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Friday, May 31, 2024

REVIEW: GREAT ACTING SAVES SLOW-MOVING "QUEEN OF THE NIGHT" AT LUNA STAGE

By Ruth Ross

If you are a regular reader of the NJ Arts Maven blog, you know I greatly admire theaters that take risks by producing world or regional premieres or plays by unknown playwrights and on unusual subjects. This is especially risky for small theaters with limited budgets and great ambition. Many times, the gamble pays off; other times, it's less than successful.

As for Luna Stage’s latest production, travis tate’s Queen of the Night, I am sorry to say that I was underwhelmed. The 90-minute play about a gay Black young man and his nature-loving, conservative father, who go to the woods to commune, settle some scores and reach a loving d├ętente, stretched endlessly, with long silences punctuated by several bear attacks (above, left).

I am not sure if this is because of the script or Lucas Pinner’s direction, but it took a long time to reach the crux of the play: the confrontation where Stephen (“the King of the Outdoors”) finally accepts the sexual orientation of his gay, artistic, city-loving son (who could be called “King of the Whiners”).

Despite what I see as deficiencies in the script, Director Pinner has elicited convincing performances from his two actors. Dressed in his camping “uniform” of plaid flannel shirt, fishing vest and sun hat, Roy Jackson’s portrayal of Stephen nails the dilemma often experienced by an older Black man faced with a family development with which he is uncomfortable. A religious man (he prays before going to bed) and avid birdwatcher, Stephen has fought for respect and position in the white world. His older son, Marshall, has attained success as a lawyer, but his “mysterious” younger son Ty’s homosexuality and predilection for artistic pursuits confound him. Seeing a therapist, he views this trip as a chance to connect with Ty. Saying he's “open,” he confesses wanting there to be truth between them. Jackson’s Stephen is a man struggling: he’s lost his job at the factory; his ex-wife, who he admits fell out of love with him, is remarrying; and he is not looking forward to attend the wedding with Ty. His pain is palpable and eye-opening for this critic.

As Ty, Adrian Baidoo turns in an equally superb performance. An unwilling participant on this camping trip (he’d rather be “glamping”), he wears color-coordinated clothing (kudos to Deborah Caney for dressing the duo in duds that reflect who they are), continually sings the “Theme from The Titanic” in a falsetto voice reminiscent of Celine Dion, curses, constantly checks his cellphone and takes selfies, and is, in general, quite sullen. Not a good companion to have on a trip to the forest! It is especially sad to hear Ty talk about dying/suicide—he’s that unhappy. When Baidoo delivers the monologue recounting that his father made him feel like a failure as a man (he criticized his son’s effeminate walk and gestures), he poignantly says, “Anger, discipline wasn’t good for a child like me” and reveals that he takes medications for depression and anxiety. His fear of being shot for his Blackness and homosexuality is a wake-up call to the double stigma faced by young men like him.

Ellie Carhart and Lucas Pinner have designed a set that transports us—and the actors—to a state park outside Houston, complete with a stand of trees, woodland sounds, a hooting owl, a tent and even a “fire.” David Heguy’s atmospheric lighting enhances the effect of being far away from the city Ty so loves. David Seamon’s sound design includes original music he wrote, performed by, among others, a guitar and a singer.

Even though Queen of the Night may not succeed as a cohesive play, it does have moments of high drama and connection, for it is in the last 30 minutes, when the younger man confronts his father, that payoff occurs.

If you enjoy good acting, then you’ll enjoy Queen of the Night. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through June 9 at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Street, West Orange, NJ. For information and tickets, call the box office at (973) 395-5551 or visit www.lunastage.org/queen online.

Photos courtesy of Stephanie Gamba