Theatre Review: Patience (2ST UPTOWN, New York) ★★★1/2

For five years running, Daniel (Justiin Davis) has been the world’s reigning solitaire champion. Yes, the solo card game, otherwise known as patience. He’s been described as “the Venus Williams of solitaire”, as he points out himself, and at only 25, his skills have already made him internationally famous and wealthy. He’s just moved into a palatial, if rather soulless, new house that he’s bought with his fiancé Jordan (Jonathan Burke), who is obsessed with finding the perfect shade of grey to paint the walls and the ideal spot for the modern art sculptures he’s purchased to decorate the place.

When Daniel is asked by his teacher friend and former fellow pro solitaire player, Nikita (an excellent Nemuna Ceesay), to speak to her students, he becomes nervous and inarticulate as she probes him about his plans, blurting out that he is going to quit while he’s ahead and retire. That’s news to everyone in his life, including his mother (a commanding Mary E. Hodges), who is also his manager with only one client, and Jordan, who is filled with endless questions about what his husband-to-be is thinking and feeling as he seeks reassurance about their future together. In fact, everyone throws a lot questions in Daniel’s direction, but he’s not that forthcoming with answers.

Zainab Barry and Justiin Davis in Patience. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel. Courtesy of 2NDSTAGE.

Mother decides that she knows best, and that Daniel should take on one last opponent, 18-year-old up-and-comer Ella (Zainab Barry), so that he can either end his solitaire career on a high, or if he loses, gracefully pass the baton on to the next generation. In a winner-takes-all world where there’s only space for one to excel while the other is seen as being in decline—a situation that’s only heightened in America when both happen to be Black—will Ella be the Serena to Daniel’s Venus? When Ella and Daniel first meet ahead of a boxing style press conference, they play into that narrative themselves and the sparks fly as they psyche each other out, with Ella saying that she plans to “incinerate” him in their upcoming match, while he retorts that he’ll “ruin” her. Later though, they both apologize for their words of aggression as a more cordial, if uneasy, connection builds between them. Their relationship is increasingly complex and strained once it becomes apparent that both Nikita and Daniel’s mother have hedged their bets and become almost as invested in Ella’s success as they are in his.

Justiin Davis in Patience. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel. Courtesy of 2NDSTAGE.

Daniel is a rather inscrutable central character. Both emotionally and intellectually, he keeps his cards close to his chest. He’s not being intentionally difficult though, having achieved success early on and with much of his life out of his control, he is trying to work out what his next move should be. Most of the time, the audience is kept at a distance from his interior life too. Among the standout moments of Patience are the sequences where playwright Johnny G. Lloyd does let us inside Daniel’s mind. In one brilliantly staged scene towards the play’s climax, we see Daniel concentrating on a high-stakes solitaire match on one side of the stage, while another Daniel appears on the other side and opens up about what’s racing through his mind as he competes. It’s a thrilling moment, and although it has a lot of impact, it left me wishing that there had been even more of these windows into his inner life so we could have got to know Daniel better sooner. Although I guess the point is that he’s only beginning to get to know himself. Early on, we do get another compelling glimpse inside Daniel’s mind, along with some stunning lighting design by Adam Honoré. Davis manages to make indecision and uncertainty engaging with a natural and charismatic turn as Daniel and, along with Zainab Barry, he is impressively adept when it comes to handling the cards. His speedy shuffling and dealing really convince.

Jonathan Burke and Justiin Davis in Patience. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel. Courtesy of 2NDSTAGE.

It feels quietly radical to have a lead character on stage who is both Black and queer, but not defined by those identities. It does of course inform the character and how Daniel approaches the world, but the play itself isn’t explicitly about those aspects of who he is. Instead, the additional pressures of being successful while Black and queer, the feeling of having to be better than the best, simmer implicitly. While his mother, Nikita, and Ella each have their own paths to forge as successful Black women. Racist micro-aggressions are encountered, but they happen offstage, as experienced by Ella at a pre-match party, with Daniel warning her to avoid speaking to certain guests as he initiates her into the pro solitaire world.

Jonathan Burke, Justiin Davis, Nemuna Ceesay and Zainab Barry in Patience. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel. Courtesy of 2NDSTAGE.

By the time we meet Daniel and Jordan they’re already engaged, and although there were likely some past struggles in their lives related to their sexuality, we see no evidence of that here. Lloyd shows us a domesticated couple, that might have their own issues to reckon with, but refreshingly they aren’t to do with them being gay and that feels powerful in itself. It’s queer characterization drawn with specificity that feels authentic, without it being about queerness. Although there’s miscommunication between them, and they might have caved into societal pressure to prove their happiness by buying a big house that doesn’t quite suit them, and even by getting engaged, there is nevertheless a lot of love there. There’s also great chemistry between Davis and Burke, who brings a rather frenetic energy and plenty of humour along with emotional depth to the role of the over-analyzing Jordan.

Lawrence E. Moten III makes excellent use of the space, with his striking and versatile set design that opens with a prominently raised card table centre stage, while the seven panels that form the back wall cleverly mirror the solitaire game layout itself and echo the play’s theme of deliberation and the multiplicity of options. Zhailon Levingston’s direction is beautifully clear and nicely cuts through the sense of hesitancy and indecision that hovers over the play with its central character stymied by life. Patience is a slow-burn. It’s a delicate, nuanced play and Lloyd doesn’t tell us what to think but rather invites us to consider our own lives, gently encouraging us to take agency over them and shape our own narratives in the same way that we watch these characters begin to do so.

By James Kleinmann

Part of the 20th anniversary 2NDSTAGE Uptown season, Patience is playing at 2ST UPTOWN at the Mcginn/Cazale Theater, 2162 Broadway Between 76th & 77th Street, until August 28th 2022.

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