Daniel is the world professional champion of Solitaire, which feels apt, because “I only feel like myself when I’m alone,” as he admits to Jordan, his fiancé. Daniel wants to end his solitude. Although only 25, he plans to retire from the solitary card game, in order to focus on his relationship with Jordan, with whom he’s just bought a new house.
But his mother, who is also his manager, wants him to compete in one more championship contest — with Ella, an 18-year-old card-playing prodigy…whom Daniel’s mother secretly wants to add to her client list.
That’s more or less the set-up of “Patience,” a play by Johnny G. Lloyd on stage at Second Stage’s uptown theater through August 28. Frankly, though, my description is misleading. It implies a tense-filled plot, maybe even some suspense. “Patience” is actually a poorly constructed drama. But it turns out to be fronting some rich themes.
The best illustration of both its weakness theatrically and its strength thematically is its focus on Solitaire.
There is nobody like Daniel in real life, a professional World Solitaire Champion; the playwright has invented him. (The only competitive games in Solitaire are computer games.) Even if such an occupation existed, it’s hard to think of any sport that would be more challenging to dramatize on a stage than Solitaire. And “Patience” doesn’t try very hard to do so.
At the same time, though, the game is a useful metaphor for individual struggle and isolation; it also helps that the original name of the Solitaire card game (still used throughout Europe) is Patience — another metaphor, another clue to what the playwright is about.
The playwright seems most interested in exploring, obliquely, the unintended consequences of the pressure on African Americans to achieve. Daniel and all the other characters in the play are Black.
In America, as the saying goes, Black people have to work twice as hard to get half as much. This is left unmentioned in the play, and race is rarely referred to explicitly at all. The closest is an awkward comment Daniel makes: “My parents found it very important to nurture black talent because of, America uh. America kinda being this..” – a thought left unfinished, as if the point is too obvious to spell out.
But race (racism) implicitly plays a part in Daniel’s difficulties in making decisions and making connection; in his ambivalence about his achievements and his fear of the future. He is sometimes called (calls himself) the Venus Williams of Solitaire, which turns out to have an edge to it: Venus Williams (as we’re told) has always been excellent in the game of tennis, but, once her younger sister Serena Williams started to overtake her, Venus was thought of as not excellent enough – because second best is not good enough. Given what we’re told, it’s unclear why Daniel would be called the Venus Williams of Solitaire, since Daniel is number 1, and has been for five years. But I guess we are supposed to understand that he lives in fear of falling to number 2.
Other puzzlements in “Patience” are less easily explained away. The play is full of scenes that are inert, drawn out, or confusing.
Director Zhailon Levingston (who is best known as of 2021 as the youngest Black director in Broadway history for his helming of “Chicken & Biscuits”) has assembled a fine professional cast and a decent design team. The two lovers, as portrayed by the appealing performers Justiin Davis and Jonathan Burke, manage enough light or touching moments to make us want to spend more time with them (although these are interspersed with much talk of their house flooding or otherwise falling apart, yet another heavy metaphor.) Lighting designer Adam Honoré and sound designer Christopher Barbassie make a yeoman’s effort to liven up the static scenes of card playing — scenes that are largely interrupted by interior monologues or dialogue, as if even a world champion gets bored just flipping cards.
I had hoped that the choice of sport was a mischievous one, meant to be taken humorously, but if so, the joke was too subtle for me. The end of Lloyd and Levingston’s “Patience” coincided with the end of my patience; I left regretting that Daniel had not been the Venus Williams of rugby or cricket or extreme ironing. — almost any other sport.
McGinn/Cazale Theater through August 28
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Written by Johnny G. Lloyd
Directed by Zhailon Livingston
Scenic design by Lawrence E. Moten III, costume design by Avery Reed, lighting design by Adam Honoré, sound design by Christopher Barbassie
Cast: Justiin Davis as Daniel, Jonathan Burke as Jordan, Nemuna Ceesay as Nikita, Zainab Barry as Ella, and Mary E. Hodges as Mother.