- Adolphus Ward's Howard cuts some happy hair.
Each of us needs a sanctuary from the hissing world, a place where we can convene and relax with our peers without worrying about being judged too severely. White executives have their country clubs, suburban women have their Pilates classes, and friends of Dick Cheney have an underground bunker guarded by highly paid mercenaries. As for black men, the barbershop is the gathering place of choice.
The barbershop's convivial environment -- jocular banter, whirring clippers, and a gallery of quirky customers -- is presented in the Play House's Cuttin' Up. Written by Charles Randolph-Wright and based on a book of the same name by Craig Marberry, this feel-good collection of quips, anecdotes, and sermonettes is bursting with heart and soul.
But even though a remarkably talented cast works wonders, the scattershot and oppressively instructive script is a continual irritant. This theatrical interpretation does little to alter Marberry's source material of collected barber stories from around the country. So from a plotting standpoint, the result is as chopped up and ungainly as Eddie Murphy's old Buckwheat wig.
Despite the structural problems, the piece is almost rescued by three characters who occupy the bulk of the evening. A trio of barbers from different generations is at work at Howard's tonsorial establishment, placed in Cleveland for this run. Led by the avuncular and somewhat prickly Howard, they share memories of their lives and the heads they have tended. Howard's two other chairs are manned by Andre, who has recently landed in C-town after bumping around the country for many years, and young dude Rudy, who finds it difficult to stumble in to work on time.
Interspersing historical curiosities (did you know that the wide variety of black haircuts was invented by slaveholders to distinguish their chattel?) with brief anecdotes and one-liners, the play bounces hither and yon. When a young man walks in wincing, it's noted that his braids have been wound too tight ("Poor man's facelift," notes someone in passing). There's also a black conventioneer, who explains he found the barbershop the same way he does in any city he visits: He just looks for Martin Luther King Drive, and he knows he's in the right neighborhood.
Appearing in flashbacks are some real people (Don King, Oprah Winfrey's father Vernon) along with all the fictional ones, such as Karen Newsome, a jazz singer who was once married to Andre. There is also one scene where an item from that day's news is discussed -- on this night, it was the weird story of the diaper-wearing astronaut seeking revenge. These frequent digressions, along with the staging fillip of multiple characters directly addressing the audience, contribute to the sense of a play skittering around like a poodle on ice.
Fortunately, the actors in the main roles handle their chores efficiently. Adolphus Ward is warmly affecting as Howard, gently chiding Andre about his taste in music and his knowledge gaps ("Every barber ought to know that," is his catch phrase). Howard also rags on Rudy concerning his slacker tendencies and penchant for low-riding pants. Andre is played by Darryl Alan Reed with an easy, somewhat haunted affability. And Dorian Logan's Rudy, after a start that's too deliberate, loosens up nicely to find his character's vibe.
The barbershop door in scenic designer Michael Carnahan's evocative set (you can almost smell the witch hazel) is always swinging open, letting in a cavalcade of local denizens seeking a little conversation and a quick trim. Thankfully, director Israel Hicks' ensemble cast includes some gifted comic actors, who are called upon to play a wide variety of roles. Particularly effective is Iona Morris, who plays every female character with attitude and clarity -- and sings damn well to boot. Also excellent are Harvy Blanks as a priceless Reverend Carlson, Bill Grimmette's shock-headed Don King and Maceo Oliver, and Jacques C. Smith as several different clients.
Randolph-Wright manages to generate plenty of chuckles from these stories, but he never achieves a culminating moment, such as the infamous scene about Rosa Parks in the similarly themed movie Barbershop from a few years ago. The playwright reaches a couple times for serious commentary -- once in an anecdote about a gay man seeking a haircut at the height of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, and later with a fawning story about Oprah as a young girl. But these sentiments feel tacked on and rather extraneous.
Moreover, the script never allows the audience to discover character truths on its own (at one point, Rudy helpfully explains, "I'm a young man trying to find my own legacy") while spoon-feeding little life lessons along the way. If a lot of that self-conscious tripe disappeared, this play could soar. In short: Cut something! Every barber -- and playwright -- ought to know that.