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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Larry Bryggman, David Lansbury, and Souléymane Sy Savané.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

The three characters in Groundswell, the play by South African playwright Ian Bruce that The New Group is presenting at the Acorn Theatre, are in a seaside rooming house, trapped between the ocean on one side and the desert on the other. But it's desperation, rather than the land or the water, that best defines the cages in which these men are housed. Being told that organizational and governmental changes were for the best, but seeing they haven't turned out exactly as promised, has led them to distrust each other and the life that's crumbling down around them. Does salvation lie with other people or within themselves?

If that question intrigues you, then so will Scott Elliott's production of Bruce's 2005 play. Taut, terse, and gracefully acted by Larry Bryggman, David Lansbury, and Souléymane Sy Savané, it savagely twists up the all-too-familiar quandary of "What do you do now that you've got what you thought you wanted?" with issues of class, entitlement, and racism that have disquieting parallels with the direction of our own country. Bruce's play is not complicated or deeply original writing, but it's uncomfortable in the best of ways when the warring souls at its center hash out a century's worth of strife during one stormy day.

That's "stormy" in both the literal and the figurative senses, by the way. Although dangerous winds may be whipping up outside the Garnet Guest Lodge, the tempest inside is even more destructive. Johan (Lansbury), a white diamond diver at the end of his rope, has convinced the black Thami (Savané) to agree to buy a diamond mine the government is selling, so that - with some luck - they can become millionaires within a scant two years. Lacking the upfront capital they need, they turn to Smith (Bryggman), a recently retired investment banker on an impromptu vacation, to front them 200,000 rands as an "investment."

It's both accurate and misleading to state that well over half the evening is concerned with the minutiae of that transaction: agreeing to terms, signing the check, and so forth. This isn't a business play in any recognizable sense - not least because Johan and Thami's negotiation tactics are, shall we say, unorthodox - even though it is a play about success. Rather, it draws its considerable strength from the characters' knowledge or belief that they already haven't found it, and why.

Johan expects a reward for his years of service as a policeman taking dangerous chances in an atmosphere of national chaos. Thami is hopeful but frustrated that he can't give his wife and children the life he thinks they deserve. And Smith's life has been ravaged by affirmative action, which he believes in the post-Apartheid era has just formed an entirely new stratum of victims. When these perspectives collide over the acquisition of that mine, the full panoply of need and rage that drive the men, as well as the play's most piercing moments, can't help but leak out.

The most direct delivery comes from Johan, who delivers an impressive multiminute tirade on the cultural and sociological significance of Smith's outlay. But Smith and Savané each act or react from vantage points specific to their own losses or slipping-away possessions, Smith betrayed by the job and family he loved and Savané finding success too elusive to continue pursuing it the way he has been, that the playing field is a fair one. The instant you think you know whose side you're on, the balance of innocence shifts just enough to change your mind.

Groundswell, however, is more well crafted than it is good. Despite a handful of obligatory twists, Bruce never seriously floats the question of who will end up with what. There aren't too many ways for this story to end, so the plotting is largely obligatory and heavily reliant on your understanding of and sympathy with these characters who are building a new regime of hate after escaping another one. If you can't provide that, or if you're not able to connect with these men, even the modest 100-minute running time can be a bit of a slog. The lack of poetic dialogue, vividly painted characters, and scintillating plot details don't help.

At least Elliott has smartly helmed things, keeping the pacing at a constant yet unobtrusive push most of the time, and only gradually bringing the various simmering resentments to a full, rolling boil. Derek McLane has designed such a homily realistic common room for the lodge, you can almost smell the sea hitting the rocks outside. The performances, too, are elegantly rickety: Savané is particularly good, so emaciating Thami's soul that you immediately understand why he's willing to take the risks he is. Bryggman and Lansbury, if less focused in their intensity, are nonetheless highly effective.

The actors all convey the necessary sense of flailing against the tide, struggling to not be swallowed by an out-of-control force far bigger than they. This is fixed for us by Smith, who upon first entering the lodge and hearing the sea bell outside remembers some key words from T.S. Eliot: "And under the oppression of the silent fog / The toiling bell / Measures time, not our time, rung by the unhurried / Ground swell." The three men come to understand that the bell tolls for all of them, as much an invitation as a warning. Groundswell may not be hurricane-force theatre, but at its best it makes you think the ringing is for you - and for all humanity.

Through June 27
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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