When Sarah (Sarah Baskin) and Kennedy (Patrick J. Ssenjovu) first meet, in Will Snider’s new play, Death of a Driver, she is 26. She is astonished to learn how old he is. “You’re twenty-one,” she repeats after he tells her. Then:
But you’re like,
Sarah is an American, still in grad school; Kennedy is her Kenyan “taxi man,” as he calls himself. Actually, he calls himself a good taxi man. Kennedy, played by Ssenjovu with an appealing big-heartedness that never wavers, knows his worth. He also knows Kenya’s roads. He knows where they lead, how they were built, where they have fractured. He also knows who—as in which political party—seems uninterested in fixing them and why. And his knowledge is especially useful to Baskin’s charmingly confident, if emotionally churning, Sarah, since she, too, has an interest in Kenya’s roads. She wants to come back to Kenya after she graduates and be the person who rebuilds them, who makes them more durable and frees them of their potholes. In the course of this 85-minute drama, Sarah fulfills her promise, ensnaring the good-natured Kennedy in the process, and the two sustain a rocky, uneven, if mutually-beneficial business relationship. It is a relationship which this smart and thought-provoking, yet equally uneven, play seems to mirror.
The production, at Urban Stages on W. 30th Street, is a handsome one, and winningly faithful to Snider’s detailed playing-area instructions. While the action unfolds in two very different places—one a bar where the characters first meet; and the other a prison, where Kennedy endures more than one visitation—there is only one playing space, a wide, clean, raised floor with wooden crates and beer bottles strewn about for the bar scenes. The actors (as directed by Kim T. Sharp) and the lighting scheme (by John Salutz, who effectively jostles between dark and moody for the jail scenes and full-on bright for the bar scenes) do the rest, and quite credibly.
Sarah and Kennedy make an attractive team: she is as sharp-sighted about her budding entrepreneurial career—she plans to secure millions from the Gates Foundation—as he is about what roads to take and how to conduct oneself on them. (When you kill a goat, for example, you pay off the owners and the police.) When Sarah recognizes his gifts and offers Kennedy a trial position as manager of the company she plans to start, we share a whiff of their somewhat naïve ebullience at having found each other. We’re rooting for them. And later, when Kennedy runs afoul of the government (first by posting unauthorized help-wanted flyers and later through more significant, destructive actions in protest of the government); when he is imprisoned for stretches at a time, imperiling his life as well as his and Sarah’s business; when he begins to displays an allegiance to a separate, violent political agenda that Sarah, an American, can never quite grasp, we are never surprised. That is because Snider takes care to establish two fully realized characters, people who never shrink from themselves but never fully divulge their secrets either. For Sarah, those secrets are more personal or intimate in nature: she at times plays coy about a member of the British High Commission she is seeing. But Kennedy’s secrets are political, and deeply existential. When he tells half-truths, there could be lives on the line.
Perhaps fittingly, in a play that strives to create distinctly representative emotional moods and playing spaces, it is the character’s differences—how Kennedy and Sarah are each independent, individually striving people who may be quite alien to each other—that prove to be the one challenge neither of them are able to overcome. This revelation hardly comes as a surprise, either. Nor should it. We never expect these two people, who grew up on different sides of the world, to be compatible in their world views or how these views were formed. But Snider and Sharp haven’t found, at least in the preview I saw, authoritative ways for the actors to connect emotionally through these differences. At least not in ways that are as emotionally compelling, or theatrically successful, as the breezy, fast, manner in which they found a kinship with each other in the bar scenes. When the lights go low for the jail scenes, so does, for the most part, the energy of the play, the intensity of the emotion, the crispness of the pacing.
And yet Death of a Driver—with its earnest, resolute characters and rich dialogue, its sharp, human wit, and the deft, physical manner in which Baskin and Ssenjovu navigate the external playing fields—often makes for a gripping, captivating night in the theater. Snider’s subject matter—a kind of deeply humanized treatment of the decades-old personification of the Ugly American—has never been more important or timely. In a playbill note, Snider paraphrases a former Ugandan professor of his, an anthropologist critical of foreign aid in his home country: “No one has a right to work in a place where their family doesn’t deal directly with the consequences of the work they do.” Death of a Driver points us squarely in the direction of those consequences.
Death of a Driver. Produced by Urban Stages (Frances Hill, Founding Artistic Director) at 259 West 30th Street. Written by Will Snider. Directed by Kim T. Sharp. With Sarah Baskin and Patrick J. Ssenjovu. Opens March 4th and runs through March 24. Tickets for the show are $40, with $15 student rush) and may be purchased via OvationTix at www.urbanstages.org or by phone at 1.866.811.4111.