As the lights go up, we discover two women half-buried in sand — which is one more woman than stingy Samuel Beckett offered in “Happy Days.” But Beckett’s semi-subterranean Winnie faced only the terrors of eternity. For Angela and Odessa, the main characters in Charly Evon Simpson’s “sandblasted,” which had its world premiere Off Broadway on Sunday, the problem is closer to home.
A lot closer: not even arm’s length, you might say. Because less than a minute into the action, it is that appendage that falls off Angela’s body like an overripe fruit from a tree.
Kudos to the prosthetic designer, Matthew Frew, for the lifelike limb, and to Simpson for the bolt of surreal humor at the start of a play that wants to be a Beckettian comedy about Black women in extremis. If it doesn’t succeed, it’s not for lack of trying.
For me, it tries too hard. The central metaphor — that Black women are literally falling apart — is assiduously explored, but the issues that might give it heft are left, like Angela and Odessa, buried in the sand. Random racist violence and the increased rate of infant mortality are name-checked only.
Which is not to say that every play about Black women must be a tragic news bulletin. In some ways it’s a relief that when Angela and Odessa do rise from the sand, there’s some enjoyable interplay between them. There’s not much development, though, unless you count the further shedding of body parts. Angela (Brittany Bellizeare) loses her nose and a toe; Odessa (Marinda Anderson) reglues her arm but drops the occasional finger.
The women are, at first, strangers, having come to the same beach seeking the sand and fresh air they have heard might “slow the process” of their apparently epidemic condition. They both fit the at-risk demographic: stressed-out Black women, especially those living in big cities. Though joined by common disaster, they are meet-cute opposites: Odessa blingy, fatalistic and cool; Angela nerdy, anxious and eager to please. She calls herself a “safety cat” as opposed to a “scaredy cat.”
But with the beach treatment more or less a bust, they nevertheless set out together on a mad mission to seek the advice and care of an Oprah-like wellness guru named Adah. Adah, who says she is “somewhere below 100” in age, has not been afflicted by the disease, and has thus become a popular source of inspiration about it, writing books, giving lectures (“Girl, Stop Falling Apart!”) and preaching the murky gospel of self-help.
Yet “sandblasted” is not a satire of Oprah or Oprah-ism; especially as played by the former newscaster and talk show host Rolonda Watts, Adah is at least as warm as she is sententious. You can’t help but like her even though she’s oblivious to the way her privilege provides insulation and her prescriptions turn out to be riddling and fickle. As she joins Angela and Odessa on a journey that seems more spiritual than medical, she suggests they travel east. Oh wait, no, west. Well, somewhere.
The play is similarly wayward: its path sometimes random, its chronology scrambled for no reason. Angela and Odessa seem scrambled, too; they exchange positions in their arguments, perhaps to maintain the semblance of conflict where little exists. Lively disagreement comes into the picture only when Angela’s playboy brother does; Jamal (Andy Lucien) attends an Adah lecture so he’ll “seem more understanding when I go on dates” and tries to pick up the not-having-it Odessa, whom he meets too coincidentally at the bar where he works.
The actors, under the direction of Summer L. Williams, are all enjoyable, making the most of characterful writing when it’s provided, and doing what they can with the big gulps of self-conscious poetry Simpson has otherwise asked them to deliver.
And “sandblasted” — a coproduction of the Vineyard and Women’s Project theaters — looks handsome, too, its surreal landscape represented in Matt Saunders’s set by heaps of sand, a cotton-ball sky and doors and windows cut into the cycloramic horizon. The witty costumes (by Montana Levi Blanco) and alfresco lighting (by Stacey Derosier) help counter the vagueness of time and locale. Despite those felicities, the play, with 18 scenes totaling an hour and 40 minutes, is too long for its own good, a problem not ameliorated by stodgy pacing and shaggy transitions.
Not everyone will feel that way. Some people in the audience on the night I attended were signifying with murmurs and finger snaps their appreciation for the well turned phrases and tender encomiums about caring for one another and seizing the day. And though I found the pileup of metaphors oppressive, I have to admit they were eye-opening. An especially elaborate one introduced me to the phenomenon of fulgurites: tubes of glass formed underground when lightning hits sand.
In the context of “sandblasted,” they are clearly meant to symbolize Black women themselves, the lightning strike of disaster having fused with their own nature to make something beautiful and precious — and, all too often, buried.
Through March 13 at the Vineyard Theater, Manhattan; vineyardtheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.