Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 13, 2011
The Mountaintop by Katori Hall. Directed by Kenny Leon. Original music by Branford Marsalis. Set & projection design by David Gallo. Costume design by Constanza Romero. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Hair & wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett.
That's no small achievement given the circumstances. True, Hall's play has as its subject a man and a time that would seem to inherently inspire adventurous, mezzanine-engulfing performances: Martin Luther King, Jr., on his last night alive. The setting is ripe for righteous examination of how far America has come in terms of race relations and how far it still has to go, and would enable a probing discussion of the very nature of prejudice. A true crusader confronting his legacy head on is a theatrical conflagration — and likely a Tony Award — waiting to happen.
Hall has provided something rather different and, if you can believe it, lower key here. King has arrived at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis following his landmark "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech on April 3, 1968, and is steeling himself for a long night of work. That requires coffee, so he calls room service to order some. It's delivered by a maid named Camae, who is thoroughly familiar with King's work, and more than a little in awe of the man. The two strike up a conversation, and spend the next hour and a half or so discussing the nature of the world and the people in it until it's time for King to face the assassin's bullet.
Okay, maybe there's a little more to it than that, as Camae is keeping a secret about who she is and why she's there, but that's the gist of what goes on. No adoring throngs, no history-sweeping action, not even a set that reconsiders King's accomplishments on an epic sale (though the hotel room David Gallo has designed is right for what it is). So subdued is the treatment, in fact, that if you didn't know who King was and why he was important, you might wonder from what Hall has written whether he really deserves a play at all. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's an unusual approach for one of the last half-century's legitimately titanic figures — and one that won't easily pay dramatic dividends.
That, of course, is where the actors come in. Jackson is famous for releasing a certain kind of fervor in his films, a heat that's always tinged by what seems to be rage at the existential nature of the universe. Yet here he displays not a trace of anger, infusing King's passion instead with a different slate of qualities we might more readily associate with the actual man: love, hope, optimism, exhaustion, and perhaps most tellingly of all fatalism. Jackson's King trudges through life with the gait of a man who knows he's walking a prescribed path, and maybe no longer wants to, but feels compelled because he honestly believes no one else could fill his shoes.
Bassett is every bit as good in a role that offers far fewer opportunities. She's an adept comedian who can turn the hoariest of gags into a theatre-bust-up laugh line (something Hall requires more often than she should, especially since these are variations on the same "simple girl doesn't know how to behave before her idol" theme), yet acquires a glorious stateliness when serious that can puncture lines that aren't intended to be anything like sermons. Her final speech, musing on the African-American relationship to both the past and the future is written as more slam poetry than a barn burner. But by the time she approaches the climax, she's whipped the audience — and most likely you — into such a frenzy you won't be able to tell the difference between the two.
Some credit for the production's success must go to its director, Kenny Leon. He's cut his teeth in New York primarily on the works of August Wilson (he was at the helm of the excellent 2010 Broadway revival of Fences), who built his career on bringing a sense of epic size to people who wouldn't traditionally be considered worthy of it. That's exactly the approach needed here, and Leon's ability to make as unremarkable a script as this one as affecting as it is should be considered one of his finest New York theatre achievements to date.
If one can't help but wish that Hall had made more emphatic choices for this unusual biography, it's difficult to argue with the results. Even if they're due more to factors outside the script, they're firmly present nonetheless and an energizing early salvo in the Broadway season. You can complain if you want to that, in this case, a great American did not get a great play written about him. But why not just be happy that Leon, Jackson, and Bassett have made The Mountaintop from a molehill?