Martinson Hall, the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. at Astor Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 26, $55-$65
Tracey Scott Wilson’s Buzzer is a sizzling drama about gentrification, class, race, and white privilege. In modern-day Brooklyn, rising young black lawyer Jackson (Grantham Coleman) is moving back to his old neighborhood, purchasing a large, impressive apartment across the street from a corner populated by drug dealers and crack whores. “The wave is sweeping through here, and before they build another coffee shop, before they build another gym, before the wave swallows up another person here, I want in,” he says to an unseen Realtor. “I know this neighborhood. I know what it’s worth and I know what it can be.” Next he has to convince his girlfriend, Suzy (Tessa Ferrer), a white teacher, to move in with him. Suzy is being disciplined at her job for yelling at one of her students, telling him to “put the mother-fracking book down.” But Suzy and Jackson’s love is severely tested when his longtime best friend, Don (Michael Stahl-David), a white screw-up who has been in and out of rehab for years, comes to stay with them as he tries to get his life back together. “I’m horny, broke, and nearly homeless,” he says at an AA meeting, “so if I just had a job, a woman, and a house, Popsicle beer would not be so appealing.” The apartment might be big, with two hallways, a pair of walk-in closets, and a vast central living space, but it’s tight quarters for the three of them, especially after Suzy is harassed by some of the guys on the corner, a confrontation that Don and Jackson want to handle in very different ways, sparking trouble that threatens the relationships among the three of them.
Despite garnering good notices since Buzzer premiered at the Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis in 2012 and went on to the Guthrie and then the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Wilson (The Good Negro, The Story) has tweaked it significantly for its New York run at the Public, cutting about a half hour out, streamlining it down to a fast-moving ninety minutes without intermission. Like the spacious apartment, the play is uncluttered, and Wilson avoids getting preachy or clichéd in a play that evokes such recent Broadway successes as Clybourne Park and Disgraced. The cast is uniformly excellent, each of their characters introduced with a soliloquy while facing the audience directly, an intimate conceit. Coleman is stalwart as Jackson, who does not want to become the “Magical Negro”; Ferrer is a whirling dervish of powerful emotions as the complicated, unpredictable Suzy; and Stahl-David is quirky and compelling as the uneasy, desperate Don. Obie-winning director Anne Kauffman (The Nether, Detroit) keeps everything going at a swift but determined pace as scenes morph into one another seamlessly. Laura Jellinek’s set is open and dark on one side, while the other is populated by a maze of sparkling white walls and a kitchen; the back holds a surprise as the ending nears. The title refers to the apartment’s buzzer; the intercom system doesn’t work, so whenever the buzzer is pushed, the residents have to go downstairs to see who’s at the door. It’s fraught with danger; every time the buzzer sounds, the tension grows thicker while providing a clever sonic alternative to Jackson’s unusual ring tone, which keeps going off. Jackson, who grew up in Newark and later moved to a gentrifying neighborhood in Crown Heights, where she was living when she wrote the play, has a sharp ear for realistic dialogue and creates well-drawn characters caught up in believable situations, despite one ultimately forgivable misstep. Buzzer, which continues at Martinson Hall through April 26, is not afraid to push buttons, resulting in a taut, gripping experience.