STONEHAM — Not many actors can command the stage like Johnny Lee Davenport. An imposing and electric presence in one Boston-area production after another, he’s possessed of the kind of charisma that can elevate a play past its shortcomings.
But the heavy lifting Davenport does in “The Unbleached American’’ is not enough to surmount the flaws of Michael Aman’s overwritten drama, now receiving its world premiere at Stoneham Theatre.
Directed by Weylin Symes and costarring Laura Latreille, “The Unbleached American’’ addresses some big ideas: the distortions of identity that can be part of racism’s toxic legacy, the true cost of the Faustian price tag so often attached to wealth and fame. Unfortunately, the playwright has chosen to express those ideas in a stilted, mannered idiom that drains them of their urgency.
Davenport portrays the real-life black performer, songwriter, and ragtime pioneer Ernest Hogan, who attained both wealth and infamy in the 1890s by writing “All Coons Look Alike to Me.’’ That ditty helped popularize the ugly genre of “coon songs’’ that were embraced by turn-of-the-century white audiences only too eager to endorse vile stereotypes of African-Americans. “My poisonous gift to music,’’ Hogan calls it in “The Unbleached American.’’
As that line suggests, he’s grappling with more than a touch of self-loathing, though the size of his ego is also evident. It’s 1906, and Hogan is clearly restless in his New York townhouse, even though he is riddled with tuberculosis. Katy Monthei’s set design deftly blends the representational and the metaphorical in ways that suggest the stage is Hogan’s true home but also that he is a virtual prisoner of his own career. Pages of sheet music hang down on either side of and behind the stage. Hogan’s parlor is filled with framed photos and newspaper articles about him. On one side of the stage is a piano; on the other, a tripod-mounted camera, a weighty symbol of the image issues undergirding the play.
Hogan’s only company is an Irish-American nurse named Sharon Flynn, played by Latreille, whom he has hired in the delusional hope she can help him become healthy enough to return to the stage. The role she arrogates to herself instead is that of truth-teller, insisting that Ernest see himself clearly — something he is loath to do. (There are no mirrors in his lavish abode, as we are reminded more than once.) Yet Sharon is also, in her way, living a lie, and as their relationship takes a romantic turn, Ernest becomes intent on forcing her to confront her own truth.
A promising set-up. But rather than being pulled in and forced to feel the heat of their shared crucible, we often remain at a quizzical distance because far too much of the dialogue consists of arch exchanges like this, from earlier in the play:
Ernest: “I am ignoring time and am beginning proceedings on a divorce. I do not abide infidelity and time has cheated on me.’’
Sharon (a little later): “You may be seeking a legal divorce from time, but I am time’s widow.’’
When characters seem to be crafting their sentences before they utter them, it’s hard to lose yourself in their dilemmas.
Latreille is a very fine actress who has previously shown a gift for slow-burning intensity as, for instance, the war photographer in Lyric Stage Company’s 2012 production of Donald Margulies’s “Time Stands Still.’’ But in “The Unbleached American’’ she operates in a slightly too-muted key.
We are told, in a contrived touch by the playwright, that Sharon is the daughter of a white minstrel performer, and that the nurse is a thwarted performer herself. She is clearly bitter that her father enjoyed a stage career (however dubious it may have been) while her own ambitions have been stymied. “I could have been Sophie Tucker,’’ she contends. “Should have been.’’ But it’s hard to credit that claim, given how little theatricality there is in Sharon’s demeanor.
Davenport, though, is entirely credible as a born entertainer, someone who is fully alive only when he has an audience. His Ernest is a figure of outsize gusto, whether he is boasting about headlining at the Winter Garden, sliding into minstrel caricature to mock white assumptions, or jubilantly boasting about the many costly possessions his talents have brought him.
Yet Davenport is equally persuasive in conveying Ernest’s tragic aspect: a man who spent a long time hiding from himself but has now finally run out of places to hide. Watching this superb actor pulling out all the stops to bring his character to life, you may find yourself wishing he didn’t have to work so hard.