Right smack-dab in the middle of town, Malcom (James McDaniel) has found himself up on the roof. Yes, Malcom’s up there in Beau Willimon’s Hurricane Katrina–inspired Lower Ninth, now at the Flea Theater. With its peeling shingles and water-induced warp, this roof likely isn’t as nice as the one in the Drifters’ song; it lacks food, drink, and shade. And did the Drifters ever have to contend with the stink of rotting corpses?
Malcom shares his perch with the excitable E-Z (Gaius Charles). The two men pace, spar, and entertain each other with rounds of 20 Questions, all while scanning the horizon for rescue. At times, the dialogue grows abstracted, and Lower Ninth resembles nothing so much as a watered-down Waiting for Godot. Most contemporary authors don’t come off too well when compared to Beckett, and the Classical Theatre of Harlem has already staged a post-Katrina Godot. Indeed, Willimon’s occasional use of absurdism seems especially unfortunate because it trivializes what so many people in New Orleans actually suffered.
Happily, Willimon always returns to the real, anchoring the play in the two men’s boredom, their exhaustion, and their terrible thirst. As E-Z says, “Won’t let me sleep. Thirst I mean. Tryin’ to swallow my own spit, but I ain’t got no more. Mouth so dry it’s keeping me awake. Ain’t slept at all.”
Willimon, a recent Columbia MFA, writes some fine dialogue, with a keen awareness of language and rhythm. He plays E-Z’s spiky street jargon against the Bible-reading Malcom’s gentler cadences. McDaniel, best known for his stint on NYPD Blue but boasting an impressive theatrical résumé, turns in an excellent performance: He imbues Malcom with a poignant, unsteady humanity, and as the play progresses, he lets the character’s circumstances drain his physical presence. Charles, a newly minted star on Friday Night Lights, is rather outclassed, though he makes a vigorous effort to keep up.
Director Daniel Goldstein uses sound and light sparingly to suggest the passage of time and helps the actors navigate Donyale Werle’s sloped set. He also keeps them from indulging in too many histrionics as the play progresses and their situation worsens. When this old world starts getting them down, at least E-Z and Malcom can rely on a capable director.