If we're honest, we realize that race, ethnicity and even color are social constructs based on conventional, often unexamined, traditions, assumptions, affiliations and so on.
"The Sisters Grey," an intriguing new comedy getting a shakedown cruise (read workshop) at the August Wilson Center, focuses on several such social constructs: "black," "Jewish" and the one that ensnares us all, "family." The first suggests both more and less than skin color. The second can be a religion, an ethnicity and a definition, often self-imposed. And the third is a bond variously defined, recognized, honored or denied.
The play centers on two sisters-in-law, one black and one white, as we conventionally use those terms. Hence the witty title, calling into question even these supposedly simple categories, uniting the two as simply grey.
They're also both Jewish, although what that means is in active dispute.
The two sisters and their various parents are brought together by the death of the husband/brother/son who connected them all. Talk about an extended family! And talk they do, mainly in a very funny way, occasionally also with great feeling.
Much of the talk is delicious. "Sisters Grey" is written by Gab Cody and Lori Roper (one white, one black), and they are bright, funny folk, judging by their smart dialogue and how they plumb the terrors of family, which can be funny and awful in equal measure, especially when they're other people's.
Overall, the mode verges from near-farce to heartfelt confessional. There are emotional crises to deal with, set off not so much by the death as by the fate of a small family heirloom, but there's always a wisecrack or pratfall coming 'round the bend. I'm not sure if this is the play's main strength or weakness. I love the surprises, but the result is that we never settle in, so it's harder for us to experience the serious passages with the sympathy they deserve.
For example, we never know much about the departed. So he feels like a plot convenience, which lessens the emotional stakes.
And then there's a ghost. Yes, there's a lot going on in "Sisters Grey," which is to its credit but sometimes our confusion.
They may call this a workshop, and the set in the small upstairs theater space at the August Wilson Center is indeed basic, but the acting is very good, astonishingly so when you consider the short rehearsal period.
Theo Allyn and Bria Walker play the sisters, one tending toward frenetic/wacky -- the play doesn't really start until she enters -- the other toward introspection. Tracey Turner and Edwin Lee Gibson play the black parents, one defensively goofy, the other an academic stuffed shirt who turns out to run deeper. Lisa Ann Goldsmith is the self-obsessed white parent who channels the ghost ... oops, I'm giving too much away. And Monteze Freeland offers comedy and an entirely different, immigrant point of view.
Point of view is what it's all about as tribal loyalties are honored and ridiculed. Sam Turich directs with an eye on both laughter and sobs. Surely he and the playwrights will sharpen what's already a very entertaining, thoughtful comedy.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.