- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

"Tommy J & Sally" starts, if not with a literal bang, then with an uneasy menace and ends with a simper or at least a feel-good conclusion.

Along the way, Mark Medoff's play being co-produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Theater J has many genuine moments of tension, humor and sentiment. It also has a genuinely large message that looms over the production like a blinking neon sign.

Thomas Jefferson (Craig Wallace) is an angry black man in Los Angeles looking for a meaning, a sign and he gets it in the form of some pop-song lyrics.

Cut to the half-packed-up New York apartment of Sally Hemmings (Sue-Anne Morrow), a white woman struggling with the words of a song.

Sally the hottest pop star in the business, who writes goopy anthems of racial harmony is hurrying to get ready for a trip with her judgmental fiance when Thomas Jefferson arrives, posing as a grocery-delivery man.

He's talkative and makes several observations about her music, about the locks on her doors and how easily he could pick them. Which is exactly what he does a few minutes later, setting in motion an intense and intensely personal examination of race and identity.

Thomas Jefferson is convinced that he knows Sally Hemmings under a different name. He believes she's the daughter of a Jewish couple who took him in during a year in high school. He grills her about their past, and Sally afraid of what he might do throws out answers to mollify him.

Early going, Tommy J has the upper hand Sally is too frightened to do much more than occasionally offer a sarcastic one-liner. Mr. Wallace strikes the perfect chord between humor and hostility, and the production is charged by his simmering rage, which boils over from time to time. He's troubling but occasionally thoughtful.

Sally soon asserts herself against his bullying. Although she says she is not the Jewish girl he knew in high school, she finds herself taking that girl's part. Sally defends her when Tommy J says she betrayed him by accusing him of robbing her parents' house.

Miss Morrow is every bit Mr. Wallace's match in her steely and defiant performance. Although she's the captive to his captor, she makes it as believable as possible when the tables begin to turn.

Yet too much of the play, directed by Bob Devin Jones, treads and retreads some already well-worn ground. White guilt, black blame, even fear of success are all touched upon.

Tommy J's story sounds familiar. Told he has promise, he must struggle against the tectonic forces of being a young black man: the temptation to drop out of school, the influence of friends, the suspicion of authority figures. He ends up in jail, which seems an inevitability, and then has trouble landing a job. In some ways, though, he defies stereotypes. It turns out that he's going to get a bachelor's degree in social work and that he works with troubled youths.

Sally is a pop-star princess with the usual baggage low self-esteem she tries to correct through plastic surgery, a designer-drug problem, alcoholism and other debaucheries. That is, before her fiance helps her get clean.

In the second act, a lot of the tension of the first act is deflated through a bond that Sally and Tommy J develop. That these two have reimagined themselves and can see through the other is probably supposed to explain it all, but it seems even more improbable than the stuffed mushrooms they make together during this hostage situation.

Tommy J eventually gives Sally a pep talk on the virtues of being trite, and she assures him he can make a difference.

He returns to California, healed and committed to sticking with those youngsters, and she trades in the vacuousness of her songs for one with a "real" message. It's a coda that's too earnest by half.


**1/2

WHAT: "Tommy J & Sally"

WHERE: D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: Performances: 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through March 24

TICKETS: $26 to $30

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS or online at www.boxofficetickets.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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