Hand Me Downs 

Crumbs from the Table of Joy isn't crummy.

Once in every generation, a play comes along that's every bit as cloying and improbable as its title suggests. Lynn Nottage's Crumbs from the Table of Joy -- currently on stage at Circuit Playhouse -- is just such a play.

Blind with grief over the loss of his wife, poor, uneducated but hard-working George Crump chases an address marked on a bottle of "elixir" and moves his family from rural Florida to Brooklyn to be closer to his new god, "Father Divine" (who actually lives in Philly). There he raises two precocious daughters, Ernestine and Ermina, according to "Sweet Father's" strict principles of celibacy and anti-secularism until Aunt Lilly shows up, bags in hand. Lilly's the late wife's hot and still-unmarried sister, whom George used to fool around with back in the day. She's a tragic bon viviant who hangs out in Harlem and talks about revolution but drinks all day and passionately espouses her belief that a smart, well-dressed black woman hasn't got a chance.

Enter Gerte, the white, superficially sexless German immigrant George meets and immediately (and chastely) marries after sharing cookies (metaphor) on the subway (metaphor). Personalities clash, exposing the hazards of having too much faith and the disaster of having none at all.

Everybody struggles hard but ends up more or less okay except for poor Lilly, who ends up dead and "full of holes" (metaphor). Told from the unreliable perspective of Ernestine, a sophisticated verbal prankster who wishes her life was more like a Hollywood movie, Crumbs is a show with all the depth, subtlety, and clunky dialogue of an ABC "After School Special." But for all its weird pretensions and goofy, writerly flourishes, it's also an actor-driven piece, and Circuit's uniformly excellent cast makes this yawn of a play much, much better than it probably deserves to be.

Keith Patrick McCoy does honest work as George, but the actor's greatest asset -- his deep resonant voice -- is also his worst enemy. No matter how common his character, McCoy always sounds like a trained voiceover artist reciting Shakespeare. Crystin Gilmore, on the other hand, disappears into Lilly, making the tough old Commie feisty, foxy, and impossibly frail in the same breath. As a pair of completely dissimilar sisters, Kristi Steele (Ernestine) and Maya Geri (Ermina) do such beautifully detailed work they can almost make you forget about the play's impossible tangle of sappy sentiment and mixed political messages.

When President Bush considered America's cultural divide and spoke of the "soft bigotry of low expectations" not so very long ago, he wasn't saying anything new, nor was he passing along a bit of conventional wisdom exclusive to tough-loving white conservatives. The president's clever catchphrase echoed both the preaching style and philosophy of the Reverend General Jealous Divine, an African-American cult leader frequently referenced in Nottage's play but never fully identified.

Before there was a George W. Bush (or an L. Ron Hubbard, for that matter), there was the almighty Father Divine, who proclaimed himself a god on earth, sold the power of faith and positive thinking to America's poor, and damned mid-century social reform for promoting -- yes -- the soft bigotry of low expectations. Divine rejected out of hand the very idea that he could be labeled as African American, or black, or a part of a "downtrodden race," or defined as anything other than a person of value. He preached that with enough positivism (and the occasional donation), reality will bend.

A black-and-white photograph of this saintly charlatan dominates the set of Crumbs From the Table of Joy, much as the portrait of Tennessee Williams' famously absent father figure dominates the set in The Glass Menagerie. Exactly like it, in fact.

From its mannered bebop poetry to its quirky character development,Crumbs borrows too much from Williams' iconic memory play to be purely coincidental, and yet the plays could not be more unalike. If The Glass Menagerie is an indictment of American class distinctions and the monsters they ultimately make, Crumbs is an apology for them. Where Williams self-consciously used the sentimental tropes of melodrama to editorialize, Nottage uses memory as a device to build a genuinely sentimental melodrama. And apparently, a very actable one.

Through April 1st



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