“My vibe is cozy, comfortable,” R&B musician Josiah Wise, professionally known as serpentwithfeet, says near the start of “Heart of Brick.” Covered in a fuzzy blanket, he tells us that he prefers to stay at home.
It’s an unusual introduction for a show in a theater. But “Heart of Brick,” which had its premiere at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan on Friday, is an unusual production. It’s somewhat like a staged concert of songs from Wise’s latest album, “GRIP,” which he performs live to recorded tracks. But it’s also like an 80-minute jukebox musical in which he stars as a version of himself, the songs threaded with scenes of dialogue heard in voice-over while he and the other performers silently act and dance.
The story is sweet and slight. Having made a confidant of the crowd, Wise gets up the courage to visit a nightclub where he has heard his ex-boyfriend might be showing up. The ex-boyfriend might as well be named MacGuffin, since he isn’t mentioned again. Instead, Wise meets Brick (Dylan M. Contreras), one of the owners of the club, and the two fall for each other immediately. Will the affair last? Is Brick a heartbreaker? These are the dramatic questions.
Although the format takes some getting used to, it focuses the point of view. Wise — the only one talking and singing to us directly, the only one holding a microphone — is telling us his story. The songs, which he delivers in a sensitive, tremulous tenor, express his feelings of romantic hope and vulnerability. The dialogue, by Wise and Donte Collins in collaboration with the other performers, is naturalistic and conversational, not too subtle or shaded. A slightly catty clique of five clubgoers offers a little comic relief, but between jokes and what Wise calls “heart stuff,” heart stuff predominates.
Directed by Wu Tsang, the production is mostly clear and economical. Carlos Soto’s set design suggests location changes between the club and Wise’s apartment with little more than curtains and rails. Costumes (by Julio Delgado) and lighting (by Luke Rolls) are also mostly understated.
So, too, is the choreography (by Raja Feather Kelly). The clubgoers slink and ripple in fluid patterns and florid armwork, occasionally stretching a leg impressively towards the ceiling, hinging backward to the floor or unspooling multiple spins. But however sinuous, they are stuck in the role of backup dancers to serpentwithfeet.
Wise’s songs don’t advance the narrative or deepen insight into the characters, and several of the dialogue-to-song transitions are clunky. But mostly, the show is a cozy, comfortable experience, about the slow rewards of romance rather than sex; the lovers spoon but don’t even kiss.
Cozy and comfortable, that is, until Darius — a drunk shaman played by Justin Daniels — arrives, posing riddles and warning about poisoned plants. The clubgoers, now dressed in floral ruffles to embody the plants, entangle Brick, who collapses in a coma. To save him, Wise must go on a quest for a mystical flower.
This might be a swerve into allegory, the poisoned plants symbolising gossip (which the show also represents, amusingly, in the form of news reports). It might be a dream ballet. It is certainly an attempt to heighten the drama of intimacy issues. Not strange enough to break into the realm of the surreal, it lifts off awkwardly, as at the end of his quest Wise makes an underpowered leap into the light.
That swerve is a risky move that fails, but the true value of “Heart of Brick” lies in its simple portrayal of love between two men and in Wise’s affectionate celebration of Black gay clubs. It’s a fuzzy blanket of a show. — NYT ‘Heart of Brick’ Through Friday at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan; joyce.org.