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Things of Dry Hours

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Things of Dry Hours
Garret Dillahunt, Delroy Lindo, and Roslyn Ruff.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

For those slouching toward oblivion amid the ruins of national economic devastation, a veer to the far left looks like the only way to maintain balance in the rapidly disintegrating world that Things of Dry Hours depicts. But Naomi Wallace’s new play, which just opened at New York Theatre Workshop, isn’t set in our own implosive time, and the beacon of light at its center isn’t President Obama. Its home is the Great Depression, 1932 to be exact, and its knight in red armor is Karl Marx, whose Communist Manifesto is seen by Wallace’s characters as the answer to an existence composed of nothing but debilitating questions.

Granted, Tice and Cali Hogan (Delroy Lindo and Roslyn Ruff) and Corbin Teel (Garret Dillahunt) are poor laborers struggling through meaningless and often dangerous jobs just to stay afloat, so one can understand Marx’s allure to them. What’s harder to comprehend is why Wallace thinks her pretentious, suffocatingly symbolic sales pitch is the best way to sell it to us, too. This is a play designed to outrage conservatives, condescend to liberals, and bore to bursting the apolitical, yet it still says nothing worth anyone taking the time to listen to.

If, as the play spends a turgid two and a half hours trying to convince us, Wallace truly believes that Communism is the solution for permanent equality between working men and women of all races, she has the right to communicate that. Certainly theatre has never wanted for voices spanning the left end of the political spectrum, whether sotto voce whispers (Arthur Miller), firm pronouncements (Tony Kushner), or clarion revolutionary cries (Clifford Odets, whose defining works Awake and Sing! and Waiting for Lefty premiered not long after Wallace’s play is set). But playwrights have a responsibility to entertainment and narrative and emotional clarity that Wallace flagrantly abdicates here.

So suffused with Meaning-with-a-capital-M is everything that nothing carries any identifiable substance. The unemployed African-American Tice, for example, is so obsessed with apples that the first time he speaks to us, he asks, “How many seeds does it take to fill the human hand?”, and the last time he wonders if “maybe an apple is a letter from another world,” and proceeds to break one open for us to read. Tice’s daughter, Cali, is a washwoman who routinely finds dozens of single shoes in her clients’ laundry, and rips pages from Tice’s Bible to use as toilet paper. The white Corbin, hiding out with Tice and Cali after supposedly committing a heinous crime, can’t read: Tice teaches him Marx instead of the Bible (because it’s shorter and easier to understand) with the intent of bettering him.

That it doesn’t quite work, Wallace emphasizes, is not the book’s fault: Corbin’s motives lie elsewhere, and he, Tice, and Cali will all pay a heavy price for that. So will the audience. But this is, at least, an expert production. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s spare, dark, and eerie staging rubs away the boundaries between reality and imagination and the present and the past, leaving you - like the characters - floating in memory, uncertainty, and spiritual peril. Lighting designer Marcus Doshi designs primarily in shadows, but ones that frequently illuminate the characters’ souls and troubles as well as brighter designs could.

The acting, too, is largely first-rate: Lindo, in particular, is magnetic as a faultlessly devoted father, man, and fellow traveler whose faith in God, humanity, and Marx knows no boundaries, but never preaches above the character he’s playing. Ruff is superbly rough around the edges as the shattered ice queen Cali, whom Dillahunt’s Corbin is especially good at working to melt. Each performer powerfully presents the characters’ obligations - to their classes, to their races, and to themselves - as both rewards and obstacles in a difficult life, a compelling approach to solving the problem of making Wallace’s tract breathe and bleed.

Whether Wallace was more interested in writing a Communism commercial or a playwriting grant application is difficult to tell, but she has only completely committed herself to empty theatricality. A scene in which Cali watches her sheets literally dance around the (blacklit) stage yanks the play into a mystical realm it has no reason to visit. Cali and Corbin engage in an eye-rolling game of dress-up so obvious a pandering statement about racial equality that it seems to parody August Wilson with every second it lasts. And the florid writing - "What’s driving those words comes from the motor right here under our feet, what we learned fighting a slave-owning culture with something you could never imagine: spectacular resistance and spirit” is but one example of dozens - is hopelessly at odds with the gritty determinism Wallace thinks she’s employing and championing throughout.

Things of Dry Hours would be much better if Wallace knew what she wanted it to be, so she didn’t have to fill it with everything and wind up with nothing. As so often happens to overambitious playwrights more interested in Big Themes than smart stories (such as Craig Lucas in his recent The Singing Forest at The Public Theater), the overflow of unfocused content has drowned the potentially taut, tense idea that was play-worthy in the first place. All that remains now is a tedious exercise in political proselytizing that goes bad long before Tice’s first apple has turned brown.


Things of Dry Hours
Through June 28
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one 10 minute intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge