26 May 2024
0 5 mins 1 mth

A simple request — for a glass of water — strikes a note of shivery menace in the world premiere of “A Jumping-Off Point.”

It’s early in Inda Craig-Galván’s engrossing and funny, if issue-packed, play, and we’re at the home of Leslie (Nikkole Salter), a Black writer who has just inked a deal with HBO. When her White acquaintance Andrew (Danny Gavigan), also a writer, barges in, their excruciatingly awkward chitchat is initially droll. Then he plants himself on her new sofa without permission and, in a hardened tone, all but demands the water. Suddenly, we get chilling insight into his sense of entitlement.

It’s just one of the memorable moments in this Round House Theatre production, a tale of privilege and storytelling in the era of prestige TV. With Salter’s now-ebullient, now-haughty Leslie radiating charisma and Gavigan’s Andrew serving as an alternately threatening and hilarious foil, “A Jumping-Off Point” is entertainment that speaks to urgent questions around representation, equity and power.

It does, admittedly, occasionally speak to those questions without subtlety. But that bluntness feels like a deliberate choice by dramatist and television writer Craig-Galván (a co-executive producer of ABC’s “Will Trent”). When Andrew invades Leslie’s living room, he’s there to level an explosive accusation: that she plagiarized a script he wrote when they were classmates in graduate school.

We never learn enough about this script — details about Leslie’s HBO show are also irritatingly vague and MacGuffin-y — but it seems to be about Black residents of the Mississippi Delta. Leslie considers Andrew’s script an egregious example of cultural appropriation, and their confrontation quickly escalates.

When Leslie asserts that the story was not Andrew’s to tell, he angrily retorts: “Does anybody tell you to not write about men? Or” — guessing at her height — “to only write about women who are five-foot-seven with brown hair?”

Fortunately, Craig-Galván relishes humor as well as debate. Through deft pacing and spot-on casting, director Jade King Carroll makes the comedy zing as the play barrels toward a final wry reveal (no spoilers here). In a running joke, the hapless Andrew admits to having held down a string of oddball day jobs, including upholsterer — a backstory that becomes funnier when he seeks to parlay that experience into writerly wisdom.

Gavigan’s marvelous performance, which moves from resentful and threatening into aw-shucks goofiness — the latter underscored by his initial rumpled, backward-baseball-cap look — adds hugely to the comedy. (Moyenda Kulemeka is costume designer.) The actor’s vulnerability underscores the play’s empathy toward the character: Andrew has some moral authority on his side. He is also, poignantly, a fish out of water in the high-flying-showrunner world conjured by Meghan Raham’s set, with its writers-room whiteboards and panel discussion setups.

The play’s third actor, an essential presence, also delivers both comedy and depth. As Leslie’s quick-with-the-quip pal Miriam, Cristina Pitter provides perspective on the story’s central conflict: “So fluffy,” Miriam gushes of the pancakes served at a breakfast get-together, while Leslie and Andrew all but brawl. Miriam also allows the play to explore the nuances of friendship. When the character is hanging out with Leslie — usually bantering over red wine — their affectionate rapport is touching.

The tentpole offering in Round House’s third National Capital New Play Festival, “A Jumping-Off Point” largely makes social commentary diverting, not unlike Morgan Gould’s “Jennifer Who Is Leaving,” the feminism-laced humdinger at last year’s event. (This year, the festival also includes several developmental readings.)

Moreover, at a time when the television industry often seems to be poaching theater talent, it’s fun to glimpse the overlap through the eyes of Craig-Galván, an achiever in both fields. Leslie exults in her deal with HBO — or is it Max? — but still thinks lovingly of the stage. Describing a style of community-based theater she reveres, she sighs to Miriam: “It’s life. It’s giving.”

“A Jumping-Off Point,” through May 5 at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md. About 90 minutes, no intermission. roundhousetheatre.org.

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