In "Kingdom," writer David Emerson Toney plays with "Richard III" the way a cat paws at a mouse -- sometimes anxiously, sometimes in frisky fun. It's not always clear what the writer's thinking: "Kingdom's" run-down barbecue joint in late 1960s Cleveland is a long way from Renaissance England, and its hero, Rickey-Trey, is the sweet-faced opposite of Shakespeare's famous killing machine. But these unexpected swipes make Toney's game an intriguing tease.
Along with "Draft Day," "Kingdom" is part of the two-play Fresh Flavas Rep at the African Continuum Theatre Company, and you cannot accuse Toney of thinking small. He is better known locally as an actor -- he won a Helen Hayes Award this year for his work in August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" -- and he infuses his ambitious, if windy, drama with a performer's ear for entertaining lines and long, colorful speeches.
He also has an actor's attraction for quirky characters and rough edges. Eddie-Ray, eldest of the three York brothers, is glorying in the death of a family rival; Eddie, a former bowling sensation, dreams of being a local retail mogul. George Clarence, the middle brother and a former drunk, is a rabidly reformed preacher with a congregation of five. (Not a congregation, Eddie suggests, but merely "a bunch.") Rickey-Trey, Toney's substitute for Richard III's famous hunchback, has cerebral palsy and has been cloistered in the apartment above the barbecue shack for 20 years. (As it turns out, he did kill someone long ago.) When he finally gets his first kiss, Rickey-Trey explains his surprising knack for it this way: "Right in the middle, I pretend I'm having a seizure."
J.J. Johnson Jr. has a nice, guileless style as Rickey-Trey; the character's immaturity is a simplifying filter for the play's increasingly baroque complexities, and Johnson delivers the naive one-liners with gentle grace. Keith Johnson gets the big, seize-the-world speeches and open-throttle wrath as Eddie-Ray, and his smoldering demeanor and furrowed face sometimes have the effect of a tragic mask.
What happens in the York brothers' little apartment is complex. Murder and adultery lurk in the family's twisted history, and when Eddie's long-simmering family revenge and dastardly plan to beget an heir finally elbow into full view, Toney tries to set off an explosion of Shakespearean, and Wilsonian, proportions.
And that's when his drama begins to snap at the seams. It's hard to tell to what degree the play -- the first act alone is 90 minutes -- is genuinely overstuffed with reverie and late-breaking back story, and how much it just feels that way because of Jennifer L. Nelson's one-dimensional production. Wilson's operatic-scaled plays often benefit from full-blooded, atmospheric stagings filled with light and sound, and Toney's "Kingdom" feels as if it could use that kind of attention. In this quiet, static show, with two-dimensional furniture painted onto the flats of Tracie Duncan's set, it's all in the hands of the actors.
The Messrs. Johnson carry the ball pretty well, but they have the advantage of decently realized roles. George Clarence slips into the action like an afterthought, and Addison Switzer's whispery performance overplays the character's meek virtuousness. Mildred Langford has a difficult time making sense of Lena, the 1960s radical fugitive who agrees to have Eddie's baby for cash, and whose foolish attraction to Rickey-Trey triggers the tabloid tragedy. The bloody mess at the end is more confusing than cathartic, and the overloaded finish makes Toney's play a near miss at an interesting target.
Kingdom, by David Emerson Toney. Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. Lighting, Dan Covey; costumes, William Pucilowski; sound design, David Lamont Wilson; fight choreography, Karen Abromaitis. About 21/2 hours. Through Dec. 10 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit www.africancontinuumtheatre.com.