Review: Ken Urban’s ‘A Guide for the Homesick’ Digs Deep and Packs An Emotional Wallop
By Doug Hall, Contributing Writer, October 20, 2017
A “rising star” in theater, and HP Fellow, Ken Urban continues his successful momentum in Boston with the current premiere of his latest play, A Guide for the Homesick, which grabs its audience immediately with emotional intensity, a character trait of this playwright’s work.
Mr. Urban has tackled difficult subject matter in most of his plays, particularly the question of “confronting the truth” from a societal and political perspective and taking it head-on. He has received wide-spread attention and acclaim for his tense compelling political drama Sense of an Ending (2015), which Time Out London called “A superb new play about the Rwandan genocide. So intense, that in between each scene you can hear the audience gulp for air.” Some of that same intensity occurs here, again, in A Guide for the Homesick with Urban forcing his audience into the most intimate nature of two human beings, facing their “failings” and finding at once solace, desire and then repulsion from one another.
A Guide… takes place in an Amsterdam hotel, as a chance meeting brings two strangers together to confess and share their fears that they both have betrayed “the people who need them most.” Jeremy (Samuel H. Levine), a Harvard graduate and young aide worker, originally from Newton, is returning from East Africa, and Teddy (McKinley Belcher III), a finance worker originally from Roxbury, is on a spontaneous trip with a fellow worker and close friend who is engaged to be married.
The ensuing dialogue between the two actors sparks with an “in the room with them” authenticity that drills down to a core bare nerve, unleashing emotion, sexual desire, and a reckoning with their souls. As both characters succumb to a full confessional, finally holding their actions and behavior accountable to one another, as each has forsaken another human being in desperate need, they surrender to the devastating consequences of their actions. As related by a previous reviewer, Urban is “a writer wholly unafraid to tackle anything.”
On a single stage, with a set that is solemn and sad in the surroundings of a dirty well-worn Amsterdam hotel room, both actors take on their roles fearlessly, displaying the full range of human spirit from frailty, to breakdown, to nurturer, then momentary lover and finally both enraged with anger about themselves and each other’s accountability. With just two characters on a single set stage, Mr. Urban places the play’s potent lines in the hands of seamless performers, with dynamic energy and chemistry delivered by both actors. With subtle twists of pain, laughs, angst, and remorse, the poignant moments are articulated on-time and with unmistakable effect.
There is also the challenge of both actors having to momentarily switch their roles, with theater set change magic, to be the very individuals they have utterly betrayed. To hear the other voices in so convincingly a transformation seals the audience’s involvement in the storyline. You feel the fear and dislocation of “Nicholas” (Belcher), the African gay man terrified for his life in the world of his small village in an East African community, where he could be burned alive if found to be a “sodomite,” as he turns to Jeremy (Levine), as the volunteer hospital aide, for his only protection. Similarly, we see Teddy’s best friend “Ed” (Belcher) a fellow co-worker at the finance company, now clearly coming apart before our eyes in this small hotel room – most probably developing bi-polar disease and ranting with manic-depressive episodes. To complicate the relationship of best friends, Jeremy is also in love with Ed and in conflict with his desires and feelings towards his best friend, who is about to be married. Both actors manage a very challenging transformation that must work seamlessly, which certainly does here, taking the audience into the dimension of Urban’s writing of multiple characters played by two actors, and making us a part of this human tragedy of shared souls.
There is every reason to cheer about this intense production, as without the true grit of facing subjects that lay bare human nature, drama can miss its potency. As Urban’s A Guide for the Homesick seeks to face the mirror with its characters and not look away, it succeeds tremendously. Urban takes us below the surface of our humanity — like it or not. As put by artistic director Peter DuBois, “this play is a striking exploration of danger and desire.” Don’t miss it.
A Guide for the Homesick presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, playing through November 4, 2017. Written by Ken Urban. Directed by Coleman Domingo; scenic design by William Boles; costume design by Kara Harmon; lighting design by Russell H. Champa; sound design by Lindsay Jones. Cast: McKinley Belcher III and Samuel H. Levine.
Cover: (l. to r.) Samuel H. Levine and McKinley Belcher III in ‘A Guide for the Homesick;’ photo: T. Charles Erickson.