On one level, the play suggests an updated, expletive-friendly "All in the Family," with Alfred, an elderly, unwell West Indian immigrant in London, taking the Archie Bunker role. He spews all the familiar (and sometimes terribly funny) prejudices and suspicions, only with a twist - he's a minority feeling threatened by other minorities, waves of newcomers to a country he has never fully embraced.
This is no sitcom (or Britcom), though. Selfish, stubborn, proud and nursing old grievances, Alfred wishes for death on his own terms, and alone. But there's that presumed lesbian daughter of his, Gemma, never quite settled down and ever-short of money, who starts stopping by again, igniting tensions with practically each word she utters. (When an exasperated Gemma asks, "Do you like anyone, Dad?" her father bellows: "Yes. Me.")
Adding even more to the fire is the surprise that Gemma and her sister ("a born-again nut," Alfred calls her; what he calls Gemma cannot see the light of print here) have arranged for their father - a social services worker. She's Maria, a white, young, Polish immigrant still learning English and facing her own demons.
If Kwei-Armah doesn't necessarily hit profound heights in this look at human nature, and if, as some in the British press maintain, he takes too sharp a turn into sentimentality, he nonetheless maneuvers the plot surely. The play exerts quite a strong, steady pull.
Of course, it helps that Center Stage has given the piece such a vibrant showcase. Heading the cast in his company debut is Avery Brooks, whose portrayal of Alfred uncovers the character's conflicting emotions and memories in astute detail. He offers a thick, but musical, West Indian accent, capable of adding delicious, extra syllables to words; the way he stretches out "glorious," you can see everything Alfred is fondly envisioning as he says it.
Brooks does terrific things as well with the rude oral noises that are a key part of the arsenal in Alfred's "articulation of acute dissatisfaction." The actor's long, spidery fingers even create their own riveting dialogue of sorts. And then there's his richly expressive face, which melts at the sound of vintage Nat King Cole records from a beloved old phonograph.
Those suave recordings fuse into a kind of leitmotif for the play (one of the songs provides the play's title), and their animating force unleashes the lightest, brightest side of a man hardened by self-imposed restrictions. When Alfred is moved by the music to dance, Brooks' suppleness and spontaneity turn him into a liberated, liberating Astaire.
Gretchen Hall inhabits the role of Maria with such unaffected detail that the character's awfully goody-goody nature and almost nutty fixation on Ikea never seem forced. It's an endearing performance, especially in those moments when Hall reveals how unnervingly Maria is caught between youthful spirit and the forced maturing brought on by her unexpected encounter with Alfred.
Pascale Armand doesn't always keep a working-class London accent going, but she consistently captures Gemma's tightly wound nature. In the second act, when issues of the past, present and future all converge with emotional weight, Armand shades Gemma's journey out of confusion and hurt with particular nuance.
Jeremy B. Cohen directs the action with a keen eye and ear for timing; he ensures that any silences speak as forcefully as dialogue. Miranda Hoffman's costumes strike the right note; Michelle Habeck's lighting is expertly nuanced. And the set by Riccardo Hernández has a strongly communicative edge - the touches of Caribbean design and British middle-class homeyness, a mix of comfort and exile that marks Alfred's troubled world.