“The doctor will see you now” takes on a whole new meaning in “Rasheeda Speaking,” a comedy-drama that’s jagged, jolting and just plain terrific.
It’s also an acting master class, thanks to peerless performances by Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest, who play clerks in a surgeon’s office.
That medical setting makes an ideal place for Chicago writer Joel Drake Johnson to dissect evergreen themes of race, office politics and power.
Darren Goldstein is smugly charming as Dr. David Williams, who’s happy with himself. But he’s only half-thrilled with his two-person clerical staff.
He likes amiable Ileen (Wiest). She’s put in eight good years and loves her boss and job. Ileen’s white. Dr. Williams doesn’t care for Jaclyn (Pinkins). She’s worked for him for six months and besides a “terrible” attitude, he says, “she never looks me in the eye.” Jaclyn’s black.
Williams enlists Ileen, a reluctant and inept spy, to secretly log Jaclyn’s missteps — tardiness, rudeness with clients — to help him build case for dismissal.
A dust-up between her and elderly cancer patient Rose (an amusing Patricia Conolly) doesn’t bode well for Jaclyn, who observes that Williams “looks right through me” and that the office air is “full of toxins.” Even so, she’s not going anywhere if she can help it.
In this claustrophobic universe, Johnson’s dialogue is sharp and probing. A story Jaclyn tells about white men on a bus is a stinging aria. A specious incident involving a girl and a box filled with American Girl dolls is scathingly hilarious. Such originality makes it easier to look past the play’s flaws, like Rose’s convenient and casual racism.
Cynthia Nixon, who makes her debut as a director in this New Group presentation, can’t patch that sort of script problem. But she guides the cast through twists and turns, ups and downs with surgical precision.
Wiest, with her one-of-a-kind voice and body language, completely convinces as she goes from apologetic and accommodating to apoplectic. Pinkins nails all of Jaclyn’s many moods: combative, contrite and cunning. Both stars squeeze every delicious and poisonous drop from these juicy characters.
“Why can’t white people and black people just get along?” Jaclyn asks. Like the playwright, she doesn’t really expect an answer.