With Manhattan Theatre Club's world premiere production of The New Englanders at New York City Center, playwright Jeff Augustin set out to write, in his own words, a “quiet, existential” story that reflected the full and complex reality of the life of a black man that wasn’t about race. Of course, it’s about race in the same way it’s about a couple of married gay men raising a girl, and it’s about reconciling your teenaged expectations of your life with the way it actually turns out. And it’s about committing to your relationships and being truthful in them. Because that’s who the characters are and what they are going through. But The New Englanders isn’t meant as a teaching tool about or for the white gaze, as Mr. Augustin makes perfectly clear in a note in the Playbill.
The New Englanders’ central characters are a modern family. The parents Aaron (Teagle F. Bougere) and Samuel (Patrick Breen) are the only gay dads in town we are reliably informed by Atlas (Adam Langdon), the town’s only weed dealer (a high school student who also works at Chuck E. Cheese – he’s saving up for college and doesn’t partake himself). Oh, there are plenty of lesbian moms, but only one set of gay dads. It’s how Atlas was able to identify whose parent Samuel is when they meet at Chuck E. Cheese since Eisa (Kara Young), Samuel and Aaron’s daughter, is a friend of his. But as Atlas has mistakenly taken Samuel for the buyer he was waiting for; he hastens to reassure him (falsely) that his daughter is not a client.
Their family is unconventional in other ways as well. Aaron is a writer and Samuel is a tech salesman. Samuel is Jewish and white; Aaron is Christian and black. When they decided to have a baby, they used Aaron’s sperm and the donated egg of an anonymous white woman Aaron explains because “A mixed race kid was sort of a compromise. I couldn’t have raised a white child cause I wouldn’t know how to prepare them for the world really, not being as privileged.” When they made that decision, they moved from the city to the suburbs where Aaron got a job as a reporter for a local newspaper, but Samuel’s job was so lucrative, he spends one week in the city and one week in the suburbs. It’s created a distance between both him and Aaron and him and Eisa.
When Eisa, now a high school senior who is off to NYU in the fall, is assigned a vision board of where she wants to be in 10 years by her English teacher Miss Charpie (Crystal Finn), she starts questioning her dads separately about how they feel about the way their lives have turned out. Is it what they had imagined when they were her age? They both duck the question by saying they love her but it’s obvious they’re not happy and they couldn’t have dreamed of this existence. Afraid of failure, and not wanting to be limited by what she can envision now, Eisa hands in a blank vision board as a political act. This is unacceptable to Miss Charpie who will either give her an F on the assignment or the opportunity to redo it. A battle of wills erupts between the two that escalates to heights neither could have anticipated or wanted that threatens both their futures.
The New Englanders does just what Mr. Augustin set out to do. It captures the life of a group of people with all of its nuances. It is absorbing, funny, insightful, heartbreaking, and relatable. It does not preach or proselytize. Adam Langdon as Atlas and Kara Young as Eisa give outstanding performances. Mr. Langdon has impeccable comic timing and is absolutely charming. I can see him turning into a leading man someday. Ms. Young is a force to be reckoned with as Eisa. Contemplative, fiery, manipulative, and ultimately genuinely remorseful, she rang true at every moment.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"Startling plot developments halfway through the play’s swift 100 minutes jumble the tone and strain credibility until we no longer know what genre — or even what world — we’re in. Nor can we discern in the aftermath what point the playwright is making."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"While it is only 100 minutes long, however, The New Englanders feels unfocused and overstretched. Despite solid performances from veteran actors (under the workmanlike direction of Saheem Ali), the grown-ups—especially Samuel and Raul (a wasted Javier Muñoz), Aaron’s long-lost first love—seem more like plot points than people."
Raven Snook for Time Out New York
"This is the rare play that may actually be too short to achieve its dramatic intentions — Augustin’s story might actually be more suited to a 10-episode limited TV series where he could flesh out all of the characters so that big plot twist doesn’t seem so jarringly out of place. That said, there are some strongly written scenes throughout here, and Adam Langdon is a real standout as a white high school classmate who crushes on Eisa and bonds with her over their shared appreciation of one of “the oldies”: Lauryn Hill."
Thom Geier for The Wrap