Also see Tim's reviews of Assassin, An Ideal Husband and Endgame
Katori Hall's The Mountaintop is a fantasy grounded in reality. Hall sets her play in Martin Luther King's suite at the Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968, the night before King was assassinated while standing on the balcony just outside that suite. Worn out by travelling and death threats, he paces the floor, peers through the curtains, and checks his phone for bugging devices. And he engages in a long conversation with Camae, a pretty young maid who has just started working at the Lorraine that day.
Camae is flirtatious and foul-mouthed, and quite aware of King's reputation as a philanderer; as they flirt and share cigarettes, she brings out a lighthearted side of King that the public rarely saw. But he also asks her for advice on how best to bring his message of equality and non-violence to the masses. Eventually she reveals something that leads him, and the play, in another direction. While I won't disclose the central surprise (revealed about halfway through the 90-minute play), I will say that the play's second half finds King confronting his legacy, pondering his imminent death, and seeing how his message will be treated when he's not around to deliver it. It's an interesting concept; unfortunately, Hall accomplishes it by having King embrace a new age-style theology that seems miles away from the Baptist faith that he preached. It seems at times more like a 21st century reinterpretation of King than the real King. (I was reminded of something that the comedy writer Mark Evanier tweeted last week: "If Martin Luther King was alive, he would agree with me that it's shameful when people claim that if he was alive, he'd agree with them.")
Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of The Mountaintop has been highly controversial because it was mounted during a stagehands strike. Because of that strike, the many special effects specified in Hall's script, including video projections, physical elements that make their way into King's room, and a set that revolves to take us out onto the balcony, were missing. In their place, actress Cathy Simpson sat at the side of the stage reading stage directions such as "Thunder and lightningCRACK!" (I saw the play just after the strike ended, but the version of the play with the narrated stage directions will continue until the end of the play's run, presumably due to lack of preparation time.) This can't help but rob the play of much of the power that the playwright intended.
It's hard to criticize director Patricia McGregor, who seems to have done the best she could under extremely trying conditions. And it's even harder to criticize the two fine actors. Sekou Laidlow doesn't lower his timbre to imitate King's voice, but he does suggest King effectively, humanizing him while still bringing stirring authority and gravity to his final speech. And as Camae, Amirah Vann is playful and sassy, a perfect sounding board for King and a likable surrogate for the audience.
The Mountaintop spends too much time on speculation; I would have preferred more insight into what made King tick. Still, Hall's concept is an intriguing one. Yet PTC's reduced production had no chance of living up to its promise.
The Mountaintop won London's 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play, and was a big hit on Broadway. Let's hope that someday soon there'll be a local production that lets us see what all the fuss is about.
The Mountaintop runs through February 17, 2013, and is presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $46 – $59, with discounts for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org, or in person at the box office.
But Luna Theater's production of Lungs is surprisingly moving. Director Gregory Scott Campbell stages the piece in a small space with no scenery, surrounded by the audience on all four sides. This approach takes an already emotional story and adds to its immediacy. And the warm, naturalistic performances by David Raphaely and Charlotte Ford add to the appeal; you'll feel you know people like them, or wish you did. The end result is touchinga show that says a lot with very little.
Lungs runs through February 16, 2013, and is presented by Luna Theater Company at the Skybox at The Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $15-$30 and can be purchased by visiting www.LunaTheater.org or calling 215-704-0033.
BRT stalwart Keith Baker plays Sidney Bruhl, a writer of theatrical thrillers who hasn't had a hit in years. Now, Clifford, a writer who attended one of Sidney's writing seminars, has sent Sidney a draft of his new play "Deathtrap," which, like the play we're watching, is "a thriller in two acts, with one set and five characters." Sidney comes up with a plan to steal the credit for Clifford's playand that's just the first step of an ingenious scheme involving murder, double-crossing, psychic readings, and some vintage weapons that are hanging on Sidney's wall, ready for the taking.
BRT's production boasts a handsome set by Roman Tatarowicz as well as thunder and lightning that arrive on cue to heighten the suspense. But while the thrills are well-executed, the comedy doesn't always land as well as it should; some of the funniest lines are delivered almost as asides. (Mordecai Lawner, as Sidney's lawyer, screws up the timing on his best jokes, robbing them of laughs.) Baker plays Sidney as a friendly, avuncular figure with a sinister side; it's a good approach, but I preferred Robert Smythe's constantly shifty, sarcastic Sidney last summer at Hedgerow Theatre. Of the supporting cast, only Jo Twiss, as a nosy psychic, can hold her own with Baker.
Deathtrap loses some steam in act two, when its plot twists start to seem repetitive and its self-referential humor gets a tad tiresome. But Levin's play remains a marvel of cleverness, and BRT's production, while imperfect, is a lot of fun.
Deathtrap runs through February 24, 2013, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pa. Ticket are $35 - $45, with discounts available for students, military and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100 or online at www.BRTStage.org.