The Whipping Man (Syracuse Stage)

Syracuse Stage seasons are predictable: one sublime piece, two or three honorable mentions, one cheesy head-scratcher, and one whacked-out turd that makes you seriously consider letting your subscription lapse. True, they have a superb scenic team – their sets are usually incredible. On the other hand, lighting and sound are often uninspired. And whenever alongside-the-director-billed dramaturg Kyle Bass and Producing Artistic Director Timothy Bond (beware long titles in the arts) are involved, one gets the impression of a supremely self-satisfied creative team that operates in its own weird bubble.

The Whipping Man is Stage’s latest dud. Bass practically dares the audience to call the production shit by spelling out its more discordant elements in the program (which could barely be read by the dim preshow house light – I resorted to a flashlight.) Playwright Matthew Lopez states that while the play is set at the close of the American Civil War, he “didn’t indulge” in period dialogue because he wanted to tell a modern story projected into the past. (I read “didn’t indulge” as “lazy.”) He also says, “I knew if I could get [a freed slave] to recite the Haggadah,” the play would succeed. That scene, which occupies most of Act II, is an odd bit of theater: two former slaves and their old master, whose wounded leg was amputated by them in the first act, celebrate a Seder meal together. There are echoes of Tarantino and McDonagh in the setup, but Lopez doesn’t have their delight in the absurd, or their facility with dialogue. In the end, all Lopez delivers is a too-literal punchline: All Men Truly Are Brothers.

Jonathan Peck is a forceful presence as Simon, but with the material he comes across like a scenery-chewing Samuel L. Jackson. Biko Eisen-Martin feels transplanted from the current day, which seems like the point and might have worked with a more developed (or subtle) script. Gregory Perri makes almost no impression as Caleb, which should have provided the richest acting opportunity: his character is a Confederate deserter who is forced to rely on his former slaves for survival. Part of the problem might be the production design, which keeps him center stage with one leg through a hole in the floor once the aforementioned operation is completed. Still, his voice has little presence and he remains a vague whiner.

Darren McCroom’s lighting is sometimes atmospheric and striking (lightning flashes only and exactly when the actors are perfectly framed in a doorway or the shadow of a windowpane), but just as often it is unmotivated (and the shadows are off). There are moments of Grand Guignol grandeur, but those segue into attempted naturalism and the seams show. I’d say “go Grand or go home,” except the script doesn’t support that approach. My biggest problem was a scene that happened at noon while the outdoor lighting stayed at midnight; no mention of a solar eclipse, and golden light through stock window gobos cast high shadows on the floor, suggesting the antebellum mansion had a 3-story atrium.

By the way, it rains throughout the play. It never stops raining. You can see the rain falling. You can hear it. (It is sometimes amplified through speakers but doesn’t get louder when the front door opens.) It leaks through the ceiling in periodic, illogical bursts. All that water on stage is impressive, and it makes the theater smell like Disney’s It’s a Small World boat ride. It lulls one to sleep. Rain, rain, rain. Two hours of rain. The Raining Man…