The Sorrow and the City

A quality-of-life graph of August Wilson's 10-play cycle, spanning the decades of 20th-century African American life, would probably reveal a slow downward curve. The faded but nicely kept-up homes of the earliest plays are showing signs of wear by the time of Seven Guitars; Two Trains Running brings riots, looting, and boarded-up windows. And so we arrive at the desolate backyard of King Hedley II, its houses now wobbly firetraps threatened with demolition.

The people look worn down too: the production's glamour-laden casting has the weight of tragic irony. Here is that elegant meadowlark, Leslie Uggams, her beautiful eyes baggy with woe, as a desperately unhappy woman who has failed in both motherhood and a singing career. Here's that super-strutter of the musical stage, Brian Stokes Mitchell, transformed into a shaven-headed ex-con, with a fortissimo bark and a cold staring fury in place of his mellow voice and mischievous grin. Here's Charles Brown, once the upright, jut-jawed investigating officer of A Soldier's Play, metamorphosed into a saggy, graying gambler with a smile as weary as the spiel he hands out. Here is Viola Davis—but the parallel structure breaks down, because Davis is a tragic actress by profession; we've seen her youth and beauty put to this sorrowing use before. Even she, though, has never sorrowed with such chilling ferocity. At the play's emotional pivot point, Wilson has supplied her with a devastating speech about the futility of bearing children in a child-destroying ghetto. The breathtaking balance of passion and clarity with which Davis delivers these unmotherly sentiments makes them strike the audience like body blows, till the second act's flashes of actual violence seem almost anticlimactic.

That violence, too, has to do with mothers and children. King (Mitchell) has a rankling unresolved conflict with his mother, Ruby (Uggams), that dates from his earliest childhood. The violent act for which he's done jail time is, in some sense, its natural outgrowth. King's prickly relations with his wife Tonya (Davis) don't help, and neither does the presence of his half-crazed next-door neighbor, Stool Pigeon (a haunting performance by Stephen McKinley Henderson). The combustible material in King is piled high, and it only takes the return of Ruby's onetime suitor, the smiling gambler Elmore (Brown), to ignite the fatal blaze, which springs from the conflict King doesn't realize exists, between his high ambitions and his identity. A man who has battled over the integrity of his name, he turns out to have no right to it; already feeling motherless, he learns that he is fatherless too.

Stephen McKinley Henderson and Viola Davis in King Hedley II: omens of looming sorrow
photo: Joan Marcus
Stephen McKinley Henderson and Viola Davis in King Hedley II: omens of looming sorrow

Details

King Hedley II
By August Wilson
Virginia Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street
212-239-6200
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Urinetown
By Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann
American Theatre of Actors
314 West 54th Street
212-239-6200
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Madame Melville
By Richard Nelson
Promenade Theatre
Broadway and 76th Street
212-239-6200
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This revelation suggests Greek tragedy as well as opera, and Wilson's writing indeed often suggests both: effusions of prophecy; omens; long, aria-like speeches; choric commentary or comic distraction from minor characters like King's sidekick Mister (wisely uncaricatured work by Monté Russell). Despite the naturalistic details Marion McClinton's staging handles so scrupulously, the play's structural vocabulary has more in common with Trovatore and Gioconda than with Death of a Salesman and The Iceman Cometh. It also, strikingly, shares more with traditional black American drama than with realistic observation of the '80s, from which only Tonya's voice emerges as a sort of blistering news update.

Though still rooted in the inner city, the characters belong to the class of black Americans who have largely escaped the ghetto, only to find its barriers and profilings reiterated against them on a more comfortable scale in the burbs. The maze of governmental bureaucracies and entitlements that gives the urban poor a threadbare safety net barely touches Wilson's people, and the vehement bursts of '80s rap that strafe the ears of the incoming audience are not heard from any passing ghetto blasters during the action, which often harks back to a more laconic time, when even the ghetto was more like a community and less like a free-fire zone. None of which alters the internal consistency of King Hedley II, though it does put the play at an eerie double remove. It's as if the '80s themselves had been too punishing to African Americans for Wilson to discuss them except as the scene of a recollected old story—a tale of which the hero, no longer young, is trying to restart his life, and will come to tragedy through making a young man's mistakes all over again. In this context, the roman numeral "II" in the title is the play's bitterest tragic gesture: This is the second verse, which ought not to have been the same as the first, but is. What comes next, as Wilson prepares the 1990s windup of his cycle, we can only anticipate with a cold shudder, and the irrevocable memory of the heated power and grace McClinton's cast, especially Davis, brings to his arias.


Urinetown is a more politically conscious picture of life among the poor, but at the same time more frivolous, standing in relation to the Brecht-Weill mode of music theater as The Producers does to its affluent Broadway cousin. A lot of the writing is both sly and funny, helped along by John Rando's impish staging and especially by John Carrafa's choreography, lifting the show off the ground time and time again with its knowing yet goofball spoofs of the standard routines. The difficulty is that the joke, being only one joke, runs down quickly, and the tactic of spoofing Brecht and Weill while satirizing the same targets they spoofed tends to discredit itself as it goes. B&W, who always had more than one idea going, were smarter. Kotis and Hollmann, gifted and clever though they are, have been misled by the one-dimensional semaphoring that too often passes for Brecht in this country. Even worse, their musical director and sound designer have been misled by the tone-deaf, in-your-face screeching that is fraudulently palmed off as Brechtian style. Urinetown is full of talent; its sardonic smile deserves better accompaniment than two corrugated tin ears.

The joke parable shows us a drought-beleaguered city where one rich man, by rationing the water supply, controls the right to pee; violators are "sent to Urinetown," which we aren't supposed to know means they're shoved off a tall building. (The narrator, who's also the police force, lets this slip early on, so I'm not spoiling anything.) In this tense situation, the mogul's golden-hearted daughter, fresh from school, inspires a young "amenity" attendant to lead a pee-for-free revolt. The proletariat wins, with results as dire as if they'd lost, the moral being that our way of life is unsustainable. This glib statement seems, as truth, neither whole enough nor deep enough to justify a full evening, though Urinetown offers a fair number of witty diversions en route to it. Jeff McCarthy as the cop-cum-narrator, Hunter Foster as the rebel leader, and John Cullum, who gives the tycoon an enchanting mix of diffidence and monomania, are the standout performers, with Spencer Kayden and Kay Walbye, in lesser roles, ready to steal what's left of the show at any moment. If it reduces everything to a joke—apparently the current trend in musicals—at least Urinetownkeeps its japery in one target area, avoiding Bat Boy's aimless meander across the whole shooting range. Now the challenge for Kotis and Hollmann is to make the joke richer and deeper, and maybe get it out of the latrine into the fresh air.


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