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‘Confederates’ a timely look at racism in the digital age

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Journalist Will (Richard Prioleau) hits the campaign trail with colleague Stephanie (Tasha Lawrence) in TheatreWorks’ “Confederates” at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

New York playwright Suzanne Bradbeer’s enormously clever drama, “Confederates,” world premiering at TheatreWorks after a 2015 staging at the company’s New Works Festival, is so engrossing that one misstep is not a deal-breaker.

That misstep: A character who ought to be at least somewhat sympathetic but isn’t, throwing the play’s central exploration a bit out of whack.

But with its snappy dialogue and elegant staging on designer Andrew Boyce’s rotating, minimalist set, “Confederates” is entertaining and thought-provoking throughout.

Two journalists working for the same newspaper — Stephanie, a tough, cynical white woman who has all the play’s best lines (a pitch-perfect Tasha Lawrence, and let’s see more of her on local stages, please) and her younger, African-American colleague, Will (an equally impressive Richard Prioleau) — are on the campaign trail of a presidential candidate who Stephanie thinks is the real deal.

When the candidate’s young-adult daughter, Maddie, shows up, it’s Will’s chance to get an interview with her — they were in an arts summer camp together as kids, so there’s an immediate connection.

For her part, Maddie’s glad to see him, because she had a crush on him back then. The interview is a sure thing.

Then Maddie receives some perfectly awful news. A college art major, she did something ill-considered — something that could hamper her father’s chance of getting elected if news of it goes viral. To give only a little bit away, let’s just say it was a project that involved the confederate flag.

Maybe Will can help her out of this mess.

But maybe he’ll see it as a big scoop, one that will make his career. Or one that, if he ignores it, could break his career.

This is not the first story about journalistic ethics to appear in recent times. However, it’s complicated by racial issues, which lend it an intensity that serves the plot well.

But there’s a certain lack of clarity in the character of Maddie. She’s meant to be both an intelligent college student and also a loose cannon — a combination that could conceivably work but that instead is distracting and perplexing and tends to undermine the conflict.

And she’s played, by Jessica Lynn Carroll, as hysterical and little girlish in both her voice and mannerisms. It’s a grating performance from an actor who’s normally right on target.

Otherwise, director Lisa Rothe is well in control of this taut and timely piece.

REVIEW: Confederates

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto

When: Tuesdays-Sundays, closes Aug. 7

Tickets: $19-$80

Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org

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