“The Whipping Man” at Actor’s Theater examines the complex and unpredictable kinds of personal relationships that slavery in the US created. Three men, all practicing religious Jews, though two of them are black (the white one used to own the other two, except that the end of the Civil War just changed that), hide out in the war-battered house that they all grew up in and wait for the beginning of their new world. They decide to celebrate Passover with an improvised Sedar, during the course of which several long-held “family secrets” come out, as well as important news about the fate of several members of the “family” who aren’t around at the moment. It’s an old-fashioned drama in that way, with revelation followed by yelling followed by more revelation. It works, though. Old-fashioned structures often do.
Relative newcomer Biko Eisen-Martin as John is the stand-out cast member. You can’t keep your eyes off of him (the fact that he is sexy as hell helps). He plays “angry, young, justified and black” while somehow managing to foreground the vulnerability and fear that often motivates that role. Michael Genet overplays Simon a bit, I’m sorry to say. The way he claps his hands and dances around after almost every sentence got old pretty quickly. If he had better timing, maybe, this characterization would have worked, but it just felt awkward, like the physical movements were tacked on, affectations, rather than coming naturally out of his personality. Frankie J. Alvarez, who plays the white guy, Caleb — son of the man who actually owns the house, and used to own the slaves — does a decent job with a character whose tenuous likeability depends on the audience forgiving him for several enormous things that can only be called “sins” in the context of this narrative. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was maybe supposed to like him more. Or like him less. I still don’t know. I guess that was the goal?