Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Mountaintop

Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, which was a surprise hit in London and which has been running on Broadway since the autumn, hasn't really fallen off my radar since it began previews. The subject interests me, sure, but so too do the performers, both of whom I admire and have not seen perform live before. So when the opportunity to see the show, which is closing tomorrow, arose late last week, I took it. I didn't much like the play, but I'm still glad I saw it.

Jackson and Bassett didn't disappoint--they are both fine actors, and, alone together on the stage for 90 minutes, they work hard, command attention, and look exceptionally fabulous in the process. While I am not entirely sure they meshed as well as they might have, I think that inevitably spoke to flaws in the writing itself, and not so much to their interpretations of the characters. Jackson plays Martin Luther King, Jr., who has just returned to the Lorraine Motel after his "Mountaintop" speech--the last one he gives before being assassinated, and the one which seems to foreshadow his own death. He is tired, has a hacking cough and a lot of work to do, it's pouring rain outside, and Coretta forgot to pack his toothbrush. While awaiting the return of his colleague, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, with a pack of much-craved Pall Malls, he takes an offstage leak, paces, checks his room for bugs, and nearly jumps out of his skin every time the thunder claps. Soon, he calls down to room service for a pot of coffee, which is delivered by Angela Bassett's character, Camae, a new hotel maid with a foul mouth, irresistible good looks, and way more knowledge about the Civil Rights movement and King's private life than makes much sense. She Is Not Who She Seems, which is a major plot device here, and one that kind of doesn't work at all.

That said, I think some of my negative reaction to the play is what some might argue gives it strength: I am not one who is terribly interested in, comforted by, or intrigued by the teeny trivialities of great figures. We are all flawed, so why should it be such a big deal to learn that our heroes are, too? Thus, the fact that King, at least as depicted by Hall, smoked too much, cheated on his wife, occasionally needed to pee, and had smelly feet doesn't really grab me. On the other hand, I understand the desire to humanize King, as well as to be reassured that he felt no pain at his death and that he has been embraced in Heaven. And whether you care or not about the smelly feet, Jackson's take on King is graceful, understated, and sharp.

Bassett's character is in many ways even more of an uphill battle than Jackson's. We know who King was as a public figure, which I am sure has its own challenges for the actor. But we do not know Camae--she is fictional, and her presence propels the plot forward. I'm still not sure of exactly who she is--the play is clearly more interested in having her play off King than it is in filling its audience in on the finer details of her character. Bassett does well with the part, but then again, if she's filled in the blanks for herself about the character, it's not terribly clear during the play. For all her joking, cursing, flirting, and admonishing, she's sort of a cipher.

I was also disappointed about the show's lack of stance. On anything. Is this play about religion and the divine? Is it about the intricacies of black politics and the Civil Rights movement through the 1960s? Is it about King's legacy? Is it about his private life and his flaws? The show throws a lot of stuff at the audience, who murmers in recognition at all the names, incidents, and references that get flung about. But ultimately the play teaches nothing, and doesn't encourage spectators to ponder anything new.

There were some high points, however. The final sequence, in which the entire set spins up to reveal a swirling black hole of projected images, is pretty damned cool, as is the lightening-fast monologue Camae delivers during it. And a sequence in which Camae dons King's suitjacket and imitates his public persona is hilarious. I imagine The Mountaintop will make the rounds after it closes on Broadway; I would hope Hall revisits it to address at least some of its weaknesses.

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