The funny, disturbing girls of Kirsten Greenidge’s slow-burning “Milk Like Sugar” won’t be easy to shake if you catch their 110-minute drama at Mosaic Theater Company. Three African American teens with no clear view of the future make a pact to have babies at the same time. Greenidge takes this tale from Boston headlines and spins an absorbing study of neglected kids at dangerous loose ends.
Greenidge’s fulfilling play is the best of three class-driven shows — each under two intermission-less hours — that opened over the weekend. Next to “Milk,” Bess Wohl’s soggy sandwich shop saga “American Hero” stacks up as empty calories at Columbia’s Rep Stage. Keegan Theatre’s revival of John Guare’s 1990 “Six Degrees of Separation,” though, turns out to be a still-provocative fable of America’s divisions along class and race.
Mosaic’s engagingly acted “Milk” at the Atlas Performing Arts Center opens with three rowdy high school friends guzzling booze and bantering about what sort of tattoo 16-year- old Annie should get. Annie’s pal Margie springs the news that she’s pregnant, and Talisha — the fiercest of the bunch — gets excited at the prospect of the girls becoming mothers together.
The commodification of pregnancy is alarming, of course: Part of the allure for the girls is the prospect of a joint baby shower and a juicy haul of gifts. But Greenidge writes long, detailed scenes that complicate the views of the characters, using language that’s an intriguing blend of earthy high school sass and introspective poetry. The dialogue suits the plot as Annie awkwardly tries to connect with a sensitive young student named Malik. She also gets entangled with an intensely quirky church girl named Keera, and with the unsteady young tattoo artist Antwoine.
Director Jennifer L. Nelson’s cast confidently handles Greenidge’s plot twists and slangy language, and Kashayna Johnson is notably effective as she plays the thoughtful, unguided Annie. Johnson’s bumbling romantic scenes with Vaughn Ryan Midder’s chivalrous Malik are touching, but even in a starry balcony setting, Greenidge never rests on sentiment. Showdowns have jagged edges as Annie fails to find her way with Malik, with her hard-working but emotionally absent mother (played with searing defensiveness by Deidra LaWan Starnes), and with the sweet but strange Keera (Tyasia Velines, emphasizing the role’s geekiness).
Tough Talisha gets the evening’s harshest reckoning, and the convincingly intimidating Renee Elizabeth Wilson pulls no punches with the character’s unrelenting combativeness. The play’s drama unfolds slowly, but when Greenidge tightens the vise on the real-world outcomes for these girls, the squeeze is cruel and impossible to dismiss.
“American Hero” is a far softer affair, a hard-times comedy set in a badly run franchise sandwich shop. Sheri (an earnest Liliana Evans), 18, is exhausted from holding down two jobs to support her ailing father. Ted (Eric M. Messner) lost his job after 20 years in the banking industry. Gum-snapping Jamie (Megan Anderson) is the crew’s free spirit, despite having a spotty background and kids to support.
The franchise owner (Gary-Kayi Fletcher, tackling several bit parts) vanishes as Wohl takes aim at corporate America and its losers; the target is rich, but the implausible, bumpy comedy doesn’t probe meaningfully or draw sharp laughs. Anderson supplies color and bite as the sarcastic Jamie, but outside of James Fouchard’s amusingly designed, deliberately cheesy sub shop, there’s not much else to watch.
Keegan is staging Guare’s “Six Degrees” just months before April’s Broadway revival with Corey Hawkins and Allison Janney. Like the troupe’s recent productions of Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter” and Theresa Rebeck’s “What We’re Up Against,” it’s a smart, topical choice. Guare’s plot still exerts an inexorable pull as a young black man named Paul — a movie star’s son, perhaps? — insinuates himself into several upper-crust Manhattan households. What Paul wants and why his “victims” allow themselves to be duped reveal a lot about Paul’s ambitions and limitations, while challenging how clearly white society can possibly see him. It’s is a fascinating script to revive in our era of celebrity culture and Black Lives Matter.
Director Brandon McCoy’s artsy production (modern painting, white panels, silhouettes) is reasonably stylish, and the listening is acute as Paul beguiles the rich people he wants to belong with. Ryan Swain is a smooth talker as the elusive Paul, and the connection with Susan Marie Rhea’s anguished Ouisa — the wealthy art dealer’s wife whose conscience is sorely pricked — sends you out of the theater properly unsettled about the separation Guare so adroitly maps.
Milk Like Sugar,by Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. Set design, Luciana Stecconi; lights, Dan Covey; costumes, Marci Rodgers; sound David Lamont Wilson; projections, Gregory Towle. With Ghislaine “Gigi” Dwarka and Jeremy Keith Hunter. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Through Nov. 27 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets $40-$60. Call 202-399-7993 or visit mosaictheater.org.
American Hero,by Bess Wohl. Directed by Suzanne Beal. Lights, William D’Eugenio; costumes, Jessica Welch; sound design, Jerry Matheny. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 20 at Rep Stage, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets $40. Call 443-518-1500 or visit repstage.org.
Six Degrees of Separation,by John Guare. Directed by Brandon McCoy. Scenic design, Matthew Keenan; lights, Colin Dieck; costumes, Kristina Marie Martin; sound design and original compositions, Brandon McCoy. With Ray Ficca, Kevin Adams, Josh Sticklin, Karen Novack, Jon Townson, Ava Knox, Eli Pendry, Jonathan Helwig, Timothy H. Lynch, Christian Montgomery, Daniel Lyons, Patrick Joy, Matthew Sparacino and Kathleen Mason. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 3 at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets $45. Call 202-265-3767 or visit keegantheatre.com.