The great Janet Suzman and her energetic co-star, Khayalethu Anthony, form an endearing partnership in “Solomon and Marion” — so agreeable, in fact, that you’re doubly disappointed by the excess of compression in playwright-director Lara Foot’s tale of their characters’ disturbing connection.
The 80-minute play from South Africa, an entry in the Kennedy Center’s World Stages theater festival, offers up an unlikely pairing of people who have a lot on their minds — and a habit of blurting out confessions with improbable speed. Sitting through the play in the Terrace Theater, where it ran through Sunday, is a bit like curling up with an inviting novel and discovering that several vital chapters have been torn out.
Foot’s engaging if far too schematic piece reaffirms the critical role of dramatic rhythm, of a writer knowing how much information to impart and when, and of giving the ramifications of a character’s actions ample time to settle over a play. “Solomon and Marion” turns on a devastating admission by Anthony’s Solomon, a black teenager adrift in a turbulent, changing South Africa, to Suzman’s Marion, an old white woman marinating in grief. That Solomon’s declaration is provided with less than satisfactory context, that it feels so artificial and abrupt, consigns a potentially powerful evening to the realm of the predictable.
Plays such as “Solomon and Marion” and Yael Farber’s far more compelling “Mies Julie,” a South African adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” that visited Shakespeare Theatre Company last November, attempt to continue what Athol Fugard, the unofficial South African playwright laureate, has long championed: dramas bridging the racial chasm instilled by the policy of apartheid. Foot’s play is anchored in the contemporary South Africa that is still coming to terms with its past, a society in which custom and order remain in flux and relationships between black and white citizens still seem, in certain quarters at least, uneasy.
Marion lives alone on her family’s rural homestead outside Cape Town, smoking against doctors’ wishes and writing occasional letters to her daughter in Australia. Solomon interrupts her solitude one day, explaining that he’d been instructed by his grandmother, once Marion’s housekeeper, to check up on her. Though there’s no trace of menace in Solomon, cantankerous Marion keeps asking him to go away. But Solomon continues to stop in and, on an evening when a won-over Marion cooks a dinner for him, he upends her hospitality by revealing the more anguishing inspiration for his visits.
Suzman, a longtime actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company and an Oscar nominee for her performance in the 1971 film “Nicholas and Alexandra,” is, unsurprisingly, an ideal Marion; she’s a warm presence here. Anthony, too, is a natural as the all-too-eager-to-please Solomon. The actors, though, are not given a lot of help in making their camaraderie convincing. The play segues awkwardly from sitcom-inspired business — Solomon showing up unannounced, with his blaring tape player, to paint Marion’s house — to intimations of profound tragedy.
You can sense the actors struggling at times to strike a fluent chord, to develop a rapport and at the same time to digest the disturbing revelations that spill out of this play. It would have been beneficial for Solomon, Marion and us if more consideration had been given to allowing them to forge a real bond before the sparks began to fly.
Written and directed by Lara Foot. Sets and costumes, Patrick Curtis; lighting, Mannie Manim. About 80 minutes. Through Sunday at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.