If “The Picture Box,” a new play by Cate Ryan presented by The Negro Ensemble Company (celebrating their 45th season) at the 42nd Street Beckett Theater, were instead a painting, it would be only in the colors black and white. What it needs are shades of gray.
On voting day, prior to Obama’s 2008 election, Carrie (Jennifer Van Dyck, earnest but miscast) a middle-aged white woman, has come from New York to sell her deceased mother’s Florida home. Enter the white buyers, Bob (Malachy Cleary) and Karen (Marisa Redanty), who are, with the first lines they speak, revolting and racist. They exit to vote (presumably for McCain). The voting issue exposes a tragic flaw in the script; the couple are from Michigan and are not Florida residents; therefore, they would not be registered to vote in the state of Florida.
Enter Mackie (the wonderful Arthur French), an 89 year-old black man who has been with Carrie’s family since the day she was born, and she considers him family, as she does Jo (deliciously played by Elain Graham), his black wife. They are good, decent people, full of affection and admiration for each other, even when bickering. My favorite line is Jo’s: “I can unwife you anytime.”
A box of photos is found, and this triggers a lengthy period of exposition, describing how Carrie grew up, stories about Mackie’s family, Carrie’s mother, Carrie’s dog, and it all goes on far too long, rendering the drama static.
Because the play runs about an hour and wants to be full-length, there are too many unanswered questions: why exactly was Mackie hired by Carrie’s mother? As a cook? Caretaker? Driver? Servant? It’s a little odd to have hired a young black man to look after a white baby girl. Carrie had no father, but her mother had many husbands. So if she was simply a bad and negligent mother, why not say so? Also, the historic Obama election, used as a gimmick in the beginning, remains only that: a gimmick. There is no aftermath. There is no “morning after.” The election is dropped and never mentioned again, not even to say that these folks will be staying up all night to await the results. I mean, really. Most of the world waited up to see what the outcome would be. I did. With the subject of race relations ostensibly at stake here, wouldn’t these people do the same?