‘American Son’: Will Kerry Washington score first Tony nom for ‘high tension’ topical drama?

Almost a decade after her Broadway debut, Kerry Washington has returned to the boards in an explosive new drama “American Son,” which opened at the Booth Theatre on November 4. Washington leads a quartet of actors that also includes Steven Pasquale, Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan (“Newsies”) and Eugene Lee.

Written by Broadway freshman Christopher Demos-Brown and directed by Tony-winner Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun,” 2014), “American Son” unfolds in real time in a police station in Miami, Florida at 4:00am. Kendra (Washington) waits for any news about her missing 18 year-old son Jamal from Office Paul Larkin (Jordan), who seems reluctant to share any details without the Lieutenant (Lee) present, or until Kendra’s estranged husband Scott (Pasquale) arrives.

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Critics were divided on this searing exploration of race in contemporary American society. On the positive side, Jesse Green (New York Times) gives “American Son” the Critic’s Pick stamp of approval. Green applauds the “high tension” “ticktock realism” of Demos-Brown’s play, lauding director Leon’s “best work to date” as “incisive and breakneck.” In particular, Green has high praise for all four “big but nuanced performances,” including Washington, who delivers a “great performance,” the “ideally cast” Pasquale, the “naturally ingratiating” Jordan, and the “powerful” Lee.

A little less effusive, Helen Shaw (Time Out New York) gives the play three-of-five stars. Even though Shaw says “there’s no subtlety in either the characterizations or the narrative structure,” she notes, “there’s method in the play’s thinness.” Demos-Brown instantly conveys a “grim certainty” to the audience, which allows Washington’s performance to take center stage. Shaw praises Washington, who “vibrates like a struck tuning fork; she represents the sound of tragedy… she takes the sorrow and guilt of our whole city-state and channels them into a single cry.”

Not every critic reacted as warmly to “American Son,” though. Sara Holdren (Vulture), for example, calls the play “dreadful” in the first sentence of her review. She writes that despite the shows “indisputable tragic weight,” it features a “contrived, TV-ish script peopled with one-note characters and peppered with amateurish flourishes.” This material hinders the performances for Holdren, as the central duo of Washington and Pasquale “feel grating and monotonous.”

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In such a competitive season, “American Son” could very well miss out on a Best Play Tony nomination come spring. The play’s awards prospects are hindered by its January closing date, too, leaving the best chance “American Son” has at a bid may very well be its leading performer.

Not seen on Broadway since 2009 when she made her debut in David Mamet’s “Race,” Washington has had a meteoric rise in both prestige and popularity in the intervening decade. Though not every critic fell in love with her performance, her star power may be able to sway enough of the Tony nominators to secure a slot in the Best Actress line-up.

“American Son” features a design team of Tony-winner Derek McLane (scenic), Tony-winner Peter Kaczorowski (lighting), Dede Ayite (costume), and Peter Fitzgerald (sound). McLanee has an outside chance at a Tony bid for his spare staging of the Miami police department made notable by the visible rainstorm that rages on and off just beyond the action.

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