Review: ‘Buzzer’ at Theatre Exile

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Buzzer is a story about real estate, and how moving to a new home can mean more than just leaving a forwarding address. Tracey Scott Wilson’s play addresses several compelling subjects: race, gentrification, drug addiction, sexual harassment. They’re problems that don’t have easy solutions, and Wilson wisely doesn’t try to provide any. But she has a lot to say about how people live with these issues hanging over their heads.

Matteo Scamell, Alex Keiper and Akeem Davis. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Matteo Scamell, Alex Keiper and Akeem Davis. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

In the opening moments of Buzzer we meet Jackson, an African American attorney who grew up in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood before he escaped (to Exeter, Harvard, and Harvard Law). Now, despite the fact that he claims to have no nostalgia for the area, he’s purchased an apartment there. In part, that’s because he’s impressed that the neighborhood is “changing for the better” with the addition of trendy gyms and whiskey bars. (The fact that the apartment’s titular buzzer is broken doesn’t bother him.) He convinces his longtime girlfriend Suzy, a white teacher at a tough grade school, to move in with him, even though she’s not as sold on the neighborhood as he is: “None of our friends are gonna come here. We wouldn’t come here if we didn’t live here.”

But come she does. And so does someone else: Don, a friend of Jackson’s since their Exeter days. Don has just gotten out of drug rehab for the seventh time (or the eighth, depending on who’s counting). With nowhere else to go, and with a pair of overflowing Hefty bags as his only luggage, he asks to crash at the new apartment for six months. Suzy is vehemently opposed – she knows from experience that Don is trouble, with a propensity for excuses and tall tales. But Jackson has always supported him – “You are the only one who stood by me,” says Don – and so Don moves in.

Akeem Davis and Matteo Scamell. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Akeem Davis and Matteo Scamell. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Suzy’s disdain for Don is so intense from their first scene together that it’s immediately obvious that he will eventually win her over … and you can probably guess just how that ends up. (Jackson’s insistence on supporting Don stretches credibility, too.) Before long, Buzzer turns into a back-and-forth battle between two different kinds of stories: one that needs to be told (race and gentrification), and one that’s been told way too many times before (the melodramatic triangle between the three roommates). Unfortunately, melodrama wins out, eating up most of the play’s 90-minute running time.

Still, Wilson fills the play with persuasive observations and sharp dialogue. Director Matt Pfeiffer builds the friction deftly, making for an engrossing production. And there are terrific, fully rounded performances: Akeem Davis, simmering with a penetrating, slow-burning anger as Jackson; Alex Keiper, teeming with vulnerability as Suzy; and Matteo Scammell, reckless and feckless as Don.

Thom Weaver’s set and lighting design provides the perfect converted-factory-loft vibe, right down to the vintage windows that dot the apartment. Larry D. Fowler Jr.’s sound design provides the roar of crowds outside those windows, adding to the sense of danger. And Alison Roberts’ costumes help to delineate the class difference between the old friends.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Alex Keiper and Akeem Davis. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Alex Keiper and Akeem Davis. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Buzzer plays through Sunday, May 28, 2017, at Theatre Exile, performing at Studio X – 1340 South 13th Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 218-4022, or purchase them online.

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