Jackson, an African American lawyer who graduated from Exeter, Harvard, and Harvard Law, is returning to his gentrifying 'hood in an unnamed city. He buys a spacious rehabbed apartment and persuades his white girlfriend, Suzy – a math teacher who has been suspended for losing her temper – to move in. Or maybe it's those buffed wooden floors and that bountiful natural light that do the persuading.
Joining them is Don, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who is Jackson's best friend from Exeter. White, from a privileged background, but unaccountably troubled, Don has been in and out of rehab. He and Suzy have a tense relationship that will grow only more fraught.
That's the set-up for Tracey Scott Wilson's Buzzer, being given an engrossing Philadelphia premiere at Theatre Exile under the edgy direction of Matt Pfeiffer. The buzzer of the title is at the entryway, the tenuous divide between inside and outside, safety and danger, in a neighborhood whose new businesses haven't entirely softened its rough character. It doesn't help that the eponymous device buzzer is broken – the kind of flaw a conscientious home inspector surely would have flagged.
Wilson (The Story, The Good Negro) is a co-producer and writer for FX's superb series The Americans. Buzzer, an intermissionless 95 minutes, lacks the subtlety of that show, but it does showcase Wilson's gifts for creating lean dialogue and for stoking tension.
As a meditation on gentrification, Buzzer is reminiscent of Bruce Norris' recent Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park, itself a riff on Lorraine Hansberry's classic 1959 desegregation drama A Raisin in the Sun. Wilson's twist is that the gentrifying agent here is African American, showing (in a sense) how far we have come.
Nevertheless, racial and class resentments bring neighborhood tensions to a boil. Suzy, ignoring young black men in the street, ignites a hail of harassment that includes raw, sexually demeaning language. When she recounts the insults to a sympathetic Don, her vulnerability draws them closer, inevitably catalyzing violence, betrayal, and inadvertent self-revelation.
Wilson chooses not to give the neighbors, street gangs, or any forces threatening this uneasy ménage a direct say in the proceedings. Instead, she devotes considerable energy to sketching the complex web of connections among Jackson (Akeem Davis), Suzy (Alex Keiper), and Don (Matteo Scammell).
Keiper and Scammell, whom Pfeiffer recently directed in Philadelphia Theatre Company's fine Hand to God, acquit themselves well as two addicts (Suzy's drug of choice is nicotine) who are too alike for comfort. But it is Akeem Davis' Jackson who anchors the ensemble. A powerful presence, Davis makes clear that old wounds fester beneath the Ivy polish, and he even imbues the role with some sly humor.
Thom Weaver's simple set gives us rows of windows that seem like eyes, and the intimacy of the Exile space increases the show's impact. The interpersonal drama in Buzzer at times sags, or seems tangential to the gentrification theme. But Wilson does manage to convey both the allure and precariousness of urban pioneering.