"We are gentrifiers," declares the defiant Jackson, one of the three young urban professionals in "Buzzer," Tracey Scott Wilson's sizzling new drama of race, real estate and sexual betrayal now at the Goodman Theatre under the direction of Jessica Thebus. The Type-A, wound-tight Jackson is used to getting what he wants. He left the ghetto on a scholarship, aced his way through prep school, Harvard and Harvard Law, and has a beautiful white girlfriend, Suzy, as well as an unusual dependent.
That dependant, that cause, that problem for Jackson to fix, would be Don, Jackson's old prep-school pal from Exeter and very much his antithesis. Don is a product of white privilege, but his trajectory has been that of an addict, even as Jackson has been the epitome of African-American achievement, the kind of young black man even racist whites can like.
At the top of "Buzzer" — the title is a reference to the entry system which protects gentrifiers from the place they live — we see Jackson moving back into his old "changing" neighborhood despite the loving but nervous Suzy's objections and fears. He brings Don to live with them, lest his old friend start using again.
The issues of the night revolve both around the nature and progression of this intense and ill-fated triangular relationship, and, more interesting, the thorny matter of who really knows this still-tricky neighborhood: the black guy who fell in love with manicured lawns and gated driveways or the screwed-up white guy who bought drugs on its street corners and knows its kingpins.
This admirably complex and wholly unflinching play has otherwise been seen only in Minneapolis to date — and I'd bet, given its intensity, veracity and cast size, it will be on or off Broadway in short order. It's one of a group of new plays pondering the souls and psyches of high-achieving black professionals. It's also part of a similar clutch of recent dramas that have explored race in terms of property and neighborhood. But "Buzzer," which puts you in mind of Harold Pinter's "Betrayal," is not only far sexier and more entertaining than most such plays, it is anything but predictable or politically correct.
We associate this kind of thing with David Mamet, whose play "Race" also pops into mind. But with "Race," you have to deal with Mamet's determined cynicism and snark. Wilson is a more feeling and, thank goodness, self-doubting writer (a scribe who has yet to get the notice she deserves, frankly). She keeps you guessing as to where her deepest sympathies lie. Are they with Jackson, who feels this crushing obligation to achieve? Are they with Suzy, who wants to be safe, loved and, well, fully fulfilled by a guy who does something other than work? Or are they with Don, who talks the language of recovery but whose life still dangles on a knife edge?
It's hard to say. Very successful but insecure people often like to have a loser friend in their orbit, if only to solidify their own achievements and keep their own demons away. Then again, maybe Don would be dead without Jackson (Wilson certainly charts the persistence of white privilege). Those are the men. But who has done what for Suzy, who we come to see has plenty of regrets of her own?
Thebus' production is exceptionally well cast, with Lee Stark as Suzy contributing a rich, sensual and emotional performance as a schoolteacher who second-guesses her every move. "I'm not afraid," she says of her terrifying new neighborhood where her rich African-American boyfriend has persuaded her to live, even though the guys on the corners abuse her for her blond hair and general otherness. "I'm conflicted."
One feels for her there, as Wilson surely intends. You feel for Jackson, too, as played by Eric Lynch, who unravels as he goes. But the career-making performance here is from Shane Kenyon, a young actor from Chicago's non-Equity scene who is totally convincing as one of those lovable addicts whom you are never sure you should be buzzing into your heart, living room or bedroom.
"Buzzer" is designed by Walt Spangler (the lights are by John Culbert and the savvy costumes by Birgit Rattenborg Wise), a set designer whose work we've usually seen in Chicago in expansive Robert Falls productions. Here, Spangler shoehorns into the Owen Theatre the raw markers of a neighborhood that, depending on your point of you, is either ripe for change or a candidate for takeover. Thebus has the yuppies walking through this transitional world, replete with their dry cleaning and Whole Foods bags, trying to keep their eyes off the streets on which they live.
Actually, Thebus' production is very dynamic throughout — at least until the last few minutes, when some of the air goes out of the drama. The dissipation is partly a production problem, but it also is an indicator that Wilson needs to make some judicious late-in-the-game cuts. It's only at the very end where you feel that the play is in any way mechanical or manipulative, and that's because Wilson and Thebus keep going, inevitably haltingly, when the characters have already made their choices and set their fates. Such nips and tucks would be easy to make — these three lost souls provide all the clues anyone needs — and then everyone will be trying to buzz this thing into their lobbies.
When: Through March 9
Where: Goodman's Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $10-40 at 312-443-2800 or goodmantheatre.org