Wednesday, April 1, 2009

filthy thespians

no, they don't.

I went and saw 'Radio Golf' the other night for a review that will be published in the Post tomorrow, but here's a mandroppings exclusive!!! A day early. :)

If you're not familiar with playwright August Wilson, read about him here. Amazing man.

Also, I forgot to post my review of 'The Visitor' at Miner's Alley a while back--a helluva show, if you're like me and you get into the whole god vs. atheism debate. In that show, Sigmund Freud encounters a man who claims to be God on the night before he flees Vienna, and the two of them have a veerrrrry interesting conversation. Here's the link to 'The Visitor' review, and here's the 'Radio Golf' review in its entirety.


RADIO GOLF - 3 stars - running time 2:27

Blight. It’s an ugly word, redolent of failure and hopelessness. There was a time when newscasters spoke of creeping blight in many American cities as if it were cancer, consuming poor, often largely African-American neighborhoods.

So when two real estate developers in August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” celebrate a phone call with joyous whoops of “Blight! Blight!” it’s a little disconcerting, especially in this age of unprecedented foreclosure rates.

Are these men mad?

Actually they’re more like “Mad Men,” confident, up-and-coming players in a new economic reality, only this is the go-go late 1990s. Harmond Wilks and his partner Roosevelt Hicks (Terrence Riggins and Darryl Alan Reed, respectively) are counting on the city’s designation of blight in order to secure federal funding for a $100 million redevelopment project in the troubled Hill neighborhood. The final play in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle in a dual sense--capping the ten decades of the 20th century as well as the last Pittsburgh play he wrote--has Wilks and Hicks set to cash in on the official humiliation of their childhood home.

The irony is mostly lost on the two men, though less so for Wilks, who is also gearing up for a run at becoming the city’s first African-American mayor with the help of his wife Mame, (Kim Staunton) who has ambitions of her own. Wilks is positioning himself as a crusader against racially-based police unfairness, and through Riggins’ heartfelt portrayal he seems genuine in his desire to lift all boats, even while lifting his own. Reed’s Roosevelt Hicks is less high-minded, with a near-lascivious craving to enter the white-controlled world of big money and power, at any cost.

Into the picture walk a couple of strange characters, a loopy construction worker named Sterling Johnson (Harvy Blanks) and an old man, Elder Joseph Barlow (played by Charles Weldon) who claims to own one of the houses scheduled for demolition--1839 Wylie, the former home of one Aunt Ester.

If that name and others sound familiar, it’s no accident. In “Radio Golf” Wilson connects a number of modern characters to family bloodlines from past stories in ways that are too complex to go into here. Suffice to say, Harmond Wilks delves into the history of the house, discovering that there may be legal complications in the way he and his company acquired it.

Director Israel Hicks--who, with this production is now the first to direct all ten plays of the cycle with one company--elicits riveting performances from all five actors as these characters chase money and a new life, even while the past pursues them.

Staunton’s role could easily be considered a throwaway by some actors, but she conveys both her character’s ambition and love for her husband with a genuine ferocity, culminating in a heart-wrenching scene that is almost physically painful to witness.

As Elder Joseph Barlow, Weldon is befuddled yet cagey, full of wit and wisdom buried in seemingly nonsensical meanderings--and he is also the heart of the show. His character and that of Blanks’ delightfully unhinged Sterling Johnson have double-duty as truth-tellers to the blinkered Buppies they encounter, as well as being much of the comic relief. Aside from a few too-big moments early on from Blanks, they are both dead-on believable.

As is the connection and the ensuing tensions between Riggins and Reed as the business partners. But here’s where the play falls a little flat as well--through no fault of the director or the company--and it’s more a cause for sadness than dissatisfaction. Finished as Wilson was dying of liver cancer, the play never got the ruthless pre-Broadway workshopping and rewrites his previous plays had, and thus the story seems occasionally clunky, with a number of monologues that are more long-winded than necessary. More troubling, there are sometimes character zig-zags rather than arcs; one character in particular changes in a way that is just too abrupt to be fully believed.

To be sure, it’s a beautiful play, crammed full of all-too-real human moments, as were all of Wilson’s plays. But one can only wonder what it might have become had he had more time.

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