Slam Dunk

Deb Margolin’s not the first to compare life to a ball game, but 3 Seconds in the Key (P.S. 122) looks like an original: a comical-tragical-poetical riff on time, cancer, and the New York Knicks. Mother (Margolin) is battling Hodgkin’s disease and a bad attitude. She yearns to live and raise her young son (Bennett Kirshner), but her body and will are weak. Luckily, her passion for the Knicks—which she shares with her boy—never lets up. In a zany dreamscape of a story, she receives visits from the team’s star player (Edwin Lee Gibson, looking like a dead ringer for Latrell Sprewell). He razzes her and builds her spirit while they bicker, play cards, and exchange Yiddish lessons for court lessons.

As a digital scoreboard counts down the seconds, she bemoans the three precious seconds allowed in the key. The script ripples with verbal muscle and bursts with action—including seven towering hulks in Knicks shorts and shirts who chant victory slogans and hilariously interpret the Psalms. Their querulous misunderstanding of the 23rd is a scream, as is mother telling son that, as a child, she believed three ladies named Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy would follow her all the days of her life—even to the bathroom.

In one scene, the players morph into Hodgkin’s support group members, and there’s a brilliantly funny dance number à la Ginger and Fred, where the Player twirls our heroine around the court while palming a basketball (choreography by Stormy Brandenberger). Margolin is both haunting and a stitch as the Mom, Gibson is priceless as the gruff but giving Player, and Lee Gundersheimer directs the show like a perfect playoff game. —Francine Russo

Guarded Behavior

The situation in Paul Green’s Hymn to the Rising Sun (La MaMa), a chain-gang play written during the Depression, is rather familiar: Amid scenes of physical abuse, a sadistic guard barks endless insults at convicts. Luckily, this production is so meticulously crafted it breathes new life into the worn-out genre of the prison drama.

Director Barbara Montgomery successfully captures the angst-filled atmosphere of a dingy jail tent. The play is set just before sunrise; the stage is kept very dark, a device that italicizes the slightest sounds. For the first 10 minutes, all we hear are clinking chains and the muffled moans coming from a black prisoner locked in a sweatbox. His anxious pleas for water build tension to a precise pitch. With minimal action at the play’s outset, the audience is held captive by this claustrophobic atmosphere.

This initial subtlety, however, doesn’t last long. Hell is let loose when actor Charley Hayward arrives as the abusive Captain. He bursts in and transforms this moody social drama into a one-man show of psychological torture. With cavernous voice and commanding gait, Hayward swings from caring to cruel unabashedly. His acting may sometimes droop into cliché, but the pleasure of his devilish portrayal makes his indulgences easy to forgive.

Other than Hayward’s winning performance, the play offers scant plot and few biting moments. Racial issues are barely touched on (odd, given that the production has been mounted for Black History Month). When they are, it’s done very earnestly, and from a white perspective. One section involves a sick white prisoner who’s whipped for sympathizing with the black prisoner in the box. The black man might be suffering, but it’s the white guy who gets credit for having a conscience.

Hymn to the Rising Sun might have been risky during its time, but at this point it’s not telling us anything we don’t already know. Still, Montgomery and her 17 actors do an admirable, vigorous job trying to blow the dust off Green’s yellowing text. —Christiane Riera Salomon

White Like Me

When Douglas Turner Ward unveiled his Day of Absence in 1965, the boldness of its political statement amused audiences to such an extent that they were willing to indulge its artistic excesses. The ’60s were, after all, a decade of civil unrest, and in many quarters people were eager to cheer African Americans asserting themselves.

Ward found a saucy way of doing it. He imagined a Southern town where the white population—played by black actors in whiteface—awakes to find the other half missing. “Where is the Nigras?” a local perched on a cracker barrel asks another. Across town, a wailing infant’s mom complains to her husband that she can’t change a diaper without Lula. At the mayor’s office, enraged citizens gather. A television reporter interviews double-talking Mr. Clan, Ms. Aid, and Reb Pious on their reaction to events. By nightfall, after the mayor’s failed TV plea, “a frenzy of rioting and looting” breaks out. Come morning the Nigras return and everything’s normal. “Or is it?” as one of the cracker-barrel sitters asks.

Of course it isn’t, and hasn’t been since. Even in towns as backward as the comic one Ward depicted, the social setup has changed, at least superficially. In 2001, Day of Absence (Harlem School of the Arts) has a dated look; the material seems worthy of sustaining little more than a 20-minute comedy sketch. Also, whereas in 1965 Ward was clearly tweaking white perspectives, it’s possible now to think he may have been poking fun at blacks’ faulty assumptions about white attitudes.

Today as four decades ago, it takes high style to bring off such a piece. But that’s just what the Classical Theatre of Harlem actors, under Alfred Preisser’s unsteady direction, can’t boast. In this revival, “absence” appears to refer to acting prowess. —David Finkle

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 13, 2001

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