Jackson and Bassett’s good beginning fails to deliver in ‘Mountaintop’

October 13, 2011

One of the eventualities of a storied life is that by virtue of perseverance and sacrifice, the great person winds up — on Broadway. The latest such case of sanctified Tony eligibility belongs to none other than the leader and conscience of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., portrayed on his last night on Earth by Samuel L. Jackson in “The Mountaintop.”

For theatrical and historical justice to be fully served, King requires a vehicle that reveals both his ineffable magnetism as well as his flaws. It’s too bad the young playwright Katori Hall, making her Broadway debut, addresses neither adequately. Resorting instead to shopworn plot devices and superficial tics of personality, the cloying “Mountaintop,” which formally opened Thursday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, is a disappointingly hokey historical homage.

The conceit of the play, staged with a garish obviousness by director Kenny Leon, is that on the stormy night of April 3, 1968 — the eve of his assassination — King receives a visitor in his Memphis motel room, in the person of Camae, a maid spraying sass around as if it were Pledge. That Camae is played by Angela Bassett is perforce an asset, though the actress is egged on here in a comic broadness that at times threatens to turn Camae into a joke.

Camae arrives with coffee and stays for what’s made to feel like a requisite examination of King’s demons. He’s on the road, elated and exhausted after a rousing church oration that day and, clearly, tantalized by the lively woman in his midst. In these introductory sequences, “The Mountaintop” holds out the promise of illuminating King in repose, of imagining what he might have been like in a state of unwinding, rather than as he’s more commonly depicted on the stump, wound up.

We find him in Room 306 desperate not for a cause, but for a smoke, and presciently anxious about the number of whites who seem to hate him. He reads aloud from a newspaper article about a bomb threat that had been called in about his plane from Atlanta. To which the feisty Camae replies: “Civil rights will kill you before them Pall Malls will.”

We should feel an intimacy developing between the maid and the legend. It never happens. What evolves is far less immersive. Part of the problem is casting: the 62-year-old Jackson, alas, is wrong for the 39-year-old King; the portrait is sort of passive, drained of life force: could King have turned the switch off on his own electricity so effectively? (Thirty-five years ago, Billy Dee Williams played King on Broadway in “I Have a Dream,” a short-lived show based on King’s writing.) It’s a matter of concern that the more dynamic character is Camae, who’s even given the evening’s most invigorating sermon, delivered astride a peach bedspread on David Gallo’s suitably realistic set.)

Still, Jackson’s less than perfect casting is not the fatal wound to this two-character piece, which won the dramatist London’s 2010 Olivier award for best play over “Jerusalem,” “Enron” and “Red.” (Hall is also one of the inaugural resident playwrights at Arena Stage, where she’s developing a play that will be presented in a forthcoming season.) What undermines “The Mountaintop” is a rather amateurish narrative twist that is apparently so pivotal to the evening’s reason-for-being that the show’s producers have asked reviewers not to reveal it.

There can be no ethical offense in reporting that this contrivance is what terminally weakened my faith in the play or that most of the audience will not find the revelation especially surprising, either. Constrained from going into detail, I can only say that once the device is introduced, the relationship between the characters ceases to be of much interest. Those who don’t react as strongly may find more in “The Mountaintop” to savor.

Even in a dowdy hotel-maid costume, Bassett is a striking presence. But under the guidance of Leon, she seems to have calculated that Camae must match Jackson’s King for power and effect. This apparently is why her line readings tend to crack at the same impact level as the seismic jolts of thunder and lightning that rattle the old Lorraine Motel. Her overexertion is yet another indication of how strenuous is the vain struggle to make “The Mountaintop” resonate.

The Mountaintop

by Katori Hall. Directed by Kenny Leon. Sets and projections, David Gallo; costumes, Constanza Romero; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; original music, Branford Marsalis; hair and wigs, Charles G. LaPointe. About 90 minutes. At Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York City. Visit www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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