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Art Museum Guards Navigate Dreams and Reality in 'The Art of Longing' at Cleveland Public Theatre 

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Photo by Steve Wagner

Did you ever wonder why your body can do some amazing things, but not others? You can grow new skin to heal a cut, but you can't grow a whole new hand. You can remember things when you don't want to, but can't remember the one thing you want to recall. And your brain can create multiple and complex stories involving you and people you know — while you sleep — yet you can't finish that novel which has been sitting in the bottom desk drawer for eight years.

The body and mind can be perplexing, and some of this is addressed in the confusing but often engrossing The Art of Longing. Set in Cleveland, the 70-minute world premiere is written by Lisa Langford, a local actor and playwright. Her one-act has grand aspirations to encompass aspects of the African-American experience as well as universal topics involving gender, biblical stories, sex and the way certain works of art can transport us.

The broad outlines of the play are fairly easy to describe, since it all begins with the night shift at the Cleveland Museum of Art. There's not much to do in a museum when it's closed (when you're not Nicolas Cage), so three guards — young Kreesha, veteran Grady and a newly minted transgender man named Samir — pass the time in other ways.

Early on, Grady expresses his love for a painting by the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence titled "Fulton and Nostrand." Part of the CMA collection, this vibrant work depicts a Brooklyn intersection that Grady calls the "center of the universe." When he's not extolling the painting's virtues, Grady helps Kreesha with her aching feet by cutting one off and putting it in his pocket.

Oh, did I mention that this play dips into the surreal now and then? Like any good dream, Langford's snatches of stories leap and flit about, and soon Kreesha has grown a new foot to replace the missing one. As the characters talk and josh with one another, the towering presence of a black man dressed all in white appears, hovering over the proceedings on painter stilts and gently shaping the flow of the storytelling.

The entirety of Douglas Puskas' simple yet elegant scenic design is bathed in white, providing a blank canvas for the fragments the playwright is spinning. This ethereal effect is sometimes beautifully enhanced, for instance when Kreesha grows wings. But at other times, the mood is interrupted by the over-use of silhouettes shown on a screen in the large central stage unit.

Soon, the scene shifts to a hospital where we encounter another threesome. A dying man, Sid, occupies a bed, as a janitor named Wan and a doctor, Phylicia, discuss the relative merits of having a child together. Then, later in the proceedings, the two sets of characters evolve as Kreesha gets pregnant and various intimate body parts are added to and subtracted from certain people.

Langford and the CPT design team have crafted a rich brew of imagery and words that would benefit from a few more footholds for an audience that is encountering it in real time. To borrow the central analogy of the play, one can spend many minutes observing and absorbing a single work of art. But this jam-packed play moves so quickly it's like cruising through a museum on skates, and that can leave audience members lost in the lurch.

The cast has clearly bought in to Langford's conception and, under Jimmie Woody's skillful direction, they are frequently able to connect. India Nicole Burton plays three characters and gives each a distinct identity. In particular, her Samir is effervescent with the joy of his new gender, happily exchanging black male joking and roughhousing with Grady.

Nailah Matthews is both endearing as Kreesha and properly irritating as Wan, while Greg White lends his solid stage presence to Grady and Sid. As for the man in the white suit, dancer extraordinaire Kevin D. Marr II is the picture of elegance, on stilts or off.

Langford is an intelligent and evocative writer. Upon losing a vital part of herself, Kreesha says, "They took things I wanted to be buried with." And you shudder with her. But at another time, when Sid observes, "I have found there is no upside to impotence," the laughter is well earned.

There is a theatrical syncopation that is bubbling under the surface of this play, tied together here and there with bits of songs by Nina Simone and other ancillary music. And although presentation of the powerful song "Strange Fruit" is given too much prominence in this play's context, Langford's unique voice shines through. Like many complex works of art, The Art of Longing may be more satisfying at a second viewing.

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