Seth Rozin — director, producer and playwright — is a smart man and a serious artist. Can it be he's also a closet fan of The Beverly Hillbillies? In Rozin's imaginative, accomplished new farce, Black Gold, an underclass family acquires an oil derrick and strikes a whole lot of bubblin' crude, thus upending the status quo.
But Rozin and his InterAct Theatre Co. (now celebrating its 20th birthday) are all about social politics. So the derrick belongs to a black man, Curtis Walker, and it's located next to his house in a poverty-stricken part of Detroit. The discovery of oil is more than a potential source of unimagined wealth for Walker and his neighbors — it also touches off national and even international speculation about what might happen if America no longer needed to rely on the Middle East for its ever-burgeoning energy consumption.
What ensues in Black Gold is a series of adventures involving everyone from bickering presidential rivals (an idiotic Texan incumbent versus a media-savvy female senator, wink wink), to speculators and opportunists of various kinds, to a pair of actors (one Israeli, one Palestinian) in Jerusalem. And, of course, Walker and his family and friends. Then there's the African country of Malawi, devastated doubly by genocide and famine.
That's a lot to take on, and Rozin's script deftly uses a rotating series of narrators to manage the multiple plots. There's an invigorating energy to the short, punchy vignettes — energy also found in Rozin's lightening-fast direction. Thanks to imaginative designs by Marka Suber (scenery) and Peter Whinnery (lighting), we can almost always keep track of where we are. Six actors all play multiple roles. It's not always easy to distinguish them, and there's some stereotyping that might offend some audiences — but there's also much good work here, especially by Maureen Torsney-Weir.
But broad comedy has its limits. Some of Rozin's more serious ideas would have more impact in a subtler, more ironic setting; when the president says to a subordinate, "I like black people just fine — it's poor people I can't stand," it should give us the creeps, not just make us laugh.
Still, the ambitious Black Gold is a play to see. I'm happy to add that it was terrific in InterAct's important anniversary season to see such an enthusiastic, full-house audience at Sunday's matinee.
Black Gold Through Feb. 24, InterAct Theatre at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., 215-568-8079, interacttheatre.org.