August Wilson’s Fences is a poetically eruptive play that will forever depend on a theater troupe’s ability to find a suitably active volcano. The original Broadway production had one in James Earl Jones, who played the evening’s trash-toting patriarch as a well-meaning mountain of a man brimming over with frustration at how little he’d been allowed to accomplish in life—frustration that was as likely to express itself in violence as in words.
When Jones’ Troy Maxson picked up a baseball bat and held it to his son’s head at Manhattan’s 46th Street Theater, you feared not only for the quivering boy in front of him, but also for the clothing of the patrons in the first six rows. Astonishingly, when he picked up a conversational thread, there was oratorical volatility of a comparable power.
In the 17 years since I first caught Fences, I’ve seen other actors hurl themselves at the role’s physicality, often with considerable success, but until the current Round House revival, I’d not seen another Troy who was entirely comfortable with the play’s language. What a torrent of words Wilson gave this garbageman who has “more stories than the devil’s got sinners”; what a vivid plainspokenness, whether the topic is caring for his family (“Every Friday I bring back a bag of potatoes and a bucket of lard”) or sex with his wife of 17 years (“I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever”).
The man’s a street bard, and it takes an actor who can express the poetry in his soul to play him properly. Casting directors tend to note the role’s anger and its originator’s bulk, and cast Troy as a bull of a man, but that gets only part of him right. He’s quick and funny, and he sings like a nightingale, and leaving those traits out of his makeup diminishes him.
At Round House, Hassan El-Amin’s Troy arrives on stage already in full rant, cheerfully stripping off his garbage-stained overalls. He’s trailed by his pal Bono (Donald Griffin), with whom he’ll share a pint of gin and an evening’s worth of stories. When Troy’s wife, Rose (Nadine Mozon), teases from the back porch that they’ll drink themselves to death, he barks, “Death ain’t nothin’….I done rassled with it,” and launches into a tale fabulous enough to prompt the observation that he’s channeling Uncle Remus, physical enough that there’s scarcely a square foot of his Pittsburgh back yard he won’t have trod by the time he’s through.
Troy’s a gregarious lug, and in El-Amin’s portrayal, it’s hard not to take his side in everything from workplace conflicts (he has the seniority to be a driver, but he isn’t white) to arguments with his two sons: freeloading cornetist Lyons (Jeorge Bennet Watson) and high-school footballer Cory (Lance Coadie Williams). In Troy’s view, they should be following his example, devoting themselves to hard work, not indulging in fantasies about jazz and sports.
It takes a while to realize there’s a deep resentment fueling his expectations of the boys and that he isn’t always being straight about his dealings with folks outside the family. El-Amin brings so much natural warmth to the character that it’s genuinely startling when Troy boils over. He seems so easy with people—comfortably earthy with a wife who clearly loves him for it, affable with his friend (he and Griffin make a terrific team), gently concerned with his brain-damaged brother, Gabriel (Frederick Strother)—that when ferocity explodes from within, its force is unexpected. So unexpected, in fact, that it isn’t always persuasive. When he holds that bat up to his son’s head, I can’t imagine him actually using it.
It’s clear that the boy can, though, and that’s one of the strengths of Thomas W. Jones II’s staging. The connections between characters are as natural and unforced as Wilson’s dialogue. Daniel Conway’s setting—a two-story brick house that looks decidedly lived-in, though it’s surrounded by an expressionist wall of corrugated tin—is also a plus, as are lighting designer Jos. B. Musumeci Jr.’s sunsets and dawns. And at the tail end of the evening, when Williams’ Cory has shed his teenage rage and graduated to a smoldering adult anger, the director reaps one final bonus—doubtless unintended, but no less affecting for that. You’re meant to see that Troy’s legacy of resentment and fury lives on in his son, and sure enough, when Rose says that Cory is just like his dad, the audience nods in agreement. They’ve heard the echo. But they’ve also heard another echo—an uncanny one, of an earlier Troy—of James Earl Jones. Williams speaks in the same smooth basso rumble. Across two decades and countless productions….Like father, like son.
Credit Ford’s Theatre with not skimping on its latest tourist attraction, Children of Eden. There’s a curving, stagewide staircase reminiscent of the one scaled by Don Quixote in the National Theatre’s Man of La Mancha revival, plus costuming that suggests an explosion in a paint factory. A gymnast flies in occasionally on long bolts of fabric, presumably on his way to his next Cirque du Soleil engagement, and a gaggle of buff, shirtless chorus boys tumble into various rump-in-the-air formations that could vaguely be said to suggest animals (assuming you’re firmly committed to a family-show frame of mind).
What’s inspiring all this expensively mounted invention? A retelling of the Adam & Eve and Noah’s Ark stories, featuring a score by Stephen Schwartz, who once brought forth upon off-Broadway the New Testament–inspired Godspell but has since graduated to grander undertakings. He’s composing here not in a showbizzy, vaudeville-inspired mode, but as if his mission were the crafting of power-pop ballads for Mesopotamian Idol contestants.
The cast delivers them with beatific expressions and Up With People enthusiasm, but there’s precious little that’s holy about John Caird’s insistently Freudian book, which reduces both of its Old Testament tales to stories of dysfunctional families in which God takes the form of a stern, annoyingly uncommunicative father (booming baritone Bradley Dean) and his various kids react to his edicts as if they were rebellious teenagers.
Perhaps understandably, David H. Bell’s staging doesn’t so much tell the stories as decorate them—Adam and Eve get a vaguely African treatment in the first act, with grass skirts and bright colors; Noah’s Ark gets a vaguely Caribbean treatment in the second, with swirling fabrics and bright colors. The director’s program notes refer to time he spent with his designers “exploring the vocabularies of aboriginal storytelling,” and he occasionally comes up with a nicely realized vignette—the cast climbing into tree branches, for instance, and linking green-gloved arms into an apple-proffering serpent. Mostly, though, he’s stymied by a book that traffics in Noah schtick (“I still haven’t figured out what a cubit is”) that was ancient when Bill Cosby offered it four decades ago. The librettos for Broadway’s midcentury biblical flops The Apple Tree and Two by Two are downright artful by comparison.
Credit the performers with being earnest, attractive, and energetic. Still, except for Karen Olivo (Yonah), and André Garner (Cain, Japeth), who manage to create full-bodied characters entirely from archetypes, they’re not miracle workers, and they can’t turn what amounts to a Sunday-school pageant with songs into an evening of theater. CP