Colman Domingo’s new play, Dot, now playing at the Vineyard Theatre, has vestiges of a familiar kitchen sink drama. In fact, Allen Moyer’s realistic Act I set features functioning appliances—including an actual kitchen sink. While the water runs from the faucet and the stove sizzles scrambled eggs, matriarch Dotty Shealy (Marjorie Johnson) is starting to show signs of frayed wiring. She’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and we see her in the early stages when she’s cognitive enough to realize that life, as she knows it, is starting to slip away.
The third play in Domingo’s trilogy set in West Philly, Dotty is surrounded by her three children; Shelly (Sharon Washington), Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore), and Averie (Libya V. Pugh). Each has his or her own way of coping (or not) with Dotty’s diagnosis, and as the play unfolds the audience becomes privy to family dynamics that will seem familiar to anyone with siblings.
At the play’s epicenter, Johnson takes command of Domingo’s script, shifting between razor sharp banter with her children, as well as recently returned neighbor, Jackie (Finnerty Steeves), who at one point dated Donnie before he came out as gay. Add Donnie’s husband, Adam (Colin Hanlon) to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for high-decibel drama with plenty of wisecracks to keep things moving along.
Domingo’s script offers juicy bites for the talented ensemble as he weaves together an array of conflicts that function on both a personal as well as societal level. It’s not often that theatergoers are treated to a middle class, African American slice of life—and though references are made to the rough neighborhood beyond the Shealy household’s barred windows, it feels as if this particular family has risen a few rungs up the economic ladder.
It’s also refreshing to see a bi-racial gay relationship that is part of a bigger story—an angle that Domingo captures without smothering the play’s through line. Other themes that he touches upon include the obsession with reality television, pregnancy out of wedlock, and immigration in the form of Dotty’s informally trained caregiver, Fidel (Michael Rosen), a soft-spoken 20-something from Kazakhstan. It’s only in the second act when a game forces Donnie to step into the shoes of what it must feel like to have Alzheimer’s that the play feels a bit contrived.
Dot delivers plenty on the page as well as the stage, Domingo’s visceral bite coming through at every turn, but director Susan Stroman occasionally undermines the strength of the source material. The pair worked together on the critically acclaimed The Scottsboro Boys, in which Domingo performed and received a Tony award nomination. Stroman’s career—primarily in musical theater—spans nearly 25 years, but her work here feels heavy handed: instead of restraint, Stroman turns up the dial with little reprieve, ending Act I with a misplaced “musical theater button” that you’d expect to see at the end of The Producers and an over choreographed sequence in Act II.
In spite of these misgivings, Dot delivers an often heart-wrenching drama as one family, in its own imperfect way, tries to navigate the inevitable. Alzheimer’s is a cruel, ruthless disease. Domingo respects his enemy, crafting a play that will tug at your emotions and inspire you to clutch your loved ones just a little bit tighter. His approach to the human condition—both inside the walls of one’s home and how social forces impact us beyond our control—is worth keeping an eye on.
108 East 15th Street, NYC
Through March 20
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.