Monday, June 25, 2007

The last hole, played with a handicap

When I told my younger sister I was on my way to see a play called Radio Golf, she said, "That sounds even more boring than televised golf." It is a strange title, no doubt about it, especially for the final entry in what TCG is calling "The August Wilson Century Cycle." It sounds like it was generated at random, like Wilson riffled through a dictionary wearing a blindfold and chose the first two nouns his finger landed on. The result is like a nonsense verse, memorable and pleasing to the ear, but not at all evocative. Say it to yourself, and wait for an image to form; nothing will come. It stubbornly refuses to take shape. The title might as well be "Word Salad." (Or "Googlewhack" -- and in that light, it is a very decade-appropriate choice.) Following the impressionism of Two Trains Running, the lyricism of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the poetry of Gem of the Ocean and the grandeur of King Hedley II, the perplexing diffidence of Radio Golf feels more like a question mark than an exclamation point.

This is probably not an accident -- after all, by the time this play (set in 1997) kicks off, Aunt Ester is long dead, and the cost of that loss seems to outweigh any of the century's gains. But appropriate or not, the title is a puzzle, and so my hat is off to the folks at TMG -- The Marketing Group, if they are the ones responsible for the Radio Golf logo. I stopped to admire it the first time I passed the off-the-beaten-path Cort Theatre, where the Broadway production ends its run next week. Rather than trying to make the title itself concrete, they styled the words "August Wilson's Radio Golf" in red, white and blue block letters, combined with a flag, like a campaign poster (not unlike this, and very much like the Bush Cheney '04 logo, but I'm having a hard time finding an example of that one that hasn't been satirically altered). Presented in this way, the title suddenly refers directly to the play's central character, a would-be mayoral candidate (the "radio" and "golf" portions of the plot center on a supporting character); it communicates clearly; it gestures to the work's greater significance (the story Wilson is telling is America's story). It's simple, it's striking, it looks great on a marquee. Very, very well done.

I wish I could tell you that what's happening onstage at the Cort is as focused and effective as the posters outside. Radio Golf is not Wilson's finest play, it's true, but it's hardly an embarrassment to his legacy. The people who grab your attention in the other nine plays, with their wild imaginations and unpredictable moods and rich histories and, above all, their wonderful language -- the characters who stay with you when you leave the theatre -- you can find them in Radio Golf, too. But, for the most part, this production hasn't found them. With one exception -- the reliably terrific Anthony Chisholm -- the actors in this cast barely scratch the surface of their characters. Harry Lennix, playing Harmond Wilks, the above-mentioned politician and the play's central character, is the biggest handicap. He's so stiff he's hard to watch; he seems to be longing for the final curtain, and waiting nervously for his next cue in the meantime. The script doesn't give Wilks much color, it's true, but the conflict between tradition and progress (to put it very crudely) comes down to Wilks, in the end, and the play's success depends on our investment in his struggle. Lennix's wooden performance gives the audience nothing to hold on to, no sense that anything vital is at stake, no reason to care one way or the other. Tonya Pinkins, who plays his wife, has very little to do here, which isn't her fault, but it's still a surprise to see how little she's done with what Wilson did give her. James A. Williams, playing Roosevelt Hicks, the closest thing this play has to a villain, is far less stiff than Lennix but not much more effective. John Earl Jelks has a more colorful character to play, and he would do all right if he slowed down, but he and his castmates all seem determined to spit out their lines as fast as possible. It's as if director Kenny Leon, having noticed that the play was running long (no kidding!) and losing the attention of the audience, instructed his cast to pick up the pace until the play sounded like a 1930s comedy without the jokes. Too bad the pace wasn't the problem.

Only Anthony Chisholm, as this play's evasive truth-teller, Elder Joseph Barlow, takes his time, making sure each line is spoken by a fully-formed, living character. And only when Chisholm is onstage does the play come to life; only then does it feel like something from the August Wilson canon. Barlow's speech about carrying the flag in World War II, his explanation of how he was arrested for walking a dog -- prime examples of Wilson's remarkable ability to entertain, provoke and disarm an audience, expertly delivered. But Chisholm's way of skimming lightly over the text, picking at its richness without completely digging in, feels inadequate here. In the more fantastical Gem of the Ocean, where I last saw Chisholm on Broadway, a light touch was advisable; the appetite might have sickened, otherwise, confronted with such a surfeit of riches. But here, without a LisaGay Hamilton or a Ruben Santiago-Hudson or a Phylicia Rashad to pick up the slack, you find yourself wishing Chisholm would add a little ham to the menu.

I swear I don't seek this out, but it's becoming a staple of my reviews, this part where I tell you how my view was literally restricted by some aspect of the staging and/or the theatre's layout. I may have cursed myself when I chose a name for my blog. In this case, a climactic moment near the end of the play was blocked so badly that, as Sterling applied his "warpaint" and the rest of the audience hooted and clapped, those of us seated on the far left side of the orchestra found ourselves looking at James A. Williams's broad back. That means that at every performance, at least 15 people, all sitting in seats that (at full price) cost more than $80, are unable to see what is, for the rest of the audience, the play's most exciting moment -- all because nobody important ever bothered to watch the show from those seats.

Finally, I need to add a word of praise for David Gallo's marvelous set design. The storefront real estate office is simple enough, but it's the details that surround it -- the torn-away tin ceiling, the decaying second story, the frozen-in-time diner next door -- that really set the scene. With its focus on the middle class and its flat landscape of politics and urban development, Radio Golf can feel strangely set off from the rest of the Century Cycle. But Gallo's set places this play squarely in the center of the Hill District, and firmly in step with the plays that came before it. It isn't Gallo's fault that his set has more character than most of the play's performances -- I found myself wishing for a scene or two to be set around that old lunch counter. But that decade has been covered and left behind -- and Wilson wrote a wonderful play about the result. You just can't tell from the production now on Broadway.

Even in a production as flaccid as this one, August Wilson's writing brings out the academic in me; every time I read or see one of his plays, I want to go to grad school and spend the next seven years tracing the threads of symbolism and family history that run through his Century Cycle. Perhaps it is OK not to like August Wilson's plays, as Hilton Als would have it, but I much prefer to love them. I stand amazed at the way his work can be personal and grand, humble and sweeping all at once. How marvelous to have caught the end of the Cycle as it unfolded; to see Aunt Ester make her entrance, more than halfway through, first dead, then alive, then long forgotten, and then to look back at the completed Cycle and see her there at the beginning. I feel lucky to have been here to see it happen. I just wish the sendoff had been as inspiring as the work.

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