NEW YORK — The most powerful line in “Patience,” Johnny G. Lloyd’s new play about Black excellence, comes not from the world-champion solitaire player at its center but from a teenage opponent quietly eyeing the champ’s crown, skilled and ferocious and determined to dethrone him.
“I’m not going to apologize for wanting to dominate,” she says. “I’m not going to apologize for making myself lethal.” And then comes the vital bit, landing like a punch: “I’m not going to apologize for losing, because one day I will be winning and winning and winning.”
That’s the thing about the path to success, isn’t it — that talented people need to be allowed to stumble sometimes, then continue their quest. “Patience” itself is a case in point. Part of the Second Stage Theater Uptown series dedicated to emerging playwrights and early-career artists, the show isn’t a win for Lloyd and his director, Zhailon Levingston, but it’s hardly a wipeout either.
Daniel Bryant (Justiin Davis), the play’s 25-year-old Black superstar, hasn’t stumbled in a very long time. Two decades ago, he exhibited a talent for solitaire, and his mother (Mary E. Hodges), who is also his manager, has been nurturing it ever since. Undefeated for four years running, he is focused, famous and alone at the top.
Solitaire is an obscure choice of game to graft onto those glittery circumstances, but Lloyd is thinking figuratively — about a competition in which one’s true opponent is oneself, and about the pressure and isolation of being an only.
Daniel is so adept at flying solo in his cosseted life that his adorable fiance, Jordan (the immensely likable and funny Jonathan Burke), has a very specific, not-unreasonable-sounding fear: that one day the phone will ring and on the other end will be someone who works for Daniel, calling to dump him on Daniel’s behalf. Although he and Jordan have just bought a fancy new house, their relationship feels less than solid, and anyway, Daniel is a living-in-the-moment kind of guy.
“The future is terrifying,” he says.
On the fence about what should come next, he is tempted to retire — until the 18-year-old up-and-comer Ella (Zainab Barry) appears on the scene, threatening his dominance with her own Black excellence. Daniel’s mother, understandably frightened that her career will collapse if he stops playing, encourages a match between them without mentioning a crucial fact: She has taken on Ella as a client, too.
Does that seem like an implausible conflict of interest and egregious betrayal of trust? Yes. Are we meant to give Daniel’s mother (the character’s name is simply Mother) a pass? Apparently. It’s a distracting complication that seems manufactured, and not for any clear reason — not even after the play’s Venus-and-Serena theme becomes overt.
You will be primed for that motif early on, when Daniel tells a class of high schoolers that he has “been called the Venus Williams of solitaire,” and you think: Venus, really? Not Serena? Then Daniel’s friend, Nikita (Nemuna Ceesay), mentions that same fact about him, unnecessarily.
When Ella happens to have the same surname as Daniel, although they’re not related, it seems tailored to the Williams sisters metaphor, in which, of course, she is Serena. On the plus side, the coincidence of their both being Bryants does allow Ella to make a pointed observation.
“Very popular name,” she says. “Could go into why, if we really wanted to. Probably something depressing. Or — colonial.”
At the McGinn/Cazale Theater on the Upper West Side, “Patience” has an across-the-board appealing cast, and the show is beautifully designed, except for an unpersuasive late scene involving the illusion of two Daniels. (Set by Lawrence E. Moten III, costumes by Avery Reed, lights by Adam Honoré, sound by Christopher Darbassie.)
Ultimately, though, the play’s balance is off, as if it can’t decide whether Daniel anchors it, or if Daniel and Ella do, or if maybe the show wants to be an ensemble piece.
Its heart, though, is invested in a future in which Black megatalents such as Daniel and Ella — or Venus and Serena — don’t have to occupy the pinnacle of their field one at a time.
“I will not be intimidated by the competition,” Ella vows. “I will welcome it, I will not try to crush it, I will encourage it, I will make room. I will make room and I will still win. Because I know there can be more than one.”
‘Patience’Through Aug. 28 at the McGinn/Cazale Theater, Manhattan; 2st.com. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.