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Audra McDonald wows in mild show

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Ultimately appreciating “Ohio State Murders,” which opened Thursday on Broadway, first takes putting the bombastic title out of your mind. Playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s 1992 drama, you Netflix junkies, doesn’t share the DNA of “Mindhunter” or “Dahmer.”  

Moderately, the considerate revival from director Kenny Leon explores the racist climate of a Midwestern university throughout the Fifties, and the monsters that such prejudices can unleash even at a supposed place of upper learning. 


Theater review

1 hour and quarter-hour, with no intermission. On the James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 W. 48 St.

That shouldn’t be to say that the play by Kennedy, who’s making her far-too-belated Broadway debut at 91, is a drag. It’s an absorbing, observant and admirably peculiar character study with stinging parallels to today. What the one-act drama comes just wanting is being meaty. 

With stories nominally about killings and who committed them — like, say, “Death on the Nile” — audiences are conditioned to expect a riveting construct to an explosive revelation. While we learn concerning the deaths early on and there are some horrific shocks along the way in which, that’s simply not the play that Kennedy has written.     

But she has crafted a formidable acting challenge in the shape of Suzanne — a renowned author who’s finally confronting her tragic past — who’s played in a charming tug-of-war by Audra McDonald. 

Suzanne (Audra McDonald) reveals the best tragedy of her life in “Ohio State Murders” on Broadway. Photo by Richard Termine

Suzanne is methodical and nice, and has over many years built up a wall against the large pain she’s lived through. She begins by chatting with a crowd to elucidate, once and for all, the violent imagery that pervades her work. “Bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead father, dead Nazis, dying Jesus,” she says, to call a number of. Suzanne was, we’re told, inspired by her struggles at Ohio State University.

She was a young black student who, due to her skin color, was not allowed to pursue the main of her dreams — English. But she does manage to enroll in a number of classes and is especially gripped by a course taught by Professor Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham), who’s surprised by her superior essay-writing abilities. 

Watch McDonald’s face as a rapt Suzanne listens to Hampshire read aloud “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” Her one escape is literature and her eyes movingly well up at Hardy’s prose. We discover that there are more complex layers to her outpouring of emotion because the show goes on, nevertheless it’s gorgeous within the moment. These will develop into a few of her final completely happy days.

Suzanne then becomes tousled with Hampshire, and so begins the shattering of her life.

Professor Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham) teaches Suzanne's (Audra McDonald) English course. Professor Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham) teaches Suzanne’s (McDonald) English course. Photo by Richard Termine

McDonald is an actress who radiates optimism and smiles often. And that positivity makes her agonized characters, akin to Suzanne, absolutely fascinating to behold. From start to complete, there may be an engrossing battle raging inside the educational. Suzanne is desperate not to point out her cards, at first, because meaning the oppressive world could have won. Even after a terrible event befalls her, she refuses to go away Columbus. She’s filled with stoic determination. 

McDonald smartly finds contrarian moments for her careful professorial facade to crack and every one is affecting. When her gleaming face suddenly turns hurt, cold, indignant or lifeless, it has an enormous, wordless punch.

The lion’s share of the show is hers, but Pinkham, who’s best known for his roles in musicals, has a striking scene. During one other lecture late within the play, as Suzanne looks on with a polar opposite facial features this time, his eyes are so red and strained it looks like he hasn’t slept in days. It’s easy but scary.

Beowulf Boritt's set references a ravine that Suzanne can never forget. Beowulf Boritt’s set references a ravine that Suzanne can always remember. Photo by Richard Termine

The drama is lent some weight by Beowulf Boritt’s borderline operatic set, with a split rock face within the back meant to evoke an all-important ravine alongside skewed bookshelves that cover the stage. Within the gap between the rocks, snow rains down for nearly the complete play and keeps us uncomfortable.

Less successful is Justin Ellington’s sound design that, while stemming from Suzanne’s non-linear memories, is occasionally so distracting and contrasting with the lines of dialogue the characters are speaking that the audience tunes out each. 

Mister Fitzgerald, Lizan Mitchell and Abigail Stephenson all capably play small roles, nevertheless it’s really Ohio State Audra.

Kennedy’s play shouldn’t be one to like and even necessarily be bowled over by. Still, her drama gives us a chill, some inquiries to ponder and a number one performance that’s a wow.

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