The sheddin’ in the play “Sheddin,’ ” at Horizon Theatre through August 19, is the pastime, practiced by the three main characters, of talking, drinking, dancing, telling stories and reminiscing in the back yard. It’s a term used by blues and jazz musicians: “taking it to the woodshed” means to head for an enclave to practice alone or jam together.
Given that description, one might imagine a leisurely, easygoing pace, but the sheddin’ here is wildly, impressively and charmingly frenetic. The jam is more “Bitches Brew” than “Kind of Blue.” Playwright Thomas W. Jones and actors E. Roger Mitchell and LaParee Young portray three middle-aged friends — Walt, Moses and Otis — who play lightning-quick and whip-smart games with language. They one-up each other, exchange tall tales, pun, reminisce and exaggerate. It’s all a game to see who can outdo the others in speed, flair and style, and they’ve clearly been at it for years. They’re back-yard poets, artists and surrealists, exploring the possibilities and limitations of language. It’s delightful, if disorienting, to listen in, and for much of the play that’s exactly what we get to do.
But we eventually learn that Walt, Moses and Otis are sheddin’ with a purpose: they’re preparing for the return of Walt’s son, Trane (Enoch King), who has become a hip-hop star. The three men have the quixotic notion that they’ll be able to perform their old-school doo-wop routine as his opening act. Their practice session is charming and touching. Like their language games, it conceals shattered expectations, the disappointment and pain of lives that have faced slowly diminishing possibilities.
It’s an expertly crafted atmosphere of enormous dramatic potential, but turning it into real drama proves difficult. The depiction of the trio of men and Walt’s wife, Ruthie (Donna Biscoe), is more or less naturalistic. But there’s something exaggerated in the treatment of the next generation: Walt’s son, Trane, and his Korean performance artist fiancée, E’Boa (Francesca McKenzie). They’re cutout parodies of success, modernity, ambition and celebrity. They enter with a big musical number, pushing the play into the realm of magic realism. It’s so extreme that I wondered whether it might be some sort of departure of the narrative into the unreal, a dream or imagined homecoming before the real one.
The actors who play the second generation do eventually develop their characters into interesting, nuanced people, but somehow their extremity limits our ability to connect to the play’s central conflict. Trane and E’boa use language inventively, but not as playfully as the trio, and ultimately there’s a silliness to these characters that hinders the development of dramatic heft. For all its noise and motion, “Sheddin’ ” remains dramatically still. The generational conflict feels familiar and its resolution predictable. This stands out even more because the language and environment are otherwise so inventive.
Still, “Sheddin’ ” remains extraordinary and singular in its use of language and its depiction of a close circle of friends. The opportunity to listen in on such skilled practitioners of sheddin’ for an evening is not to be missed.