The show: "War" at Yale Repertory Theatre
Why it's special: World premiere of play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins ("Appropriate," "An Octoroon")
First impressions: There's an intriguing outline in Jacob-Jenkins' sometimes audacious, sometimes muddy play. But the new over-reaching work from a talented and risk-taking playwright still needs clarity for its narrative, fleshed-out characters, sharper themes and more modulated performances. Tonya Pinkins is mesmerizing as a mother who is metaphorically missing in action as she tries to find her way through memory and meaning. But the family battles that rage beyond her reach are cluster-bombastic without being powerful. For "War" to be conclusive, more precision, stealth and follow-though is required.
What's it about?: An adult brother (Donte Bonner as Tate) and sister (Rachael Holmes as Joanne) gather at the bedside of their mother Roberta (Tonya Pinkins) who has been felled by a stroke. A multi-racial woman from Germany, Elfriede (Trezana Beverley), whom the siblings have never seen before, is there too, calling the comatose Roberta "sister." Elfriede's son Tobias (Philippe Bowgen) also arrives claiming relationship to the family from when Roberta's father was a soldier in Germany after World War II.
All of this is news to the battling siblings who have issues of their own, and family tensions quickly erupt in the hospital room. Throughout all of this Roberta is drifting in a world of elusive memory, accompanied by a group of apes led by Alpha (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) who tries to guide her back to her family.
Er…apes?: Yes, Jacobs-Jenkins is not afraid of third-rail imagery in a play about identity in a family of African-Americans. In Roberta's dream journey she is taken back not only to her recent day at the zoo but to some fundamental and primal connection, too.
Meanwhile some family members are behaving very badly, with Elfriede and Joanne's husband Malcolm (Greg Keller) the only ones who aren't screaming at each other and a seen-it-all nurse (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) setting boundaries and offering perspective.
Well, you know how families are: Yes, but with unfettered direction by Lileana Blain-Cruz and out-of-whack performances, there's nowhere to go after a while, and thematic, character and plot points are lost in the sturm und drang. When the play takes a more humanistic turn towards the end, it feels abrupt, sentimental and unearned.
You mentioned identity…: Roberta asks the head ape Alpha (Henderson again), "Oh, hello. Do we know each other? I can barely see you, but you seem familiar." And that's the question that all the characters seem to be asking in some way or another. For some it's an innate connection, for others it's a constant battle. As Joanne says, "Everything is some war in this family. Everything is a part of some struggle that seems like it's never going to end."
Good ideas here but Jacobs-Jenkins is scattershot in his writing and a significant story line — the German ancestry of the African-American family and what it means now — is raised then goes unexplored. The play also stops cold for a political discourse as the arrogant and alpha-male Tate (this is a man who worked among politicians?) lectures the mild-mannered Malcolm about the correct terminology of "African-American." Aspects of other relationships are raised and then just as quickly dropped (an absent father, family diseases, Tate's "Zulu" lover, past estrangements and reconciliations). The playwright's breaking of "the fourth wall" also has inconsistent rewards.
Jacobs-Jenkins is a daring writer unafraid to mix theatrical styles with volatile subjects, politics, themes and imagery, but this play needs more work if it hopes to have a future life. His underwritten play is short enough to take the time to explore some of the sketchier aspects of the characters' lives and refocus and strengthen his ideas of family — and human — identity.
Who will like it: Fans of a promising young playwright, interested in his development.
Who won't: Hospital personnel who know how to call security.
For the kids: No, though some of the play's themes are good for teen discussion.
Twitter review: "War" mired in murky family battles.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: The crashing of the mind and memory of a person who has had a stroke takes me back to one of the first plays I saw at Yale Rep in the late '70s: Arthur Kopit's soaring "Wings." Exploring that metaphoric territory can be a rich, emotional and imaginative experience. But to take that theatrical ride you have to feel you're in sure and steady hands.
The basics: The production plays at the Rep, 1022 Chapel St., through Dec. 13. The play runs 1 hour and 50 minutes, including one intermission. Information at 203-432-1234 and www.yalerep.org.