JC Lee is a young American writer currently riding a wave of success with TV shows such as Looking, Girls and How to Get Away With Murder. This play, first produced at Lincoln Centre Theatre in 2013, marks him out as one to watch. A master manipulator, Hitchcock would have loved this piece, where although you sit tantalised by its possibilities over 90 tightly written minutes, at the end you are still not sure where you are with these characters.
Luce, the title character, is a handsome, athletic, 17 year old African-American who was orphaned in a foreign, unspecified, war and brought to the US, aged 7, to be raised by a white liberal couple. His sheer personal charisma, academic flair and sporting prowess have singled him out at his school and he’s become a poster boy for every cause. Huge expectations rest on his shoulders. A key theme here is the burden we put on kids but the play also locks into a wider issue, which is about a society increasingly defined by fear, a fear stoked further by terrorism.
Harriet, the only black teacher at the school, seems particularly obsessed with Luce’s value as an exemplar and as the living embodiment of triumph over adversity. “It is your solemn duty not to be a stereotype” she demands.
As the play begins she has summoned his mother Amy (Mel Giedroyc) to the school after Luce has submitted an essay where he identifies with a bomb throwing terrorist. This prompts her to have his locker checked out and there she discovers a bag full of illegal fireworks. This invasion of Luce’s privacy immediately sets Amy on the defensive and Lee is brilliant on the blind unconditional nature of some parental love, which can cause intelligent people to brush aside valid questions about the actions and motives of their offspring. Husband Peter (Nigel Whitmey) is conflicted too, but more circumspect. The responses of everyone snowball into a growing mistrust which culminates in a highly charged confrontation between family and teacher, where Lee’s writing really shines through
What could have been just pious tub-thumping piece about race instead settles into an expertly crafted thriller and while Lee makes us question our assumptions about each character he quietly pulls the rug from under us. Simon Dormandy’s direction is razor sharp throughout and Dick Bird’s design, while minimalist, is very well judged. The stage is dominated by a long mirror on the back wall which reflects the audience. Could it be two-way also?
Giedroyc, better known as a hugely successful comedian and TV presenter (The Great British Bake Off), is superbly grounded as the lioness mother who spends far too much time stoking her fears on Google. Natasha Gordon is steeliness personified as the ambivalent teacher and Elizabeth Tan shines as Luce’s ex-girlfriend, Stephanie. She has been drawn into the saga by Amy and reveals perhaps too much about the sexist jock subculture the teenagers inhabit. It’s a powerfully touching portrait of youthful longing and confusion.
The play hinges on our assessment of Luce, particularly following a startling plot development. The role requires a combination of charm and Machiavellian guile and Martins Imhangbe has all this, deftly embodying the enigmatic aspects of Luce, which is at the core of the play. “My story is not me, it’s an idea of me” he pleads. Is he a sleeper terrorist or just a bright kid pushing boundaries?
In the aftermath of stories like that of the brothers who committed the Boston Marathon atrocity it can’t be long before this topical red-hot drama is turned into a movie.