In "Pantomime," which opened last night at Arena Stage, a former English music hall performer and a former Trinidadian calypso singer meet as the owner and chief employe, respectively, of a termite-ridden Caribbean hotel preparing to face the tourist season. The Englishman wants to enlist the Trinidadian's help in concocting a show -- a variation on "Robinson Crusoe" -- so the hotel can live up to a travel brochure's promise of "nightly entertainment." As they begin to improvise on the "Crusoe" theme, they get the idea of reversing roles, and soon the master-servant relationship threatens to go topsy-turvy in life as well as art.
There is colorful language and pungent wit here, and the servant's part is played with grace and gusto by Avery Brooks, a multifariously talented man who directed Ntozake Shange's "Boogie Woogie Landscapes" at the Kennedy Center last year. Brooks is an athletic actor with a rich voice, a mimic's ability to don and shed vivid personalities at a moment's notice, and a great deal of all-around charm. Whether he's just playing his character, or extemporizing a musical account of Robinson Crusoe to the tune of "Ol' Man River," or imitating a bird, a goat, a cowboy or an Englishman, he is a pleasure to watch and listen to.
There is a wide authenticity gap, however, between Brooks' performance and that of Richard Bauer as the white hotel-keeper. The actor who plays this role should have some polish as a singer and dancer, it seems to me, and he should certainly have a persuasive English accent. Marvelous comic actor that he can be, Bauer has neither, and he seems to be compensating for these lacks by shouting his lines and darting from one cockeyed posture to another.
Playwright Derek Walcott, also the author of "Dream on Monkey Mountain," lives in Port of Spain, Trinidad, where he runs the Trinidad Workshop Theatre. It's not every day of the theatrical week that you get to see a play from Trinidad, and the exotic side of the experience is much enhanced by Karl Eigsti's setting, a vast wooden gazebo that drops over the stage like a weeping willow. Arena should be saluted for this latest evidence of an internationalist spirit that has already given us a Russian play ("The Suicide") and a French play ("Kean") this season. But despite its distant origins and setting, "Pantomime" has an uncomfortably familiar ring at times. It's hard not to be growing weary of two-character plays about people from extravagantly different backgrounds, who bare their souls to each other, come near violence, and reveal unpleasant truths from a buried past. And with due allowance for the injustice of generalizations, that's what "Pantomime" comes down to.
Under the best of circumstances, Walcott's play would be a delicate business, like a skyscraper made of balsa wood. Under these mixed circumstances, the temptation looms large to throw up your hands and dismiss "Pantomime" as a fitfully funny contrivance, blessed with half of a perfect cast.