“Why didn’t you tell me?” It’s a phrase we’ve all heard, perhaps dropped ourselves once or twice, but never do we give it much thought. In Tracey Scott Wilson’s world premiere of Buzzer, on Goodman Theatre’s Owen stage, Jackson (Eric Lynch), Don (Shane Kenyon), and Suzy (Lee Stark), are no strangers to the phrase. When the three friends move in together in the midst of Jackson and Suzy’s blossoming relationship, lies and secrets begin to permeate throughout the stage’s urban setting, becoming more widespread than the air they breathe. It is this lack of air, a failure on Wilson’s part to balance lies with the truth, that creates a suffocating atmosphere onstage and in the audience. The overemphasis of one idea undermines all else.
Buzzer is a play that could have worked. The opening scene, in which Lynch delivers a powerful monologue, demonstrating his majestic powers of enunciation, is one that clearly introduces a developed character: sassy, vociferous, hopeful. The exaggerated enunciation, quite fitting for a recent law school graduate, works for this opening monologue. The problem was that Lynch could not offer any alternative. His character’s manner of speaking did not alter from monologue to dialogue, and his character, therefore, emerged as increasingly one-dimensional. His most prominent line “You are my woman, Suze,” was delivered without a single degree of passion. It is not possible to believe either the tension of the friends’ love triangle or Jackson’s supposed jealousy of Suze and Don’s illicit affair if Lynch’s tone does not convey a delicate appreciation for Suze, if his voice does not vary from that in which he delivers a monologue. Jackson is a character whose lies and secrets are minimal, compared to Don and Suze’s, yet his manner of speaking makes it appear as if everything he told was a lie, neglecting to believe even his own words.
Although the problem of Jackson’s unvarying, thunderous delivery is likely the fault of director Jessica Thebus, other problems that undermined the potential complexity of the play arose from an inherent predictability from the start. The moment that Don, a recovering drug addict, arrives at Jackson and Suze’s apartment, it is evident that he is attracted to the latter. Kenyon’s character, comprised of quirky phrases and outrageous stories, was enough to convince the audience of an unstable mind roaming the apartment—but it was not enough to create the feeling of scandalous titillation that should have concluded the first act. With its sadness, anger and bad French, Don and Suze’s affair should have worked beautifully, but it failed due to its predictability. There is simply no surprise in this affair, and even if there were, it is utterly inconsequential to the rest of the storyline. The affair is lost in the second act, making only more one arbitrary appearance.
Act Two diverges from the first enough to feel like an unsolicited sequel to the first. It begins to center around Suze, Jackson and Don’s relationship with Dennis, a supposedly dangerous black man that bullies Suze on the streets. The changing relationships among the three friends are therefore lost in a tenuous plot line that centers around a character that never appears on stage. Discussions of race and money feel out of place on a stage that remains constant throughout: its tacky signs and ornate doorway deny the audience a glimpse of the supposed “changing neighborhood” that Jackson mentions at the beginning of the play. Nor is there anything about the characters that corroborates their supposed distress about the situation. Don, for instance, is multiple times referred to as a “rich white boy,” but there is nothing in his behavior to confirm it, and thus the accusation appears stubbornly contrived. Don and Suze’s false confession of Don’s drug abuse, a cover-up for their affair, is a lie that feels out of place after Suze and Jackson’s offstage confrontation with their belligerent neighbors. Wilson’s use of dramatic irony in this scene, with Jackson’s inability to discern the truth, also comes out as overly forced: it is the cliché of an attorney naturally inclined to find out the truth about his girlfriend and best friend, yet for some reason, he remains clueless to the end.
What could have been a play exploring the deep relationships between these three characters turns into a loosely connected string of lies, not only among the characters within the play, but also between the playwright and audience. Wilson’s play fails ultimately because it attempts to accommodate too much, and what results is nothing that stands out amongst all else. This amalgam of various yet disconnected ideas is sure to show itself in the form of a poisonous gas that will leave the audience searching for air with which to breathe.