“ABCD” at Barrington Stage is a Class Above

The raucously enjoyable and fierce “ABCD” is receiving not only a world premiere at Barrington Stage but its author, May Treuhaft-Ali, is receiving their first professional production. What a thrill to attend the St. Germain Stage and see this wildly creative production of fired-up ideas delivered with such commitment and verve.

Bilal (Justin Ahdoot, just terrific), an Iraqi-American, is struggling to lift his GPA at the predominantly white Columbus Preparatory School to get into Harvard when he gets the genius idea to cheat for others, lifting the whole boat. His interactions with his father Ibrahim (Juri Henlry-Cohn) and his stern teacher Joanna (Chavez Ravine) reveal his predicament. He feels trapped and excluded from all that’s been promised to him for his exceptionally hard work.

Justin Ahdoot/Daniel Rader

His cheating gets him community service hours tutoring at Carnegie Middle School, the predominantly Black and Latinx school which is a two-hour bus ride away. He ends up tutoring not one, but a group of five in this underserved school. His supervisor there, Davon Lawrence (Brandon St. Clair, impressive), has been recruited into his own cheating scheme by the principal Ellis (Melvin Abston), to improve a whole grade’s test scores to prevent the school from closing under the No Child Left Behind guidelines. Mr. Lawrence has a romantic partner (Torée Alexandre) and an accomplice (Mika Ramos) who complicates his desires to lift his school through hard work.

In one of the evening’s hilarious highlights, Bilal is recruited on his long bus ride into a larger cheating scheme which eventually widens to 140 students by the charming and effervescent Sunghee (Pearl Shin). It is a wild, fast, wounding game of one-upmanship that has them listing each other’s stereotypes and where they resemble or fail to live up to them. Sunghee soon initiates Bilal in a brutal and hilarious sensory attack called Vodka, Slap, Make-out, a game comprising all three inflicted on your partner in quick succession.

Pearl Shin, Justin Ahdoot/Daniel Rader

The cast is uniformly excellent and, while being thoroughly convincing, makes this difficult topic and these compromised characters a pleasure to spend time with. It is the most fun you might have while wanting to tear your hair out at America’s iniquities.

The brutal stakes that everyone is up against – struggling to succeed whether surrounded by plenty or poverty with the outcome seemingly preordained – challenges everyone onstage. You feel for these characters who know right from wrong, but can not resist trying to tip the scales in their favor because life for them and every student in America is a pass/fail test.

The physical production directed by Daniel J. Bryant adds a great deal of enjoyment to this impactful comedy. There are two L-shaped stage units with lockers facing the audience to open the play. When revolved or opened, they reveal classrooms, a bus backseat or an apartment. The floor is stenciled with standardized test bubbles and the class blackboards announce the changes in dates. The entire cast and two stagehands dressed as students do the scene transitions, choreographed and set to music, bringing the schools to life in front of you while moving the play for its fleet 94-minute running time. There’s even time for a dance break. Excellent work by Movement Director Kevin Iega Jeff, Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh, Costume Design by April M. Hickman, Lighting Design by Jason Lynch, Composer & Sound Designer Fabian Obispo, and Stage Manager Kyra Button.

The play is jam-packed with ideas about education, work, success, assimilation, and class, and employs many different scenes and tactics including the supernatural to get at the heart of what seems like the insoluble problem of how we offer equal opportunity to all. The cast, director and design team are sensational in dancing this satire right up to the edge. If it sometimes overshoots its mark, tries too hard or strains credulity, I’m willing to celebrate a shining A for effort and execution.

Through 7/23 @ Barrington Stage Company, tickets are available at www.barringtonstageco.org

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