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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Sheldon Best
Photo by Ahron Foster.

Okay, so it quite doesn't leave you breathless. But as currently being presented by Atlantic Theater Company at its Stage 2 space, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is definitely a winning combination of speed, stamina, and endurance. Add in good direction (by Leah C. Gardiner) and a more-than-capable cast led by Sheldon Best in the genuinely marathon central role, and Roy Williams's stage adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's 1959 short story has no trouble whatsoever pulling you across the finish line.

Best plays Colin Smith, a black British teenager who's thrown into prison school after robbing an abandoned building, but who distinguishes himself behind bars by way of his one saleable talent: his ability to run. He's thrust into a cross-country competition, with the understanding that if he wins the race and brings glory to his school, things will be easier for him for the remainder of his tenure. But for Colin, at once a troublemaker and an active socialist with high-flying ideas of equality, the choice of personal comfort at the feet of the power players or a life of spiritually secure torture is not as easy as it may seem.

Light on plot though the play may be, neither Williams nor director Leah C. Gardiner ever gets tripped up by any inherent thinness. They probe into Colin's mind by rendering the various crucial scenes of his life — focusing on before, during, and after the crime, yes, but with detours featuring his loving father who died (Malik Yoba), his impatient mother (Zainab Jah) and the abusive men she takes in, his equally delinquent friend Jase (Joshua E. Nelson) and their girlfriends (Jasmine Cephas Jones, Sydney Sainté) — as memories that haunt and inform him during his final race, a choice that effectively highlights the internal confliction that constantly drives Colin. The set (by Lauren Helpern) and lights (Michael Chybowski) cannily keep us within Colin's field of vision at all times, while also allowing for the nearly instantaneous transitions that keep the dramatic heart rate way up from beginning to end.

Williams has done some noticeable but smart updating to wrench Colin's tale out of the late 1950s and early 60s (when the movie version, which starred Tom Courtenay and provided some material for this treatment, was produced). This is occasionally as minor as references to devices such as iPads, and sometimes as socially significant as referencing the world financial collapse, constantly simmering youth unrest in Europe, or the rapidly increasing Muslim population of Britain, all of which peel away more compelling layers of Colin's state of mind. Though Sillitoe is frequently seen as one of the "angry young men" writers of his era (along the lines of John Osborne), Williams takes nothing for granted and ensures that you're always aware that Colin has plenty of things to be upset about.

The performers all latch onto this prevailing attitude, crafting characters who become as Colin would see so many of them: looking out for their own best interests. Nelson is particularly amiable as Jase, the bad influence with a good heart; and Jah finds just the balance between love and frustration that keeps you from either warming to or turning away from Colin's mother entirely. Todd Weeks is quite good, too, as a psychologist with no shortage of ulterior motives of his own.

But the evening's biggest asset is also its chief flaw. Best is forceful and fiery as Colin, tapping directly into the boy's rage while still keeping it anchored — his outbursts never come out of nowhere, and he provides a good selection of reasons to agree with Colin's numerous complaints. That Best effortlessly moves from lengthy running scenes to quieter and calmer conversations, with no noticeable loss in energy or intensity, is admirable as well, and he makes the final scene, a protracted journey across the course's final 50 years, uncommonly riveting.

Good as Best is, however, he does not convincingly play 17. A crucial element of Colin is the notion that he has at once his entire life in front of him and no future to speak of; if you don't believe in his youth, his innocence, even his latent naïveté, his chronicle is sapped of both its triumph and its tragedy. Best, observably mature and gym-honed, does not naturally communicate the loss that Colin represents, and that prevents this production from being as bracing and as moving as it could probably otherwise be.

Even so, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is taut and entertaining, a pungent glimpse at the internal and external struggles that make us who we are. You may not be able to relate with Colin's specific circumstances, but his quest to find himself amid the roiling uncertainty of his existence is so well realized that you'll feel as though he could be your brother — or, even more likely, that you could be him.


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Through February 9
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets and performance schedule at OvationTix