The guitar riffs that begin Lackawanna Blues sound a little like a locomotivewhich seems appropriate somehow, because they herald the arrival of enough characters to fill a Metroliner. There may be only two people physically present on the stage of the Studio Theatreactor Ruben Santiago-Hudson and guitarist Bill Sims Jr.but between them, they create a commotion that’s as joyously transporting as any you’re likely to encounter in a theater anytime soon.
Santiago-Hudson’s vivid, often uproarious childhood reminiscences center on Rachel “Nanny” Crosby, the sharp-tongued but boundlessly warmhearted woman who raised him in her upstate New York rooming house after his mother dropped the parenthood ball. Nanny ran a business, but she tended to take in society’s strays, and young Ruben witnessed the way her social largess (“Nanny was like the government…if it really worked”) affected a parade of humanity quirky enough to give a latter-day Damon Runyon pause. Such folks as Lemuel Taylor, a “one-legged rock-chunker” from the local asylum whose darting tongue made him look like a “big negro iguana.” Also Numb-Fingered Pete, who liked to pick fights; a feisty raccoon that sat atop the refrigerator demanding breakfast each morning; and Ol’ Po’ Carl, a former Negro Leagues pitcher, whose gift for malapropisms (“I had to stop drinking so the roaches of the liver wouldn’t get me”) will make you want to listen to him all night.
Santiago-Hudson inflects the first eight lines in eight different voices, and in the tumult that follows, he manages something I’ve previously seen only Lily Tomlin accomplish in a one-actor evening: He keeps several characters present and accounted for on stage at once. When Nanny stares down a furious wife-beater who takes a few long seconds to realize he’s met his match, you can almost simultaneously see doubt clouding the angry man’s gaze, resolute calm in the set of Nanny’s jaw, relief in the wife’s slowly straightening shoulders, and wonder in the anxious visage of youthfully observant Ruben. Unlikely, I knowbut the actor’s gift for
character-juggling is prodigious.
So is his skill with imagery. The script he’s come up with conjures everything from sandwiches (“liverwurst and onion on Wonder Bread”) to gambler chic (“doodoo-brown double-breasted pinstripe suits”) in language that’s at once homespun and poetic. It’s versatile enough to support an occasional slide from hilarity to pathos and back again, and capable of blending seamlessly into point/counterpoint conversations with Sims’ guitar riffs. And when, on occasion, the spirit moves Santiago-Hudson to whip out a harmonica, that bluesy conversation shifts only in style, not in vigor or comprehensibility. Lackawanna Blues is storytelling of such a high order that the brevity of its D.C. run seems almost criminal.
Half a decade ago, Richard Romagnoli deconstructed Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Olney Theatre Center with a nifty casting fillip that blurred the lines between comedy and biography and turned the author into a protagonist in his own play. It would, of course, be pointless to try a similar tack with Private Lives, which Noel Coward actually wrote for himself and his buddy Gertrude Lawrence, so the director headed off bravely this time in the opposite direction, casting as the divorced couple who re-encounter each other while honeymooning with new spouses folks who would never in a million years be mistaken for London sophisticates.
Paul Morella, eschewing even an attempt at a British accent, plays above-it-all Elyot as a snide, slightly shifty malcontent who’s all but openly contemptuous of his young bride, Sibyl (Gillian Shelly). Valerie Leonard’s Amanda is an overbearing glamour-puss who trades on sex appeal with her stuffy new hubby, Victor (James Slaughter), as if well-aware that both it and he are fading fast. They’d all be ideal if the play were Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Alas, it isn’t.
Still, the play’s construction is so sturdy that by simply trusting it, the director manages some graceful momentsoften wordless ones. When, for instance, Elyot begins humming on the terrace of his honeymoon suite before he’s been alerted to the fact that Amanda occupies the suite next door, you don’t for a moment glance at him. Instead, you’re riveted by her abruptly raised eyebrow half a stage away. Sibyl’s entrance in a frilly gown (a neat bit of character-assassination-by-costume from designer Nanzi Adzima) is nearly as funny as any of her lines. And because Romagnoli is an accomplished visual stylist, what doesn’t happen sometimes registers more forcefully than what does: a kiss, for example, that hangs in the air unconsummatedElyot’s lips pursing, then Amanda’s, but never at the same moment.
There are limits, however, to how much a director can rely on indirection, and with punch lines being either thrown away or manhandled into submission by the leads, there’s not as much laughter in this Private Lives as audiences have come to expect. CP