The best bargain in New York theatre is back: Tickets to the Signature Theatre Company's sparkling new production of August Wilson's Two Trains Running are just $15, thanks to the sponsorship of Time Warner. That means you can see a first-rate production of a first-class playwright's work for less than you'd probably spend on dinner beforehand. Does it matter, then, that Two Trains Running is second-tier Wilson? No.
This play, the 1960s entry in the playwright's decade-by-decade examination of 20th-century African-American life, might be overburdened with mystical overtones and undercut its broader themes with incompletely realized characters. But it roots itself so aggressively in history (ours and its own), and denies neither itself nor us the pain or the pleasure of its era, that even its comparatively minor achievements feel like major successes.
The concepts of major and minor, in fact, are crucial to director Lou Bellamy's vision: In his hands, Two Trains Running seems like Wilson's least overtly operatic work and his most inherently symphonic. Not merely in the way it's powered by surges of love and anger, pulses of gain and loss, and a sturdy underscoring of evenness that tinges every success with failure and every disappointment with redemption, but in the very sounds of the 1969 Pittsburgh diner in which the show takes place. (The grubbily excellent set is by Derek McLane.)
You may be forgiven for temporarily mistaking the establishment of Memphis (Frankie Faison) for a concert hall. After all, the scraping of silverware, the scuttling of chairs, and the steady clopping of the shoes worn by the slow-moving waitress Risa (January Lavoy) are intensely, almost distractingly musical. Wilson may have scripted this play with words rather than notes, but Bellamy finds in its ebullient everyday rhythms the resonating sounds of change.
For while the diner might be located across the street from a butcher shop and a funeral home, it's stationed even more strategically between the violent past and an uncertain future. At one end of the diner, Memphis struggles to keep his business afloat until he can sell it to the city for $25,000 - a sum they're none too willing to pay. At the other end, Wolf (Ron Cephas Jones) mans the pay phone, bringing the local numbers game and its promise of instant wealth to the city's black residents on behalf of the game's white organizers.
Their stories are punctuated by the philosophical, elderly Holloway (Arthur French), whose ideas about black men laboring for whites are strictly ingrained; Sterling (Chad L. Coleman), the ex-con whose quest for emotional and financial security is thwarted by the world - and Risa - time and time again; West (Ed Wheeler), the wealthy undertaker who profits from every black death; and Hambone (Leon Addison Brown), a mentally challenged man who's determined not to let the white butcher welsh on payment of a ham he feels he earned for performing some manual labor - nearly 10 years earlier.
Because the play's focus never narrows onto just one character, that all this doesn't cohere into a specific plot gives Two Trains Running a looser, more unfinished feel than most of Wilson's other plays. The ensemble of characters, who occupy various points along the economic spectrum in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, feel like cultural landmarks more than fully developed human beings, something that Wilson's other dramas scrupulously avoid, with many of their monologues, frequent highlights of any Wilson play, are at best dutiful.
But Bellamy allows you to see how their squabbles and shufflings are the byproducts of the fear and hope defining their existence. No one portrays this better than Faison, who modulates his businessman demeanor with such stunning subtlety that violent outbursts, drunken ramblings, and practical jokes all seem to come from the same place. Lavoy brings just the right energy to the chronically exhausted Risa and makes her the play's sympathetic center. And if Coleman could find more depth and more colors in the social outrage that drives Sterling, he's otherwise top-notch - as is everyone else.
While the ultimate effect of their work is one that's overwhelmingly positive, the most important character, however, is one we never see: Aunt Ester, the 300+ year-old woman whose abilities to heal, calm, and remedy problems make her the community's spiritual backbone. Her edicts and advice inform all the other characters and, though none of them know it yet, will for decades to come. Given the vital role we now know Aunt Ester plays in Wilson's decalogy (this was the first play in which she was referenced), her use as a device to propel these people along their proper paths feels less desperate than once it might have.
It still feels a bit forced, actually. But Aunt Ester's presence in other plays and her impact on their characters have become a powerful anchoring force for this play, allowing it to at last register as a brief respite between two periods of great tragedy. When Two Trains Running seems lost in indecisive fog, as it frequently does, it becomes a beacon of light that illuminates this lesser work as one of great significance.
Two Trains Running