by Barry Bassis
Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” appeared to be a sure thing - winner of the Olivier Award, starring Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Bassett as an attractive chambermaid named Camae and directed by Kenny Leon. The playwright seems determined to bring King down to earth, starting the work with the civil rights leader calling to Ralph (Abernathy, presumably) to get him a pack of cigarettes. Then, he goes to the bathroom offstage and audibly urinates, after which he returns, zipping up his fly. He orders a cup of coffee and it is delivered by Bassett; naturally, he flirts with her, they drink alcohol and discuss politics, among other things; she expresses views closer to Malcolm X’s. I won’t reveal the weird directions the two-character play takes but they are ridiculous, despite a strong montage section near the end. Jackson (wearing a wig and sporting a mustache) is completely credible, as both the public and the private Dr. King. Bassett is equally gifted, with an extraordinary range of facial expressions and vocal intonations but she is misdirected into overacting and lapsing into comedy shtick. Setting the play in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis (where Dr, King stayed) on the night before he was assassinated is an intriguing idea but Hall has not completely developed it as a play. On the plus side, David Gallo’s motel set looks real and Branford Marsalis’ score perfectly sets the mood.
“The Atmosphere of Memory,” a new play by David Bar Katz, directed by Pam MacKinnon (with a modest set by David Gallo), is a send-up of autobiographical plays, like those by O’Neill and Williams. It begins with a play within a play, in which the author (Max Casella) has cast his mother as herself. Things go awry when his other family members show up to dispute his version of the events. His sister (Melissa Ross) is offended that she is depicted as having played with his genitals in the bathtub when they were children. Then, the author’s cocky deadbeat dad appears to add his caustic comments. Katz is lucky to have Ellen Burstyn and John Glover as the warring parents. While some of the jokes score, the work quickly becomes tiresome. To transform this unhappy childhood into art would require better writing than is on display here.
Terence Rattigan’s 1963 drama “Man and Boy” is being revived by Roundabout Theatre Company, perhaps because its central figure, Gregor Antonescu, is a crooked financier. Although he is a Romanian in the play, and the character is supposedly based on the Swedish “match king” Ivar Kreuger, he is a sort of Bernie Madoff figure. In the Depression era play, Antonescu has a son, whom he hasn’t seen in five years (because after learning his father’s secrets the young man disappeared, changing his name and moving into a basement apartment in Greenwich Village, where the work is set). Antonescu tracks him down and proceeds to have his son pose as his gay lover so that the crook can pull off one more big scam, using his heterosexual son as bait. The financial maneuvering makes sense; the family drama does not. The main reason to see the dated work—Rattigan wrote some excellent plays, but this isn’t one of them—is the fascinating Frank Langella as the mysterious financier. The rest of the cast is fine, including Adam Driver as the weak-willed son, attractive Virginia Kull as the son’s girlfriend, Zach Grenier as the sleazy businessman/mark and Michael Siberry as Antonescu’s right-hand-man Sven. Francesca Faridany is amusing as Antonescu’s wife, though she seems to have wandered in from a Noel Coward comedy. Director Maria Aitken delivered more pleasure with “39 Steps,” so maybe I prefer her work in comedy, or perhaps a stronger drama than this. In any event, Langella is worth the price of admission.