Wine flows freely in Animals, a crackling new play by Stacy Osei-Kuffour. So do insults, recriminations, and long-simmering resentments. This dinner party from Hell, co-produced by Williamstown Theatre Festival and Audible, should act as a reality check for anyone who finds themselves missing socialization during lockdown.
The proceedings don’t just linger on surface tensions, though. Osei-Kuffour uses a familiar format to explore issues of race, identity, and personal history, revealing insights in subtle, surprising ways. Over the course of ninety taut minutes, director Whitney White and a uniformly superb cast of four create plausible, deep bonds that steer the play through the occasional bumpy or credulity-straining patch.
No playwright dreams of debuting their work written for the stage instead as an audio drama, but Animals emerges as one of the strongest pivots I’ve encountered in the reimagined 2020 theater world.
The strong sense of theatricality begins almost immediately with Fan Zhang’s sound design, which locates us unmistakably inside a spacious New York apartment, the sounds the of city buzzing just beyond the fire escape.
So many plays begin with lights up on a living room or dinner table decked out for an urbane soirée, and Animals gloms on the common conduit of a proposal as the inciting incident, as if Hallmark territory might not be far off. But the impending nuptials of Henry (Jason Butler Harner, a Williamstown veteran) and Lydia (Aja Naomi King, late of How to Get Away With Murder) are shot through with tension even before the celebrations begin.
Lydia revels in her new ring while simultaneously admonishing her fiancé on his timing. Doesn’t he know it’s her anniversary with Yaw (William Jackson Harper, returning to theater following his stint on The Good Place), who’s en route to their flat with his new girlfriend Coleen (Madeline Brewer, of The Handmaid’s Tale)? Surely their engagement will be a point of contention. Henry—who doesn’t seem to like Yaw very much—hints that he might have picked this moment as a way to lob a psychological bomb at someone he views as a rival.
Who is Yaw anyway, and what significance does their anniversary hold? We learn that he used to be called Jason, before reverting to a name that aligned with his Ghanaian roots. (African identity plays a strong role throughout, with Lydia claiming a blood-bound connection that supersedes Yaw’s outward posturing.) He was Jason back in their Bedford-Stuyvesant childhood, where he still lives, and which he needles Lydia for escaping. He’s a philosophy professor at tony NYU, while Lydia teaches at blue-collar City College, a distinction that could have been mined further.
And they’ve been friends for fifteen years, encompassing her entire relationship with Henry and his string of rotating girlfriends. (Coleen, Henry wryly observes, is “the new Caitlin.”) At first, I wondered if Yaw/Jason was a figment on Lydia’s imagination, some projection of id that Henry couldn’t abide. Animals, after all, somewhat openly courts comparison to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the ultimate comedy of no manners, which also revolves around a tense foursome trading barbs well into the evening. But something like that would be too predictable. Osei-Kuffour’s interests lie tangibly in the real world.
Both couples are interracial, which allows the playwright to explore the dynamics of cultural differences within romantic entanglements. Henry professes a lack of jealousy toward Yaw, but he doesn’t like who Lydia becomes when he’s around: “You get Blacker. You exclude me.” The lighthearted, almost performative friction between the couple charges when Henry makes this claim, followed by a string of examples I won’t get into here. Harner becomes the voice of white fragility in that moment, a role he takes on at various points with an admirable lack of self-consciousness. Osei-Kuffour draws this moment and many others skillfully, as a way to impugn the idea that white people with Black partners are somehow immune from internalized or even outright racism.
There are moments that seem a touch forced. When Henry claims to miss Paula Deen—that her abhorrent racism could be overlooked because those buttery biscuits were just so damn good—and Yaw responds with predictable condescension, I felt the proceedings inching toward another disastrous dinner party play: Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which also came across more like a thought experiment than a living, breathing work of dramaturgy to me. Luckily, Osei-Kuffour doesn’t linger in these instances. And White—whose impressive résumé includes the recent Steppenwolf digital production What Is Left, Burns, and last year’s stunning Off-Broadway hit Our Dear Dead Drug Lord—keeps the action throttling toward an explosive climax. Her work is a lesson in how audio theater can become a director’s medium, how the same sense of conflict and unease can be sustained in our headphones as it can on stage.
The benefits of the cast cannot be understated, either. I don’t know whether this quartet was originally slated to appear in a Williamstown production, but anyone putting on this play couldn’t do better. King anchors the production, communicating Lydia’s contradictions, the tug of her past and the call of her future. Harper embodies professorial arrogance and knowing friendliness with similar ease. Together, these two create a believable bond. Brewer is ace at playing ditziness as a defense mechanism, showing her intellectual acumen when she chooses. Harner is simply one of the best stage actors of his generation.
Osei-Kuffour’s choice of title takes on several meanings over the play’s course. Near the end, Coleen remarks to Henry that the lack of civility expressed by her companions shocked her. “I’m not an animal,” she says pointedly on her way out the door. “You’re young,” Henry replies. “Wait until you feel something.” Throughout Animals, the listener is reminded that even at our most feral, our emotions are deeply, problematically human.