The August Wilson Theatre is electric prior to “Pass Over,” Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s play that opened Sunday night on Broadway.
Such high spirits are unusual for a non-musical drama. But there’s a helluvalot more buzz here than you’d get ahead of your average production of “Waiting for Godot,” on which this play is partly based.
The party vibe is because “Pass Over” is the first play to open on Broadway since New York theaters were shut down in March 2020. For those of us who’ve missed Broadway, it feels incredible to be back — even after having to present a vaccination card, photo ID and ticket before walking through a metal detector.
Was this one worth the flight? Mostly. “Pass Over” is a compelling, if flawed, way to start things off in Times Square. Nwandu’s central conceit is spot-on: Take the format of Samuel Beckett’s classic “Waiting for Godot” and exchange his stuck-in-place duo Didi and Gogo — “Let’s go.” “We can’t.” — for two black men on a generic city street corner. More modern than Sam’s tramps, but just as immobile. The iconic tree is now a street lamp; grass and dirt are cement and asphalt.
Our two guys are Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood), and their lives consist of small talk and discussing how and when they’ll leave. They like to list their “promised land top 10” in Nwandu’s muscular — often very funny — poetry.
“Collard greens and pinto beans … brown bunnies … my bright red superman kite … drawer full uh clean socks,” Moses says.
“OK, see, now dats a good one,” Kitch replies. (These are Nwandu’s dialogue spellings.)
A few folks might be offended by some of the conversation — the N-word is used a lot — but the writer uses our wincing to stir up a debate about language ownership.
The duo’s infinite routine is interrupted by the arrival of Mister (Gabriel Ebert) — a smiley Southern dandy with a picnic basket full of food (like Mary Poppins’ magic bag) and a penchant for making racist faux pas — and Ossifer (also played by Ebert), a cartoony cop.
Hill and Smallwood have a lively rapport that makes us believe they really have been with each other constantly for a thousand years. Hill, in particular, reveals both sweetness and immense passion. The dance-like movement director Dayna Taymor gives the pair perfectly suits Nwandu’s musical text.
Those scenes with Ebert — a fantastic physical actor, as we saw in “Matilda” and “Brief Encounter” — are silly and frightening, and the quick shift in tone really grabs you by the collar.
And then, after a half hour of sagging tension, comes the wonky ending. Nwandu has been changing up her last scene since “Pass Over” premiered in Chicago in 2017, and this is its oddest iteration yet. I won’t spoil it with too much detail, but there’s a deus ex machina, a coup de théâtre, whatever you want to call it, and a much pricier finale. Instead of the outpouring of emotion, it intends to bring on, the sequence evokes a university classroom. Not a pulsing drama.
However, I admire Nwandu’s aim with her alterations. A previous ending, which you can see on Amazon Prime as directed by Spike Lee, was meant to shock with confrontation and explicit, obvious politics. Today, the play fades out instead with a spirit of unity and a dream of something better still to come. That’s the right choice — it just needs to be clearer.