Guess who’s coming to dinner


The Guest at Central Park West


Written by Levy Lee Simon

Directed by Thomas Cote

WorkShop Theatre Company, 312 West 36th Street, 4th Floor

Equity Showcase (through March 15, 2008)
Review by Judd Hollander


For all his high ideals, man is still a violent, primal animal, with a hidden rage, prejudice and anger lurking just below the surface. And no matter how one may try to wrap oneself in a cloak of civilization and respectability, these feelings are still within us, just waiting for the chance to emerge. These are lessons brought chillingly home in Levy Lee Simon's emotionally exhausting and absolutely riving tale The Guest at Central Park West.


Professor Charles Watts (Harvy Blanks) and his wife, Professor Nina Odood Watts (Trish McCall), respected African-American members of the intellectual community, are basking in the glow of Charles' Nobel-prize winning novel, which denounces violence in any form and shows how reason, negotiation and logic are the true paths to everlasting peace. Quite controversial, the book has made Charles the target of numerous death threats and hateful phone calls. As a child, Charles was determined not to become a stereotypical statistic and with a work hard attitude and excellent grades, got into Harvard and never looked back. This particular day he and Nina are having their colleagues, Professors Eric and Jennifer Engles (Jed Dickson and Tracy Newirth), over for a little party. Although Eric is a bit too sure of himself and Charles' political opposite, there is great respect of between these two men because as Charles notes "he tells me what's on his mind [and] I respect the honesty." 


However, as the men debate whether non-violence is a realistic choice in today's world, and the women try to change the subject to lighter fare (with Jennifer progressively becoming more and more drunk), the proceedings are interrupted when Charles spots someone leaning on his car on the street below. Going down to confront the stranger, Charles soon returns with a disheveled, foul-smelling homeless man in tow. Charles introduces him as Terrence Barlow (John Marshall Jones), someone he once knew, and whom he invites inside, must to the consternation of the Engles and the fury of his wife.


Terrence, it turns out, went to Harvard with Charles, but dropped out and has since drifted into a life of crime, following such pursuits as drugs and gun running. At first one wonders why Charles would bring home such a person, who he has never mentioned (except once, very briefly in his book). However it soon becomes clear certain ties run deep and a past that Charles has long hidden and tried very hard to forget is about to come roaring back with a vengeance.


As Nina and Charles battle over just who Terrence is, and the Engles' marriage is slowly disintegrating (due to his womanizing and her alcoholism), it is Terrence who holds the spotlight for most of the play. This is an intellectual man (he's read Charles' book) who, being a realist, took one of the few doors open to him (i.e. crime) after leaving Harvard. Someone who's long lived a life of anger and rage, he had an epiphany after being shot five times close range, Terrence has since turned to more lofty pursuits (as he sees it). 

Just as Terrence is the fulcrum which drives the story, it is Jones, along with director Cote, who makes the character, and thus the play, work. In less experienced hands, Terrence could easily become a caricature of a street hood, or person down on his luck, but Jones makes him a fascinating and three-dimensional figure, one who offers no apologies for who he is and what he's done. Terrence sees this chance meeting with Charles as a way to set the Professor free as it were (though one wonders if this is something Charles actually wants) and to exorcise some old ghosts from both their pasts. At the same time, Terrence suffers from violent seizures, a result of his numerous wounds (i.e. beatings, shootings) over the years. He's also quite paranoid and subject to moments of rage as he keeps a wary eye about for those who are still looking to kill him. This combination of factors makes him quite dangerous and certainly not a man to be trifled with-as the four professors quickly find out.


Compared to Terrence, the rest of the characters seem weak, sort of like empty shells of humanity. People trying to cling to their own type of safety net at best, and ones who lie to themselves and their loved ones at worst. Charles has wrapped himself in an aura of the intellectual middle class, trying to hide from the person he once was; Jennifer, a former actress, bemoans her sacrificing her career for her husband; and Eric's escapades may cost him his livelihood. Even more are vapid are Nina's daughter (Erinn Holmes) from a previous mixed marriage and her white rapper boyfriend (Curt Bouril). The former who seems to go out of her way to deny that racism exists, (while her mother is refreshingly politically incorrect); the latter rather annoying (deliberately so) in his embrace of all things non-white.


There are many themes and messages Simon has put into the text, chief among them that we must each be responsible for our own actions. While most of the characters complain about their situation in life (or in Terrence's case, accept it), each of them are where they are now because of something they did, or didn't do. As Terrence says at one point, "it was my idea" referring to a long-time ago incident involving him and Charles, and now both men have to live with that fact.


However the crux of the play may actually turn on a single line, almost a throwaway, (about collateral damage) delivered near the end of the work, once Terrence's ultimate purpose becomes known. While his goals may be lofty and his sense of self-sacrifice understandable (even if one doesn't agree with it) the line also marks him for what he truly is and shows how much he has (and hasn't) really learned. At the same time, the rest of the characters' willingness to let him do what he plans, either out of guilt, shame or "owing him one," shows how easy, and safer, it is to look the other way, rather than get involved and really make a difference. (There's also more than a little bit of the law of the jungle used in arriving at this decision.)


The entire cast works well together. In addition to Jones' stellar performance, Blanks is good as Charles, struggling to maintain a life of normalcy, which he knows deep down is built on a lie. (In the end, his actions are a sort of rebuttal to his own book). Also deserving of mention are McCall, who makes a good impression as Charles' protective and very suspicious wife, and Dickson, who does a good turn as Eric.


A great deal of credit must go to Cote, who keeps the action moving in this 160-minute work and cranks up the tension slowly but steadily. Plus, he allows a good deal of humor to seep in now and again (such as when Eric asks Terrence if being a gun runner pays well). While none of these characters may be people you'd want to spend time with, the story they present is quite fascinating to watch, with layer upon layer of emotions and secrets slowly peeled back.


Craig Napoliello's scene design is wonderfully detailed and very appropriate to the story; Joanie Schumacher's costumes and Evan Purcell's lighting work well.


The Guest At Central Park West is not an easy show to watch, but this is a play with a lot to say and it says it quite powerfully and eloquently.


Box Score:


Writing: 2

Directing: 2

Acting: 2

Sets: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2


Copyright 2008 by Judd Hollander


Return to Volume Fourteen, Number Two Index


Return to Volume Fourteen Index


Return to Home Page