“Have respect! Something great is being attempted!” The Duchess of Florence, who says this line in John Patrick Shanley’s Cellini, has conveniently written my review of both Shanley’s play and Kia Corthron’s Force Continuum. Greatness is as rare as an unamplified musical in our theater, where too much of life has been scaled down to meet the demands of that little box nobody watches anymore. The cautious and money-minded have noticed the ridicule we heap on those who strive for greatness and fail. So this article covers a week of amazed celebration: Both Corthron and Shanley are greatly gifted artists who have attempted something great. Will they be ridiculed for it? Not on this page; some of us have respect.
Corthron’s tactics are purely individual, but her reach is social. Her language is all her own, an elliptical blend of street talk and modernist blur, scarred by media babble, stuck with sharp pins of journalistic fact, and wrapped around ominous lumps of theory and statistical data. Her structural vocabulary’s equally wide, trading in flashbacks, jump cuts, and pan-and-scan shifts of scene. Anger’s her motivation, and as a playwright of color taking on the police as a subject, she has something to be angry about. But Corthron’s ambitions never stop at the obvious; that’s the mark of her potential greatness. Writing a play about blacks and cops, she looks behind the concepts for the sources of her anger. Dece, her hero, is a black cop, son and grandson of cops, reared to save the ghetto from the cycle of violence by community policing—though, as he points out to his grandfather, his cop parents have also taught him, like everyone else in the black community, to fear and mistrust the police.
Flanked by white colleagues who distrust him on one side, and an African American neighborhood that distrusts him on the other, Dece is caught in a moral trap from which there are only fatal ways out. Nor is he alone: In this spiritual prison, Corthron has carefully measured the limits of everybody’s cell. The white cops, outsiders in this world, resent being hated, and resent even more the way that hatred spills over into the larger world. “On a scale of one to a hundred of people people likes,” says a white cop, “cops is ninety-nine. IRS is a hundred.” This stroke of statistical sarcasm comes at the end, after we’ve seen a chain of crises explode, with Dece as the ultimate detonator, a dramatic escalation that parallels the continuum of force in the play’s title—the slow progression of steps toward violent action that cops are taught at the police academy. Corthron’s good at sweeping ironies: The sarcastic remark is addressed, unknowingly, to a character whose reason for hating cops is double anyone else’s. And the speaker has earlier played the cop who teaches two younger colleagues how to evade unpleasant questions in court, saying, “Losin’ good cops is a worse evil than perjury.”
At the same time, Corthron looks inside the community the cops are meant to protect and serve: Her flashbacks focus on Dece’s family and the once stable housing project where they live; her present-day story deals with a respectable, struggling family whose members become, through no evil intent on either side, media-star police victims. As with the cops, she shows us flaws, fears, and stresses born from the desperate efforts to cope with too many responsibilities. She doesn’t bang you over the head with messages, letting her choice of details do the telling. One of her principal villains is that hidden cost of racism: asthma, a condition not easily blamed on the police—though their fatal reaction to it sets the play’s chain of crises in motion.
Civilians and police alike, Corthron’s characters can’t see around their destiny; they move toward it with the steady, straight steps of tragic inevitability. That, in a sense, is what makes her playwriting so restless: She’d like nothing better than to see them avoid that unhappy fate looming over them. When she pulls the street and the house, or the present and the past, into the same scene, she’s searching for the happy escape that isn’t there. Will blocks of data help, shoved confrontationally into the dialogue? What will details do—one’s pleasant memory, another’s choice of drink, the number of kids a third one has? The nuances, the crunched numbers, the recollections, the quick switches give Corthron’s script the body of the best piping-hot oatmeal. But you know how fast oatmeal turns gelid, and Corthron has so many servings to dish up that, inevitably, some of the results are hard to swallow. I needed a script to sort out one or two events, and one of my daily colleagues was sufficiently rattled to praise the wrong actress for the evening’s best performance. For the record, the role of the asthmatic teacher is played, harrowingly, by Caroline S. Clay.
Clay isn’t the only person doing first-rate work in Michael John Garcés’s production; she just runs her wide gamut, which includes two additional roles, with fiercer accuracy than most. Garcés has understandably had to struggle to hold the play’s disparate elements in shape, and not every scene builds as tautly as those Clay inhabits. At times the pace slackens while the data comes marching in; making it sound like human speech is a battle the cast fights with mixed success. But the piece keeps its grip, and you always feel that it’s worth sorting through because it wrestles with matters so big and immediate. You’re well repaid when the writing and the acting rise together, and you realize how close you are to the highest peaks of drama. One looms up, seemingly from nowhere, in Jordan Lage’s scene as a cop reliving fraudulent testimony. Myra Lucretia Taylor climbs to another as an unsubduable madwoman in a park. Ray Anthony Thomas bounds over a string of them as Dece’s embittered father. And Chad L. Coleman, as Dece, carries the evening’s tragic weight impressively, the banked fires of his anger blazing through sorrowful eyes and sourly downturned mouth.
Shanley’s hero is likewise a sufferer by nature, with a perpetual rage boiling inside him. His ending, though, is a triumph, because Shanley, who loves writing for the sheer pleasure of writing, has chosen a historical soul mate, a sly and determined fellow whose only interest is in creating the piece of art that will make him immortal. The evidence that Benvenuto Cellini succeeded is on display, most notably in Florence, where his towering Perseus with the head of Medusa is one of tourism’s standard doorways into Renaissance sculpture. Shanley builds his drama, as Berlioz did his opera on the subject, toward the often retold story of the statue’s perilous casting in one piece—the great risk for which the Duchess of Florence demands our respect. Berlioz made Cellini a neck-or-nothing Romantic, who duels and seduces up to the moment before the sculpture’s casting, and throws his smaller works into the smelter when the bronze runs short.
Shanley, a small-r romantic with a healthy streak of cunning, doesn’t go overboard: For him, the work is everything. Cellini’s love intrigues, brawls, rivalries, and fiscal chicaneries are all way stations on the road to fame through glorious achievement. “Nothing will be wasted,” Cellini declares when a woman walks out on him; he uses her features for the Medusa. The historical Cellini probably preferred boys to women, but it’s not important, the way Shanley’s occasional factual or grammatical slips aren’t important, because the version of history being told is so transparently personal, and so open-hearted, that quibbling would be pedantic. (Cellini, in his memoirs, fudged facts too.) Like Corthron, Shanley jumps from past to present, from visions to realities. With only one driving mission on his mind—to transmit the love of creativity—his route is considerably easier to follow, plus having all the satisfaction happy endings provide.
As if to prove such endings live only in fiction, Shanley’s director has put an almost nightmarish interference between us and this simple, joyous play. The actors, reasonably competent but not distinguished, have been asked to show their European-ness by sporting mamma-mia Italian accents, or a mamma-mia Italian notion of Frainch. Even Hollywood only employed Henry Armetta (“typecast as excitable, gesticulating foreigners”—Halliwell) in one role per movie, and never as a Renaissance monarch. Shanley should fire this director; unfortunately, it’s himself. The weird choice reveals a nervousness about dealing with the past that’s never noticeable in the script, and doesn’t hamper the staging in any other way. Adrianne Lobel has turned Second Stage’s high ceiling into an elegant half-built basilica, and Martin Pakledinaz has neatly balanced doublets and gowns with modern-looking shirts and shifts. Reg Rogers, though not the dashingly brazen Cellini I’d prefer, makes a strongly focused, energetic stab at the marathon-length role; it’s his best work to date. If I demand more, it’s only because I have so much respect for what’s there already.