Conventional Behavior

Unsurprisingly, there's generally better work among the less grandly billed: Mark Blum, the walking embodiment of frazzle, as Russell's frantic campaign manager; Jordan Lage, fawning and sharklike, as Cantwell's; Jonathan Hadary, rivetingly peculiar and touching as Cantwell's vengeful army buddy, a worm who hasn't quite learned how to turn. With actors as good, with or without star names, in the leading male roles, a script of this quality might have wriggled free even of McSweeney's draggy pace and thuddingly unironic tone. Whether it could run on Broadway is a different question—proving again that Broadway has no more to do with the theater, these days, than conventions do with political life.


There's more political life glimpsable Off-Broadway, in considerably stodgier form, in Romulus Linney's adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying, a novel the stage version doesn't encourage me to read. In a backwoods Louisiana parish, in 1948, a young black man is sentenced to die for a crime he didn't commit. Though the era was one in which civil rights consciousness was beginning to burgeon, everyone in town seems to accept this injustice as a matter of course. What chiefly concerns the local African American community is that the condemned man learn to die with dignity. His infinitely nurturing godmother enlists another of her nurturees, a local schoolteacher, to educate him during the numbered days before he faces the electric chair. In the process, of course, both men rise to the level of seriousness the situation demands; both learn more about themselves and become better, braver people.

Teaching with tears: Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Jamahl Marsh in A Lesson Before Dying
photo: Susan Johann
Teaching with tears: Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Jamahl Marsh in A Lesson Before Dying

Details

The Best Man
By Gore Vidal
Virginia Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street
212-239-6200

A Lesson Before Dying
By Romulus Linney
Based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines
Signature Theatre
555 West 42nd Street
212-650-3661

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Apart from the opportunity it gives African American actors for work with some dignity of spirit, the play offers nothing except a surefire occasion to jerk tears, with little moral lessons for sententious relief between the crying jags. For a writer of Linney's skill and experience, both the messaging and the weeping moments are handled with surprising clumsiness. The message sending is largely entrusted to the teacher's fiancée, with whom he plays what appears to be the same scene four times over in the same spot; Kent Thompson's staging echoes Linney's ponderousness. All of which is a considerable disservice to the life and history of the black South—evoked only in the most rudimentary cliché terms—and to a group of actors, some of whom I have seen be great on other occasions, and all of whom are effective even here: Jamahl Marsh and Isiah Whitlock Jr., as prisoner and teacher, fill the leading roles strongly; wonderful Beatrice Winde gives the godmother riveting determination; John Henry Redwood makes the local minister a remarkable figure, a pious walrus of Dickensian dimensions; and Aaron Harpold turns the (inevitably sympathetic) white assistant jailer into a believable human being, despite having to give a final speech, which you can probably write for yourself, that begins, "He was the bravest man in the room."

I ought to add that, despite my distaste for the play, I cried then, and at numerous other times during the performance. If you go, you will undoubtedly cry too. A play with the words "death sentence" and "electric chair" in it guarantees tears; to write such a play and make people think instead of crying is more difficult. Anybody who believes it can't be done should ponder Kia Corthron's Life by Asphyxiation, produced by Playwrights Horizons several years ago as part of a quadruple bill called Black Ink. Roughly an hour and 40 minutes shorter than A Lesson Before Dying, it, too, deals with a black man on death row in a Southern jail, only with startling images and thoughts instead of cues for tears. It has eaten at my mind since I saw it, and will probably last there long after A Lesson Before Dying is forgotten.

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