A KN95 mask presents no appreciable distraction to an immersion in the antic charms of Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood and Gabriel Ebert in Nwandu’s urban riff on “Waiting for Godot.” At 95 minutes — roughly half the length of Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece — the play is a smart, sleek commentary on being young and Black and craving the peace of mind that comes with not feeling there’s a target on your back.
It’s still extremely early days for the return of Broadway and in-person theater across the land. “Pass Over,” which marked its official opening on Sunday, has only one neighbor in nightly performance, “Springsteen on Broadway” at the St. James Theatre, until Times Square kicks into higher gear next month with the likes of “Hamilton,” “Hadestown” and “The Lion King.” Broadway shows require proof of vaccination and masking at all times, except if you are sipping a drink. And all the seats can be filled, meaning people sit elbow-to-elbow with strangers.
“Pass Over,” though, is the first true test of how compelling is the urge to come back into a big Broadway theater; “Springsteen on Broadway” has Bruce Springsteen after all, a star for whom fans will walk through fire, much less strap a piece of synthetic material across their mouths and noses. Nwandu’s play has no such brand-name power source to juice up the box office.
What it does offer is juicy nevertheless: a grand platform, savvily orchestrated by director Danya Taymor, for the protean talents of Hill and Smallwood as Moses and Kitch, a couple of guys who hang out seemingly endlessly on a violent city block. Nwandu’s models are Vladimir and Estragon of Samuel Beckett’s “Godot,” characters stranded, but ever hopeful, in a grim void. Beckett’s solitary landmark, a barren tree, is replaced here on Wilson Chin’s stark set by a single lamppost, under which Moses spins dreams of a “promised land” for Smallwood’s emotionally dependent Kitch.
Their banter, laced with profanity and musical references, occupies much of the first 30 minutes of “Pass Over,” establishing (with all too transparent nods to the Old Testament) the landscape on which Moses plots their exodus. This is an authoritarian precinct ruled by racist cops. It’s left to Ebert’s clownishly clueless White dude, Mister, who wanders onto their block toting a Little Red Riding Hood basket of gourmet goodies, to define just how detached is the White world from Moses and Kitch’s claustrophobic existence.
As in “Godot,” there is hardly any plot in “Pass Over”; the title itself is a biblical double entendre. The play instead comes across as the embodiment of an escalating frustration over how to make Black lives matter. In Timberland boots and secondhand Nikes, Moses and Kitch occupy themselves through the perpetual night imagining the things they’d own in their promised land. In the here and now, the only riches they have are each other, and language. When Ebert’s Mister painfully inquires about their use of a certain racial epithet — and why if he isn’t allowed to say it, they can? — Moses replies, poignantly:
“Because . . . it’s not yours. You feel me? Good or bad, it’s not yours.”
The magnetic Hill and Smallwood infuse Moses and Kitch with exuberant physicality; though they create distinct characters, the ineffable, mutual dependence they conjure is their chief accomplishment. Ebert applies a freewheeling buffoonery to Mister and, later, an opposite dimension of cruel menace to his other role, a policeman who under stress will undergo a dramatic conversion.
“Pass Over” has itself experienced a conversion since its original production in Chicago in 2017, which was later filmed by Spike Lee, and also was produced off-Broadway, by Lincoln Center Theater. Nwandu has rewritten the ending, which will not be recounted here, except to say it sends an audience home to reflect on possibility rather than bleak inevitability. The playwright has said her mother told her the original conclusion was too dispiriting. Which in the case of this successful Broadway evening goes to show: It pays to listen to your mom.
Pass Over, by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu. Directed by Danya Taymor. Costumes, Sarafina Bush; lighting, Marcus Doshi; sound, Justin Ellington. About 95 minutes. Tickets: $39-$149. Through Oct. 10 at August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St., New York. passoverbroadway.com. Note: Proof of vaccination and masks are required.