All Things Entertaining and Cultural
As complete and as satisfying as “The Suit” is within the boundaries creators Peter Brook, Marie-Helene Estienne, and Franck Krawczyk set for it, I can’t help but wish it had more facets and more substance.
Based on a novel Can Themba thought would make his fortune but that was prohibited from being published in Apartheid-bound South Africa, “The Suit” depicts an unusual way to handle a common problem, marital infidelity. The production by Brook and company, at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater through March 8, augments its focal story with talk of politics and an entertaining array of music, some sung by leading lady, Nonhlanhla Kheswa, in the course of playing her character, Matilda, a woman whose husband realizes he’s been living in a fool’s paradise when he catches her with another man. Somehow all the creative team can do is not enough to keep “The Suit,” adapted from Themba’s novel by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon, from seeming too slight to be the only piece of theater on a bill. What Brook and colleagues present is enjoyable and moving, but at 75 minutes, it leaves you with an appetite for something to follow. I would propose to “The Suit’s” producers that they consider adding an opening one-act, possibly from another story by Themba, or that they proceed from “The Suit” to a musical evening featuring Kheswa, her able castmates, Ivanno Jeremiah and Jordan Barbour, and the marvelous musicians who make a concert of “The Suit’s” accompanying score, Arthur Astier, Mark Christine, and Mark Kavuma, all because when “The Suit” ended, I didn’t feel ready to leave the theater and was totally enjoying the wit and liveliness Astier, Christine, and Kavuma brought to the production.
“The Suit” has a simple story. Jeremiah’s character, Philomen, is a lawyer who, like most blacks in pre-Mandela South Africa, has to live in a district set aside by the ruling white class for indigenous Africans. He and his friend, played by Barbour fear the government may move their settlement further distant from the fringes of Johannesburg, but for now, Jeremiah’s character, has a relatively pleasant life with a job that fulfills him and a wife, Matilda, he adores. Knowing he make breakfast for Matilda and served it to her in bed with a smile and kiss leavens Jeremiah’s character’s day
One day his world is shaken when a friend tells him women in Sophiatown, the suburb where Philomen and Matilda live, have seen a man enter Philomen’s house at the same time every morning, a time that approximates when Philomen catches his bus, for three weeks.
Stricken with a combination of disbelief and anger, Philomen changes course and heads home to glimpse a man running out a window while Matilda nervously pretends to be making their bed. “Look at that,” Philomen says to Matilda while feigning surprise and amusement, “There’s a man running from our street in his underwear.”
The man has left behind evidence of Matilda’s flagrante delicto, a suit, complete with tie, placed neatly on a hanger. Coolly, without any rancor in his voice or tension in his body, he tells Matilda if he ever catches her with another man, he’ll kill her. In the meantime, he uses her lover, Kay-Kay’s, suit as a symbol. He makes the suit a visitor in his and Matilda’s home. It occupies a third chair at dinner. It is brought out to sit with the company when guests arrive. Matilda rarely has a minute when she is not reminded of her infidelity by Philomen trotting out Kay-Kay’s suit and making her tend to it in some humiliating way. Even when it seems time and happy occasions have mitigated Matilda’s transgression and earned her Philomen’s renewed affection, the suit intervenes to put all back in perspective. All of this from a man who, before Matilda’s lapse, says he believes a woman should have some independence and sees no need to put his wife in her place.
The authors and the creative team find ways to vary the story. They show Philomen going out for drinks and fun with his friends. They show Matilda singing on a few different occasions. Kheswa does a wonderful job with Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s song that has found new popularity recently, “Feeling Good,” Billie Holiday’s haunting “Strange Fruit,” which was written about the American South but resounds when applied to South African politics, and a Fadhili Williams tune, “Malaika,” made famous by Miriam Makeba. “Malaika” is a bit ironic because it tells the story of man who must give up true love with his “angel” because he can’t afford to marry and keep her. Musical sequences leaven and extend “The Suit” but not enough to give it the status of being a full play instead of a sketch.
A third character, played with jovial spirit and casual ease by Jordan Barbour, gives “The Suit” some extra diversion but, again, not enough to make it a totally fulfilling work.
In the case of a play like “The Suit,” it may be best to savor what is on stage rather than mourn over what is not there or how quickly the good fleets by.
Brook and his collaborators make their play, such as it is, interesting and poignant. What looks like a clever, benign ploy on Philomen’s part, a solution that avoids temper, violence, or recrimination, turns cruel and heartless. Themba’s plot turns the tide. Philomen’s hurt and betrayal, his reversal from contentment to bitterness, fades as the audience begins to feel empathy with the unforgiven and constantly punished Matilda. We begin to recoil at Philemon and the strictness of his discipline and take pity on Matilda as she animates Kay-Kay’s suit, caressing it and putting her arm through a sleeve so her fingers can act as his massaging her biceps, shoulder, and back. Kheswa is as sensuous in these scenes as she is musical and spirited is her singing sequences.
Politics remain an undercurrent, and it seems clear the outlying suburb that will replace Sophiatown is Soweto, one of the places where the struggles for freedom for all South Africans was fomented. In spite of sporadic discussions about Apartheid and its oppression, “The Suit” concentrates mostly on Matilda’s mistake and Philomen’s.
Ivanno Jeremiah is excellent as the exacting Philomen. He beams with satisfaction as he eats his breakfast then prepares Matilda’s in early scenes. His conveys confusion and torment as he rushes home to see if the rumors about Matilda are true. He maintains a cool and unperturbed demeanor as he announces the place Kay-Kay’s suit will have in Matilda’s life and stays true to his word. He carries on with natural camaraderie with his buddies in a bar but shows his disapproval of Matilda and his satisfaction in her discomfort. Jeremiah’s is a complete and nuanced performance of a man who goes from blithe trust to being as stringent and dispassionate as a prison guard.
Beautiful, radiant-faced Nonhlanhla Kheswa displays a gamut of reactions. She shows pleasure when in the arms of both her husband and her lover. When Philomen realizes infidelity, Kheswa makes a face that makes it difficult to tell if she is upset about her fleeing lover, truly ashamed of her betrayal of the adoring Philomen, or both.
Singing is second nature to Matilda and a great talent of Kheswa’s. Her song sequences are special and bind you more to Matilda than her ordeal alone would.
Jordan Barbour gives vigor to “The Suit.” His character is upbeat. Though affected by Apartheid, he determines to go about his business as best he can within the boundaries he is forced to acknowledge. As a friend, he is sincere and gives Philomen a sounding board to whom he can vent. Barbour’s character is also reasonable and speaks seriously to Philomen about his treatment of Matilda. These scenes resonate exponentially at the end of “The Suit.”
Like Kheswa, Barbour, who was born in Willingboro, N.J., is a fine musical performer who shows flair in his jazzy number.
Music is integral to “The Suit.” Supervised by Krawczyk, it covers several periods and styles. Astier, Christine, and Kavuma plays constantly in the background as “The Suit” proceeds. Their selections can be a show in themselves, the concert and incidental music on the sidelines being as engaging as the play without stealing attention from it. In addition to making great music, the band members are enlisted to do some acting when scenes need extra characters or someone has to portray Kay-Kay. Every time they’re called on, and in everything they have to do, Astier, Christine, and Kavuma meet their mark.
In significant ways, “The Suit” is a great success. If only it was a tad meatier and didn’t seem so slight.
“The Suit” runs through Saturday, March 8 at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street (just west of Broad and Chestnut), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $75 to $35 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1999 or going online to www.princemusictheater.org.