The unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” retreats, after an alienating odyssey by the South and Harlem, to stay in a secret cellar. Underground is each an escape from oppression and a sanctuary the place he can see himself on his personal phrases.
Ellison’s 1952 novel is like gospel to the eldest matriarch in “The Refuge Performs” by the playwright Nathan Alan Davis. “Gotta make your personal world on this world,” says Early (Nicole Ari Parker), a great-grandmother homesteading together with her household. She will nonetheless chop firewood and hunt squirrels with a hammer, however once we first meet Early on this eager however unwieldy household saga, opening Wednesday on the Laura Pels Theater, her every day life has developed past the necessity for such primal expertise.
4 generations of Early’s household live collectively within the present-day Illinois wilderness, sharing a cabin constructed years in the past by Early and her husband, Loopy Eddie (Daniel J. Watts). The too-small couch and ratty armchair draped with quilts and crochet (the persuasively salvaged set is by Arnulfo Maldonado) point out a modest residence the place her family select to stay out of kinship slightly than necessity.
Early’s great-grandson, Ha-Ha (J.J. Wynder), is the purest product of this social experiment: a 17-year-old who’s deferential, bookish and comically naïve about ladies. (A lot of Davis’s character names are freighted with exaggerated symbolism.) Ha-Ha’s mom, Pleasure (Ngozi Anyanwu), tried hanging out on her personal when she was youthful, however finally returned. And Pleasure’s mom, Gail (Jessica Frances Dukes), the spouse of Early’s deceased son, Strolling Man, is the practical head of the family, although not for lengthy: The spirit of Strolling Man (Jon Michael Hill), a routine and welcome customer, has simply foretold her imminent demise.
Davis’s grand ambitions for “The Refuge Performs” are indicated by its operating time — three hours and 20 minutes, with two intermissions — and by a title that implies its three components might not precisely cohere. The motion rewinds to the previous, revealing what drove Early into the woods, why others adopted and what binds them collectively. (“When you don’t want me, depart me,” Early tells Strolling Man.) Every act operates in a distinct mode: Sitcom conventions play out within the first (with Early because the armchair curmudgeon); surreal and Shakespearean parts dominate the second (with ghosts who incite an Oedipal revenge plot); and the third imagines a meet-cute in exile.
This Roundabout Theater Firm manufacturing, directed by Patricia McGregor and introduced in affiliation with New York Theater Workshop (the place McGregor is the inventive director), advantages tremendously from daring interpretations of Davis’s characters. McGregor accentuates the humor Davis weaves all through, and even mines extra from between the traces, giving the manufacturing a sustained momentum. However the tempo lags when Davis’s ethereal lyricism sometimes ideas towards the sentimental, as within the heavy-handed second act (Early, for instance, insists she cried a close-by river together with her tears).
Parker (“And Simply Like That …”) has an innate gentility that would appear an odd match for Early’s wild destiny, however there may be frisson within the juxtaposition and Parker lends Early a poised ferocity. Her flinty exterior is a formidable match for Eddie, the World Warfare II vet who turns into her husband. Barely sideways and nursing his personal wounds, he’s a philosophical jester (Watts can land punchlines with the whites of his eyes) and proof that civilization inflicts violence in lots of types.
“The Refuge Performs” is populated with gifted storytellers, whose language is sticky with associations (like “if all of your worries was ice cream” that melted at demise’s door), and who can clearly see the ills of the skin world from the secure distance of their very own. They conceive their identities in relation to at least one one other, reflecting an natural sense of human duty, but rib and curse each other just like the members of any household would.
Davis, whose speculative 2016 drama, “Nat Turner in Jerusalem,” was additionally produced by New York Theater Workshop, takes a sweeping view of Black life whereas isolating his characters from the social contexts and programs that will in any other case form them. Some, like Early and Eddie, have their recollections to deal with, whereas Strolling Man, who was born within the woods, encounters human injustice from an absurd angle (beneath a heifer he tries to slaughter with a switchblade).
In an try to think about other ways of being, the playwright has smashed current inventive types and created new ones alongside the best way. The result’s provocative however messy: Whereas the three acts interlock, they don’t propel one another ahead, and Davis’s surfeit of concepts in the end comes on the expense of a dramatic throughline. However cumbersome as it’s, “The Refuge Performs” suggests the potential for tales to exceed the world’s limitations. Ellison must agree.
The Refuge Performs
Via Nov. 12 at Laura Pels Theater, Manhattan; roundabouttheatre.org. Working time: 3 hours 20 minutes.