Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews
Theatre Reviews
by Harvey Perr
published May 15, 2007
Now playing on Broadway at the Cort Theatre
Now playing on Broadway at the Music Box
closes August 19, 2007
Now playing on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre
“Radio Golf” has arrived, just in time, to keep the Broadway season from making a complete fool of itself as far as American playwriting is concerned. The last of August Wilson’s ten-play cycle about the African-American experience in the last century may not be the best – I think it’s fair to say that it doesn’t quite possess the breadth of vision, the lavish lyricism, the complexity of character that one vividly remembers when one reflects upon the strongest plays in the cycle – but it understands that the intellectual charge is what fuels emotions and that, behind the plain speaking and the theatrical current that runs through it, it is that charge which is at the heart of drama.
This is the play in the decalogue which takes us into the present or, at least, the very recent past (the past, after all, has been Wilson’s bailiwick), and the language, in keeping with this more contemporary tale, is a little sharper, a little meaner, a little less contemplative. But it moves from scene to scene at an almost breakneck pace, gathering power as it goes. Its central character, Harmond Wilks (the excellent Harry Lennix), is a stolid forward looking go-getter who has bought up some valuable property with his partner, Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), that they plan to turn into a residential complex, a feat which will boost his chances to become mayor. That is, until he is made to realize that the house belongs to Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm), a poor and somewhat shabby character he cannot really ignore or dismiss. And the man he has hired to raze the house, Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jenks), is painting it instead, because he can’t help but be on Barlow’s side, because, after all, with Barlow, he is naturally on the side of the angels. The dilemma is no more original than it was in Frank Capra’s version of “You Can’t Take It With You,” but it has its own resonance, its own sense of the truth, its own personal humanity.
The weakness of the play – and we’ll never know if Wilson, had he lived. would have chipped away at it until he got it right – is that Wilks and his wife Mame (Tonya Pinkins)
are not fully fleshed out characters, and that his villain, Hicks, has been denied the sly glissandos of speech and the shifting colors Wilson gave so beautifully to his past villains. Still, under Kenny Leon’s sure, swift and heartfelt direction, the play itself has shape and size. And David Gallo’s set contrasts the ugliness of Wilks’s temporary office with the almost beautiful rot that surrounds it and threatens to swallow it up.
Best of all, Chisholm and Welks, both of whom seem to know their way around a Wilson aria, bring full glory to their characterizations and carry the play to the heights it aspires to and, more often than not, achieves.
It may be ungracious to say so, but one can’t help wondering why two old pros like Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes didn’t have the savvy to know that, if the play’s the thing, Terrence McNally’s “Deuce” is no thing. It is, in fact, one of those plays in which the more the characters speak, the less they reveal. It might also be said that the characters – two one-time tennis greats who are to be feted after the game they are sitting through comes to an end – are interchangeable. And the shameless pandering of the plays’s final moments clearly shows that McNally is not nearly as interested in the tennis players as he is in the stars who are playing them. “Our last hurrah,” McNally has Miss Lansbury say, “and we wasted it on a circus exhibition.” Enough said.
It is difficult to not pay attention to an audience that gets swept up in a frenzy of excitement and is brought to its feet in a collective ear-splitting hurrah. But that is what happens at the National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s “Coram Boy.” I guess this is what is referred to as an “audience” play. After all, it is pure spectacle, and audiences have been responding to spectacle ever since they threw the Christians to the lions, and probably long before that.
I must say that in the first act, which is really nothing more than a set-up for the second, the spectacle proved liberating, even transforming. There is a scene in which crying babies are buried alive that provides one of those bone-chilling moments that, once experienced, clings to one’s memory. And for sheer creepiness, the digging up of the skeletons of those dead babies is its equal. And there are more than enough sparks to keep one’s interest alive:  young boys with glorious voices, played by young women, the better to capture the purity of that sound; constant movement on a constantly revolving stage; a dastardly villain who plucks infants from unwed mothers; his son, a rather slowish chap who, of course, does his father’s bidding but has an instinctive feeling for children that one suspects will prove his downfall; a compassionate villainess; a nasty father who would disinherit his son should he prefer music to the family business; a public hanging. And the director, Melly Still, who also designed the fabulous sets and costumes in collaboration with Ti Green, could, on the basis of her work here, sign up tomorrow, if that is her wont, to direct the next Cirque de Soleil extravaganza.
By the end of the second act, we’ve been through an underwater drowning, slave ships galore, George Frideric Handel as comic relief, a father and son reunion, the comeuppance of the villains, angels floating overhead, a red-robed chorus singing the “Ode to Joy” from Handel’s “Messiah” on that accursed revolving stage. Is it, in the end, exhaustion rather than excitement that brings the audience to its feet? Exhaustion or excitement, one is forced to capitulate that there hasn’t been one character we have more than passing interest in, that this is the biggest slab of hokum served up this season and, this above all, “Coram Boy” is the most noisome English import since treacle.
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