Midway through Act Two of Insidious, a new play by Ibn Shabazz that's on view at the Black Rep, a young addict who has triumphed through seven years of rehab at Narcotics Anonymous suffers a relapse. As our protagonist, Dawud, sits on a sofa and indulges his habit, Mark Wilson's inventive lighting design turns the sofa's beige fabric golden. Then a blood red begins to swirl through the gold. There's a sense that the story's locale has moved from a city apartment into Purgatory, but for these few minutes Purgatory is an appealing locale. Such is the conundrum that confronts the addict.
Insidious concerns Dawud (Philip Dixon), who is engaged to Kara (Jacqueline Thompson). Scene One is filled with sweet nothings as these two discuss their impending nuptials. Then in Scene Two, the moment Kara has left for work, Dawud visits a nearby park and brings home a male prostitute (Nic Few) named Insidious. "We don't have a whole lot of time," Dawud tells Insidious. "My girl will be home in about an hour." The two men adjourn to a bedroom (the unit set is designed by Chris Pickart) to have sex in silhouette behind a scrim. Now the play's axis begins to turn. What does the bisexual Dawud want? Who does he want? Has Insidious, who may or may not be HIV-positive, infected Dawud? And how would the stark intrusion of AIDS into their lives affect Kara and Dawud's future life together?
But as the evening progresses, these questions become less and less involving. It's a cruel irony that although addiction elicits our utmost empathy in real life, it's hard to make an addict sympathetic onstage. (Anybody remember High at the Rep?) It's kind of like in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Early on, we're much involved when those pesky birds repeatedly attack Tippi Hedren and her friends. But when Tippi foolishly decides to check out a noise in her attic and again gets attacked by the birds, many viewers tune out. It's too hard to justify an investment of time in self-destructive people. Dawud (whose greatest concern in life seems to be that Insidious has stolen his PlayStation console) is a not-very-nuanced creation who's asking for trouble.
On opening night, Insidious elicited lots of laughs, but I'm not sure they were earned. It's a gift to be able to manipulate an audience's emotions between comedy and despair. Playwright Matthew McDonough does it brilliantly in black comedies like The Lieutenant of Inishmore and in his outrageous film, In Bruges. But the laughter in Insidious seemed unintentional and at times even a distraction. The writing constantly calls attention to itself. "Softly, sweetly, we become one," Insidious coos to Dawud in a moment of intimacy. Dialogue like that doesn't come out of someone's mouth; it comes out of a computer keyboard. But then, the play doesn't really strive for reality. (At times a viewer might wonder if Insidious even exists. Or does he merely inhabit a dark imagination?) The script constantly breaks the fourth wall to allow Insidious to recite (mostly indecipherable) rap lyrics about the travails of life. If the playwright's goal is to fuse dialogue and rap, he might want to rethink that ambition; these interludes only serve to slow down the story's progression.
At one point Insidious hollers, "This is 2012!" But the play does not feel contemporary; it feels primly old-fashioned. One character exits; another enters. Despite the constant expletives and the urge to shock, Insidious unreels like quaint melodrama. You can't blame Black Rep producing director Ron Himes, who also directed Insidious, for wanting to search out and stage new scripts. But he has to know that this one is still very much a work in progress. Insidious needs much revision if it is to have a continued life.