Roundabout Underground’s production of Jiréh Breon Holder’s Too Heavy for Your Pocket is perfectly fine, but its across-the-board traditionalism runs contrary to the type of work ideally presented at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s black box space, especially in relation to what normally occupies this venerable institution’s other venues.
(“Across-the-board” may be a clichéd phrase, but here it subtly references the wooden boards that comprise much of the set wrapping around the audience, which is perhaps the most imaginative component of the production. On the figurative and literal surface, the trees painted on the boards, and the grass underneath the audiences’ and characters’ feet — even for interior scenes — denotes the country setting, but these outdoor-signifiers also symbolically emphasize how African-Americans were unable to keep the sociopolitical currents of the 1960s raging outside their penetrable doors from affecting their household lives)
Given Roundabout’s origins as a specializer in classic theatre, its predominantly straightforward revivals of uninspired play choices can be forgiven for usually occupying their Broadway houses (the dubious practice of a nonprofit leasing them out to commercial runs is another matter entirely, and one ultimately deserving of a full piece, not just this parenthetical). But this staid trend amplifies the importance of artistic director Todd Haimes and Co. choosing more daringly and challengingly inventive fare for their off-Broadway theatres.
The comfortable conventionality of Too Heavy for Your Pocket could’ve been a better fit at the Laura Pels, which is bigger than the black box and thus must attract wider audiences. Since Roundabout Underground is technically only devoted to supporting young playwrights, the program can’t really be faulted for developing insufficiently-visionary texts, but they don’t necessarily need to be fed to the black box every time. By picking the right space for Too Heavy for Your Pocket, the powers-that-be would’ve made room for another project that continued the Underground’s impressive legacy of producing work unlike anything on the rest of Roundabout’s stages.
Compounding the problem, Margot Bordelon’s direction fails to consider and thus compensate for the structural oddities of the space that can, and here do, hinder the audience’s viewing experience. Due to the auditorium combining minimally raked seating with an un-elevated stage, the front row provides the only unobstructed sight-lines. The mind tends to wander when the back of someone’s head keeps blocking the view, and this momentary disengagement often inspires random cognitive queries largely detached from the proceedings, such as:
Where should the line be drawn between musicals and plays with music? My vote: If the characters sing multiple times, it’s the former. Thus, Too Heavy for Your Pocket is a musical in my book.
The point of the production obviously isn’t to prompt such internal debates, a testament to its general ineffectiveness.