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A play by Sean O’Connor
At the Mazur Theater, 555 E. 90th St.
Reviewed by Claude Solnik
Showbiz Magazine

“Recently, with television cameras and reporters in tow, Mayor Dinkins crossed a picket line to go into a Korean deli.  At last, he had crossed that line.  Sean O’Connor’s Who Collects the Pain is also about crossing racial, social and economic lines.  The story of a relationship (although not exactly a romance) between a white student at Columbia and a black woman, it’s written with gritty, fast dialogue and acted convincingly enough to make it seem as if the stage, like the subject matter, really does extend to the streets and beyond.  It is a rare creature in the American theatre, a play that has something important to say and articulates it dramatically.  And, while many plays stretch one-acters out to fill an evening, this fills an evening by evoking an entire world.  At times, it has the force of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but it’s presented on stage instead of out of reach on a screen.

Technically, the play’s set in 1993, 25 years after Martin Luther King’s shooting.  We’re in a world between Bensonhurst and Howard Beach.  Pain is the common denominator that links people.  A black kid walks into a store and he’s accused of taking a Twinkie.  It’s racism on the day-to-day level, in both small and large incidents. And here, there are no economic cushions to soften the blow.  In this world, people are hardly getting by.  Kids are too poor to buy bubble gum.  It’s a world too far down for trickle-down, a world with a certain inevitability that fits the plot.  People are crushed by social forces more than uplifted by them.

The plot is solid.  Strong.  Subplots and good dialogue flesh out the story.  Atmosphere seeps into every line of dialogue like alcohol in the air of a blues bar.  The central story, though, is a Romeo and Juliet told along racial lines.  It’s simple enough, but it avoids being simplistic or melodramatic, thanks to a script that’s very real in many ways, and thanks to acting that’s animated and good enough to grab anyone in the audience by the collar and draw them into the play.

Mickey (Michael Santoro), a white Columbia student who reads Maya Angelou and whose father worked for years with the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), meets Lorraine (Brent Trish Whitney), a black woman whose been seeing a black boyfriend for quite a while.  Mickey helps her get a job and the two start seeing one another.  The two then find themeselves up against barriers and walls as high as any that the Capulets and Montagues ever built.

Things come to a head one night when Mickey shows up at Lorraine’s apartment.  Her boyfriend, Danny (Federico Edwards), says that Mickey has just crossed a line.  He better head back to Columbia, where politics is reduced to the posters you choose for your walls.  The conflict is personal, but it’s also poisoned by “prejudice” (probably on both sides) although the word for it today is “bias.”  Later, when Danny needs money for a coke deal that goes sour, he breaks into Mickey’s place.  Mickey is sleeping with Lorraine and Danny slinks out.  There’s a final confrontation later.  A gun goes off.  With all this anger, angst and tension, it’s at least an end, in a strange way, that becomes a release and a relief.  And that relief, really, is one of the saddest things in the story.  Who collects the pain?  No one.  It just falls like rain or like dialogue “screamed into the blue black sky,” as Lorraine says.

Sean O’Connor’s dialogue is raw, with words as precise as the sounds coming from a fast jazz piano. We hear about what can happen when “your ideas run into a bullet.”  O’Connor’s ear is right on.  And the structure of the play builds so intensely that every scene is a small explosion leading to a larger explosion at the end.

Joe Paradise’s direction is hands on, physical, tactile, and constantly on the move.  Something is always happening on stage.  Actors chase, hide, face the audience, face away, run in, out and around.

The actors play their roles with the passion of actors not simply playing their roles but creating them.  Michael Santoro’s Mickey is tentative, quiet, trying to find himself.  As Lorraine, Brent Trish Whitney is passionate and intent, right from the start, and straight on through the end.  Her smile beams across the stage.  So much for this couple in search of a cupid.

As Lorraine’s brother, Mercy, Frank Guy is conciliatory at one moment and enraged the next, and believable all the way through.  Even when he’s angry he feels trapped and likeable.  Santo Fazio takes Rafael, a drug dealer, and gives a coked up performance so strong he gets a standing ovation when he leaves the stage.  Federico Edwards struts and threatens as Danny, a collection of gestures and emotions, more bravado than bravery, always ready to explode.  He’s exciting to watch, a study of living and acting on the edge.  On stage, he seems more spontaneous than most people on the streets.

As always, in life and in art, the most political issues are also the most personal.  If Dinkins crossed a very real geographical line, Who Collects the Pain crosses lines that are at once more invisible and more grounded than any picket line in front of any deli anywhere.  See it.”

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