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‘Pass Over’ envisions a Godot-like endgame for young black men

Julian Parker (left) plays Kitch and John Michael Hill plays Moses in the Steppenwolf Theatre world premiere of Antoinette Nwandu's play, "Pass Over." | Michael Brosilow

The essential premise of Antoinette Nwandu’s play, “Pass Over,” now in a brilliantly acted world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, is unquestionably inspired.

Somewhat recommended
When: Through July 9
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $89
Info: www.steppenwolf.org
Run time: 80 minutes, with no intermission

Nwandu has grabbed hold of the basic outline of “Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Beckett’s modernist classic about a pair of co-dependent homeless men who are forever trapped in poverty and tedium, but keep going in the hope that some form of deliverance is headed their way even if it eludes them time and time again. And she has reimagined the play by giving us two young, contemporary African-American men who hang out on a cement strip where a flickering lamppost offers about as much promise as the skeletal tree in “Godot,” and where their hope of “passing over” to a better life, and of escaping their dead-end existence repeatedly turns into a pipe dream.

Ryan Hallahan plays Mister and Julian Parker plays Kitch in Antoinette Nwandu’s play, “Pass Over,” at Steppenwolf Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Unfortunately, Nwandu derails her work in the final 10 minutes of its 80-minute running time. You will understand why simply by tracking the endless headlines of senseless, endemic violence in Chicago over the past week to see why this play distorts the full story.

To be sure, no one can argue with the fact that this city (and many others throughout the country) has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African-Americans. But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene. And the playwright’s final scenes — including a speech by the clueless white aristocrat who appears earlier in the story — and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s  largely white “liberal” audience — further rob the play of its potential impact.

As you enter the theater you find the play’s principal characters — Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker) — restlessly killing time. Playing in the background are many of the iconic songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals — a heavy-handed bit of irony suggesting how the American dream has missed these two. The use of this music also demonstrates that either the playwright, or the show’s director, Danya Taymor, have forgotten that those Broadway geniuses’ musicals were all about the pain of prejudice.

That said, Hill and Parker are such sublime actors — possessed of wonderful physical grace and finely honed tragicomic instincts — that watching them bicker, tease, wrestle, put on Masterpiece Theatre-like British airs, and above all, dream of making it to the “Promised Land” (just as in the Bible story they learned as kids in Sunday school) is like a master class in dramatic interplay. (Parker is particularly charismatic — an actor who can make you hear his brain humming.) And Nwandu has written terrific, alternately playful and heartbreaking dialogue for them —  all the more reason to regret her choice of ending.

Ryan Hallahan (an actor I’ve admired since seeing his bravura performance in “The Body Of An American” at Stage Left) plays Mister — the upper-crust white man in a creamy suit and boater who wanders in, carrying a giant picnic basket, as if airlifted from a Tennessee Williams play, with all the plantation-era trappings of his name in evidence. Mister (more benign and enigmatic than Pozzo, the fat cat in “Godot”), shares the elaborate feast he has packed for his mother with the men, and clearly wants to be liked and accepted by them, even if he doesn’t have a clue about their existence. Hallahan also has the unhappy task of playing the brutal, provocative cop, Ossifer (whose name is slang for the slurred pronunciation of a drunk addressing a police “officer”).

As it often does, Steppenwolf tries to send a message with this play. Instead, it ends up clubbing its audience over the head in a way that also makes its applause feel self-congratulatory.

Jon Michael Hill plays Moses and Ryan Hallahan plays Mister in Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” at Steppenwolf Theatre. | Michael Brosilow