Review: Penumbra Examines Age vs. Wisdom

The deceptive simplicity of “Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking.”

It’s hard to imagine why Abe and Henry would even sit near each other, much less speak to each other, considering the contempt they’ve built up for each other over the years. They make Grumpy Old Men look like a Disney film. But that’s exactly what makes these characters in Two Old Black Men Just Sitting Around Talking, affectionately filled out by James Craven and Abdul Salaam El Razzac in its world premiere at Penumbra Theatre through May 23, cut so close to the bone: They don’t hate each other in a cinematic, Odd Couple way—they’re not mere curmudgeons. They’re bludgeons. Which is to say, they’re not wizened and harmless, they’re just old and vulnerable, still capable of hurting each other even as they’re more likely to be hurt by others.

There are plenty of weaknesses in the play: The men’s shared love for a woman in their past is more convoluted in the telling than it needs to be and is set up to provide the primary dramatic tension, but slips away for extended periods. The broad humor of codgers behaving badly, while rarely failing to amuse, is perhaps overplayed, making the transition to quieter conversations both more welcome and more awkward, and several scenes end weakly with pat lines. But the premise pulls you through well enough: What are these two men going to do with—or without—each other?

The play speaks well to the reality of Penumbra, whose founding members have been comrades for decades now, wiser to each other and the world perhaps, but still raising questions onstage without pretending to have all the answers. And for all its horsing around, the play eloquently describes aging and the human condition, the frightening yet marvelous reality that we’re unlikely to get life before it gets us in the end.

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