A both amplifies specific brutal aspects of the society it observes and leaves a smoldering mark.
In Time Out New York, Raven Snook affirmed that the “expressionistic and politically charged exploration of class, family and violence, studded with jarring bursts of humor and song” that is Fucking A “owes more to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera than to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel.” The woman from TONY, cautioned theatergoers that director Bonney “struggles to establish a cohesive tone,” but reports that “Fucking A’s alternations between pain and entertainment are never boring.” Snook concluded: “Like Hester’s bloodily branded A, the play leaves an indelible mark.” Marilyn Stasio of Variety deemed that Bonney “runs with the play’s sense of menace” and Lahti’s “fiercely drawn Hester is a survivor, but so consumed with equally balanced passions of love and hate you can’t tear your eyes away from her.”
Frank Scheck, in one of Show-Score’s low-rated notices, stated bluntly in his “Bottom Line” in the Hollywood Reporter: “F—ing no.” (In case some readers hadn’t noticed, many publications, including the New York Times, TheaterMania, and Variety, among others, won’t print the vulgar participle that forms half of Parks’s title. It’s somewhat amusing how the editors and publishers twist themselves into pretzels to come up with an alternative—amusing, that is, until you try to find the coverage in a search engine or database!) Noting that the “elements of Jacobean revenge tragedy and the plays of Bertolt Brecht” Parks inserted in Fucking A “should be enough to create an engaging theatrical experience,“ Scheck felt however that the play “never manages to transcend its derivative, ersatz feel.” He complained that “the work comes across like the thesis playwriting project of a zealous grad student.” Though the production is “suitably visceral,” the HR reviewer contended, “It may occasionally succeed in its goal of shocking the audience, but for long stretches this play just never comes to theatrical life.” The playwright, asserted Scheck, “occasionally delivers here the sort of virtuosic writing that rouses our attention[, . . . b]ut F—ing A becomes bogged down in borrowed stylistic devices.” The reviewer continued that though “the play traffics in important, urgent themes, its affectations prove its undoing.” Director Bonney “infuses the proceedings with intense theatricality,” while the actors “tear into their schematic roles with energy and conviction,” said Scheck, praising Lahti as “the standout with her fiercely commanding turn.”
On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart called the STC production of Parks’s Hawthorne riff “a powerful revival” of a play that “asks if we've really progressed beyond the cruel puritan society of the early Massachusetts Bay Colony.” Director Bonney “elicits a believable hunger from the cast” and Stewart reported that Lahti played Hester “with a motherly combination of vulnerability and ferocity.” Carol Rocamora of Theater Pizzazz characterized the Red Letter Plays as “wildly original” and “provocative,” and labels Fucking A “compelling.” Parks’s play, “with its rich characters and gripping plot,” presented Rocamora with a number of Brechtian references which she saw as aspects of the playwright’s “bold and fearless inventiveness.” The Theater Pizzazz writer affirmed, “Under Jo Bonney’s masterful direction, the play is gripping and darkly entertaining despite its traumatic content” and she pronounced Lahti’s Hester “superb.”
Joel Benjamin had quite a bit to say on TheaterScene.net about Parks’s writing and the Red Letter Plays as a pair, which I reported in my ITB write-up and won’t repeat here. Of Fucking A, Benjamin said that Bonney “turns it into a blood and guts oversized verismo opera in which passions and revenge drive the plot.” (According to The American Heritage Dictionary, verismo is “an artistic movement of the late 19th century, originating in Italy and influential especially in grand opera, marked by the use of common, everyday themes often treated in a melodramatic manner.” I had to look it up, too.) On Broadway World, Michael Dale called the play “sardonically abstract” and Bonney’s production “chilling.” Lahti played Hester “with determined grit,” Kalukango is “wryly humored” as Canary, and Kudisch‘s Mayor is “grandly hammy.” Rocamora particularly relished the “lengthy, crazily off-beat” speech of Butcher in which he lists all his daughters crimes, delivered “beautifully” by Thompson.
“Fucking A is a dystopian fable,” declared Elyse Sommer on CurtainUp. Though “relentlessly downbeat and bloody as any Greek tragedy,” STC’s Fucking A “has been given a production that works well on all levels.” The CU review-writer reported that Bonney directed “with a sense for the rhythm to keeps it flowing” and the “cast, top to bottom, is up to giving fresh, meaningful life to” the play. Like other reviewers, Sommer singled out Lahti as “gut-stirring” and Kalukango for “a lovely, bouncy performance.” In the lowest-scored review (40), Samuel L. Leiter bluntly proclaimed on The Broadway Blog:
Barely any of the show works and, while the play and production, energetically directed by Jo Bonney, have their fervent admirers, I found Fucking A’s two hours and fifteen minutes hard to sit through: pretension, illogicality, artificiality, exaggeration, and banality will do that to you.
Leiter complained that “the goal of creating a ‘this is theatre, not life’ atmosphere succeeds only in underlining the dialogue’s affectation” and he contended, “A feminist subtext is ticking beneath the surface but the play’s embellishments prevent it from exploding.” In addition, the BB reviewer charged that “the score is as dully ersatz as the writing and contributes little to the narrative or thematic continuity.” He called the plot “clumsy,” the characters “stereotypical,” and accused he actors of “overacting.” The Broadway Blogger protested (“for literal-minded people like me”) Bonney’s alogical interracial casting (particularly Hester’s confusing the white Jailbait for her black son). “Colorblind casting is commendable,” Leiter acknowledged; “in this case, it’s a distraction.” His “big regret,” though, was “that Christine Lahti, unattractively bewigged, made up, and costumed . . . in Mother Courage-like basic drab, retains an aura of speech and sophistication that suggests she’s playacting rather than fitting seamlessly into Hester’s more life-battered skin.” Leiter concluded, “Without a Hester to believe in, there’s no way one can grasp just what Parks wants to say about class, gender, sex, and motherhood, much less believe she’s said it in Fucking A.”
On Talkin’ Broadway, Howard Miller reported that STC’s Fucking A “unfolds with the inevitab[ility] of a Greek myth, with a low-key style of performance that would seem to be intentional on the part of director Jo Bonney.” Miller complained that for this reason, “and after so much set-up, the act of revenge is rather anti-climactic. There is no catharsis for Hester or for us.” Kathryn Kelly warned us on Stage Buddy, “If you are convinced society has progressed beyond Nathaniel Hawthorne’s vision in The Scarlet Letter, Suzan-Lori Parks has an offering to prove otherwise.” Of course, she was referring to Fucking A, “a staggering work of expert storytelling and captivating performances brought to life by Jo Bonney’s direction.” The cast is “exemplary,” most “seamlessly” playing several roles as well as performing the music. Kelly pointed out, “The journey to knowledge is difficult and ends in a heartbreaking climax, comparable to the most searing of Greek tragedies, but the lessons are necessary.” She ended by urging, “Don’t miss this experience.”
The top-scorer among Show-Score’s review assembly was Scott Mitchell’s notice on Reviews Off Broadway (92). In it, he insisted that Fucking A “honors Nathanial Hawthorne’s work” and that Bonney “gets great performances from the cast, and the pacing of this piece works beautifully.” Mitchell felt that Lahti “does a remarkable turn bring[ing] Hester Smith to life.” (On Show-Score’s website, the quotation for this entry didn’t match the ROB website, so I went in search of the source. It turns out, Mitchell also uses Facebook to post some of his opinions, and the single paragraph on Fucking A is a little more specific: “Christine Lahti and Brandon Victor Dixon [replaced at the performance I saw by Donovan Mitchell] stand out in an excellent cast in ‘F**king A’, a searing play based on the themes found in ‘The Scarlet Letter.’”)