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Company One Theatre ends its current season with the world premiere of emerging playwright Josh Wilder’s brash, funny and touching urban fairy tale “Leftovers.” As the capstone of Company One’s 19th season, “Leftovers” is a triumphant finish, following up on the remarkable “Hype Man: A Break Beat Play” and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Wig Out!” This production also marks Company One’s residency at Boston's historic Strand Theatre.
Set in Philadelphia, the play addresses the dreams and disappointments of a pair of brothers who are on the cusp of adulthood. Jalil (Kadahj Bennett) has just graduated high school -- no mean feat for himself as well as his entire family, considering his mother, Raquelle (Lyndsay Allyn Cox) has been raising the brothers on her own -- but his sense of achievement is clouded by the fact that his father, Chris (Colgan B. Johnson), didn’t attend the ceremony, and by the uncertain prospects for his future.
Jalil’s younger brother Kwamaine (Christian Scales) is more optimistic and, perhaps, more imaginative. When a giant dandelion suddenly pushes its way through the sidewalk next to their home, Kwamaine immediately grasps its significance. This, he figures, must be a magical flower capable of granting wishes.
Kwamaine’s reasoning is both innocent and sound: Even if the little dandelions he and Jalil used to make wishes on never delivered, surely a monster dandelion like this one will follow through. Kwamaine tests his theory by wishing for a couple of day passes to Six Flags amusement park, but he adds another, more nebulous, request — that he, his brother, his mother and his father can be “ ‘Cosby Show’ happy.” Kwamaine, it turns out, is a devoted fan of the seminal ’80s comedy, and watches it in reruns every day. In the absence of his own father, the show’s loving patriarch, Cliff Huxtable, serves as a role model. (In a case of life shaping art, Wilder -- who began writing “Leftovers” before Bill Cosby’s current controversies -- has skillfully folded those developments into the play.)
Wishes have consequences, of course, but Wilder doesn’t steer us into a classic “three wishes” conundrum. Instead, he explores the more complicated and far-reaching repercussions of aspirations and the impact that one person’s fulfillment can have on those around him. The Six Flags day passes do magically appear, but a friend of the boys’, a neighborhood hustler named Dijon (Irvin Scott), resents their windfall and sees in the dandelion a chance to enrich himself by peddling wishes to everyone else on the block. Meantime, Jalil’s wish for Chris to be a better father starts to come true, but while the time they spend brings them closer it also poses new challenges … not the least of which is that Chris starts to gravitate back home, to the consternation of a skeptical and still-hurting Raquelle.
When the brothers literally follow their dreams to a magical plane (and encounter Cliff Huxtable himself, played by Marc Pierre), issues of trust, forgiveness and hero worship all come sharply into focus. Happy endings are possible, but they can be painful to earn, and the process of growing into the best version of yourself can reveal more about your own flaws and weaknesses than you might want to face.
Director Summer L. Williams shows us the characters’ vulnerabilities without neglecting their sharp edges, while scenic designer Erik D. Diaz creates a storybook backdrop (a cardboard skyline) against which to set the worn dignity of the family house, a brick structure that has seen better days but remains stubbornly solid. Miranda Giurleo’s costumes have a similarly worn look, but they also manage to feel contemporary and streetwise-stylish. Anna Drummond’s sound design grounds the show in a realistic cityscape of distant traffic noise and sprinkles in auditory magic at the right spots, though at the opening night performance the audio for the dialogue was a little indistinct and out of balance (a problem that seemed to resolve in Act 2).
The venue itself -- the century-old city-owned Strand Theatre, which has benefited in recent years from renovations and upgrades -- feels appropriately grand for the play’s flights of fancy. (Its location also feels key to the play’s themes: As playwright Josh Wilder says in an interview contained in the program, “I kind of feel like Jalil and Kwamaine could live in Dorchester too, like Jalil and Kwamaine probably walk past The Strand all of the time, but never got the chance to go in.”)
It’s Wilder’s writing, brought to life by a committed cast of talented actors, which shines brightest here. Old-school fairy tales have traditionally not shied away from the hard truths of life (if anything, they served to illustrate and underscore harsh realities), and blending magic with issues of socio-economic status seems a tricky business in any case. But Wilder succeeds: He creates a true and touching story from these seemingly disparate elements and, in the process, he proves himself an emerging playwright to watch.
Company One Theatre's production of “Leftovers” continues through Aug. 18 at Boston's Strand Theatre.
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