Drama builds in SF Playhouse’s ‘From Red to Black’

Why would an “average white guy from suburbia” have been on a New York subway platform in the wee hours of the morning? How did he land on the tracks, where he was killed by an oncoming train? Did the only other people on the platform, two young African-American men, push him, and if so, why? Or did he jump — and if so, why? And why might a suspect sign a false confession?

New York playwright Rhett Rossi’s new play, “From Red to Black”— a world premiere in San Francisco Playhouse’s new-plays Sandbox Series — is part police procedural of the sort seen on a good TV show, part slowly unfurling mystery, and part social commentary. Rossi also examines various relationships.

There’s the too-predictably adverse one between the two white detectives on the case: the older, old-school cop, Mitchell (given an uncharacteristically weak performance by the usually impressive Charles Shaw Robinson, who seemed uncomfortable and also stumbled over his lines on opening night) and the younger, college- educated “good cop,” Flanagan (a strong Matthew Baldiga).

There’s the malleable and manipulative one between each of the detectives and the suspected perp William (a tough and vulnerable Isiah Thompson).

And there’s the initially eager-to-please but eventually oddly evasive way that Lawrence, the deceased’s boss at the investment firm where he worked (a low-key, convincing portrayal by Michael Shipley), responds to the canny Mitchell’s persistent questioning.

From the fairly formulaic opening scenes, “From Red to Black” ratchets up the action, glancing at the criminal justice system and its inherent racism, and reaching toward a certain moral complexity.

If only the layers of interaction among the characters were not frustratingly glossed over (and, in the conflict between the two cops, even contrived). If only Rossi had delved a little deeper into the issues that he raises and the human emotions and impulses that he explores.

But his focus is more on a briskly forward-moving set of revelations and confrontations. Although the play is a gratifyingly taut almost-90 minutes long, a bit more time might have served it well.

Still, as directed by Susi Damilano, the drama is intense enough to keep the audience involved and at times distinctly uneasy — in a good way.

REVIEW

From Red to Black

Presented by San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series

Where: Costume Shop, 1119 Market St., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Satursdays; closes Aug. 30

Tickets: $20

Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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