A situation comedy about Martin Luther King Jr. and a motel maid in Memphis in 1968?
Involving cigarette-smoking shtick, a pillow fight, and a pleading phone call to a higher-up?
Yes, Katori Hall‘s award-winning play The Mountaintop is all of that.
And though it got too cute for me, at least it wasn’t another of those mummified one-man shows filled with randomly strung together biographical anecdotes as the lead subject waits for an important telegram.
And at least the laughs aim to pave the way for some darkness, tears, and profundity later on.
Samuel L. Jackson plays the “pulpit poet” on his last night on earth, and though he does so without King’s customary fiery charisma, he conveys the thoughtful textures of a flawed man with a mission.
Taking the opposite tack, Angela Bassett plays the maid by acting every syllable, an approach that I found exhausting to watch, though she delivered the laughs and did brilliantly on two bits of oration that mercifully took her out of character and really soared.
Their interaction takes on a twist that I won’t reveal, but which makes the play even more unusual as it strives for a meshing of pathos and whimsy.
I found it forced, but last Saturday’s audience seemed delighted to have gotten both yuks and the chance for breast-beating all in one movie-star-laden package.
No one screamed, “Free at Last!” when it was over. The MLK comedy is a hit.