Sunday, June 14, 2009
Photo: Monique Carboni
Ah, the strangeness of New York theatre. On Broadway, God of Carnage, a faux-meaningful piece of nasty fluff, in which the highlight is on-stage vomiting, walks off with a couple of Tonys. Off Broadway, Groundswell, a flawed but intense, compassionate, thoughtful, and thought-provoking drama, sells discounted tickets and may well vanish into the theatre ether with barely a ripple. It's not fair. Of course, the unfairness that South African playwright Ian Bruce examines in Groundswell is of a more serious sort: the unfairness of racism, of lack of opportunity, of ignorance, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Groundswell takes place in post-Apartheid South Africa. Thami (Souleymane Sy Savane), who is black, works in a lodge and sends money home to his family, who live in a tin-roofed shack that is freezing in cold weather and searing in hot. His dream is to make enough money to be able to live again with his family in reasonable comfort; he is willing to work hard to make his dreams come true. Johan (the amazing David Lansbury), who is white, is an ex-cop, a deep-sea diver who has been injured by the bends, and an alcoholic. He dreams of a big win that will allow him to have a huge farm and never have to deep-sea dive again. Smith (Larry Bryggman), who is white, is a financially-comfortable widower roaming the country since he no longer has his job, which was given to a black man after Apartheid ended. His dreams are mostly in the past tense; right now, he just wants to play golf. One foggy evening, the three men end up as the sole inhabitants of the lodge, and their personalities and pasts clash as they fight to make their dreams come true. This very-well-acted show is unfortunately not well-directed. Director Scott Elliott must have been glued to the center of the second row during rehearsals--in much of the rest of the theatre, it is often difficult to hear and see what is going on. Significant exchanges are lost with actors facing upstage or standing in each other's way or simply speaking too softly. Other, less important, flaws include a slow start to the show and a certain "by-the-numbers-ness" to the plotting, but they matter little next to the vivid depiction of what a lack of options can do to people, particularly men, when they reach the end of their ropes.