Whodatapes review: a “70s intimate comedy after a bottle of red wine”

Whodatapes is in its third staging, which suggests a kind of continuous play as constructed by static surroundings and moving objects. But the idea has taken on a new life when staged with songs, other characters, some significant theatrical moments.

This play by two-time Pulitzer finalist Naomi Iizuka sometimes reads like a “70s intimate comedy after a bottle of red wine.” The setup is this: An elderly black man named Jake (Duwan Cofflenberger) drifts into the middle of a Connecticut town after being hospitalized for months. Though it’s common knowledge that Jake never went to Yale (he was never in school, anyway), his neighbors are suspicious of his presence after he falls victim to carelessness and a sudden loss of cognition.

At the center of the play is Shirley (Juju Chang), a middle-aged Chinese woman who lived next door to Jake. She takes Jake in and offers him some free food, in exchange for taking care of his yard and groceries. Jake lives alone and in general is a bit of a loner, and the woman lets him keep watch when he’s watching television. She becomes particularly close to Jake when her neighbors gradually lose interest in him. It’s right that Shirley comes to provide some emotional comfort for Jake at the moment his mind starts messing up, if only because of the inevitability of the situation. But the potentially sweet moments in this somewhat dark, and sometimes emotionally desperate, play are foiled by its bold blurs of tone and random moments of silliness.

Whodatapes is a competent production — especially in its cast. Cofflenberger does fine as Jake, and Chang, an expert entertainer, really sells the shaggy/sweet, gently bungling family that makes up Shirley. Some unexpected moments of comic brilliance occur here, like Shirley’s naive choice to drag a quail and duck from the woods and into the house. The playwright has Shirley make choices of dinnerware and appliances with such gusto that, while creating a hammy charm, they contribute to a slapstick comedy tone that doesn’t seem logical. The play pushes emotional buttons, yet the bumpy dance music, such as that in the scene involving Jake’s dementia, builds without a right swing.

Yet the show’s silliness at times clashes with the seriousness of Shirley’s story — and with some other meaningful moments in the play. As Jake attempts to reclaim his sense of humor and start making time for someone other than the TV, Shirley is having to deal with the realization that what was once known as Jake’s house now belongs to someone else. Both parties are stuck in the past, with Shirley trying to leave Jake behind while he hopes to stop flinching. Coda has been a strong play in each of its two previous productions, but here it lacks emotional depth.

This production is visually pleasant, but it has some wobbles as well. The juxtaposition of black scenery with black characters in the lobby and black suits and white shirts on stage, running about with guitars and over-sized balls, creates a certain resonance that could have been better shaded into more dignity. The bits on stage in which Jake sings and the characters speak English are bright and lively, or if they tend to get swallowed up in an arena, the hints are there to make them lively. Director Bill Poss has turned this show into a night out in a familiar set, and that might not have been such a bad idea.

Whodatapes Through March 10 | Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW | Tickets: $36 | Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org

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