We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Kemp, the middle-aged bank clerk who gets pressed into angel-of-mercy service in Morris Panych’s end-of-life comedy, Vigil, is probably not the guy you’d choose to have as your caretaker in your final days.
For one thing, he doesn’t like people much”They exude a sickening mist from their pores,” he says. “Carbon monoxide mixed with desperation.” For another, he tends to be distressingly blunt, whether commenting on his bedridden Aunt Grace’s attempts to apply makeup (“Why don’t you let the mortician do that?”) or offering holiday cheer to a struggling amputee (“Kicking up a heel, are we? Hoppy New Year”).
Still, Grace doesn’t have much choice in caretakers. Although her nephew hasn’t written or visited in more than 30 years”I was busy,” Kemp explains peremptorilyhe’s now her only living relative. So she has summoned him, and Kemp, played by Floyd King in the very highest of dudgeons, has reluctantly but dutifully arrived, prepared to serve his aunt butterscotch pudding in her final hours.
To his distress, Grace (Diana Sowle, attired in a cloud-studded nightie that matches the cloud-studded walls of her attic bedroom) proves surprisingly resilient. Her final hours stretch into days, then weeks, then months, and though Kemp has plenty of bilious memories to while away their time togetherof, say, the family dog (“What is it about pets?…If I licked my genitals, I’d be sent to jail”)he’d clearly prefer to be elsewhere.
Soon, he’s fashioning Rube Goldberg-inspired suicide machines out of odds and ends, and cooking up batches of elasticized pudding that look suspiciously like a(u)nt poison.
At first, it seems impossible that Panych, an uproariously clever writer, could have crafted Vigil’s entire script from Kemp’s dyspepsia. You keep expecting Grace to counter him with uplift, Harold and Maude-style. But she utters barely a sound for most of the play, leaving her caretaker’s venomous pronouncements largely unchallenged. Oddly, in Joy Zinoman’s smartly acted production, this move has the effect of tempering their hostility. With nothing to push back against, Kemp is essentially doing a stand-up routine for an audience of one. Despite his deliberately alienating patter, he can’t help playing to the crowd. Not that he’d ever stoop to ask for approval, but Zinoman makes clear, in what amount to a series of blackout sketches, that he’s looking for it all the same.
King, adder-tongued yet vulnerable under the character’s tough exterior, is just the guy to play Kemp. Few actors are as adept at conjuring hilarity from inner pain. He’s matched nicely by Sowle’s perplexed but spunky Grace. And they’re backed by clever design work from Russell Metheny, whoby placing a rotating dollhouse and flowering tree stagesidemanages to suggest both the passage of time and the claustrophobia that attaches to being bedridden.
Scott Bradley’s sumptuous setting for Molly Smith’s staging of The Great White Hope places that grand pugilistic melodrama under a big top rather than in a boxing ring, possibly because Smith already used the boxing-ring metaphor for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, her inaugural production at Arena Stage.
Doesn’t matter much. Visual metaphors adhere pretty readily to Hope, which sprawls so broadlyfrom Ohio farmyard to Austrian cabaret to Cuban racetrackin telling the story of a heavyweight champion’s rise and fall that a designer almost has to rely on some sort of impressionistic device to unify the action. Though Arena’s original production, in 1967, conjured up the “ring” you’d expect in a play about boxing, I remember thinking at the time that James Earl Jones looked like a gored bull for much of the play’s second half, and there wasn’t a toreador anywhere in sight. Circus ring, boxing ring, bull ringthe passion is in Howard Sackler’s muscular language, anyway.
And, of course, in the playing. In Arena’s revival, the performances are just dandy in most casesand truly terrific where it counts most. From the moment Mahershala Karim Ali dances onstage as cocksure pugilist Jack Jefferson, he pretty much banishes all thoughts of Jones (who was a virtual unknown when Hope made theatrical history by transferring to Broadway after its Arena premiere). Rather than a hulking, stentorian personage, Ali makes Jefferson such a witty, sharp-tongued raconteur of the ring that you half expect him to promise to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He’s a bright, radiant presence, with a headlamp smile, flashing eyes, and fists that jab persuasively enough that it’s easy to imagine him striking terror in the hearts of segregationists in the early part of the last century.
Sackler’s blank verse, much of it written in dialect, suggests that the character (who is based loosely on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion) is a trifle dense, especially when it comes to realizing how infuriating his romance with a white woman is for racists on both sides of the color divide. But Ali’s playing makes Jefferson acutelysometimes buoyantlyaware of the impact he’s having, both on the whites who are searching for a fighter who can best him (the “white hope” of the title) and on the black ministers and politicos who want to appropriate his persona and victories for their own purposes.
Sackler, writing as racial tensions were reaching a boiling point in the mid-’60s, stacked the political deck in ways that seem heavy-handed today (our society is, after all, nearly as distant from the world of that first production as the playwright’s was from the period he was writing about), and Smith’s staging unnecessarily underlines the didacticism of the script. She has actors address lines directly to the audience an annoyingly literal way of suggesting that racial problems still affect society today. And she hasn’t figured out a way to make Jefferson’s downward spiral in Act 2 nearly as harrowing as his Act 1 rise is exhilarating.
Part of the problem is that the director has pictured Jefferson as willful and pouty in the evening’s second halfwhich is a legitimate choice with a character who’s being crushed by forces outside his control, but works against making his fall seem tragic. Smith simultaneously brings his white mistress (Kelly C. McAndrew, increasingly down-to-earth and strong-willed as the evening progresses) into focus just as the affair is disintegrating and the character is having less influence on events. I found myself wondering not just how the romance had managed to go awry without my noticing but also why I should care now that it had.
Other performancesabout 100 roles are divided among 28 actorsare well handled by a largely local cast. And technical credits are up to Arena’s usual standards, from Rosemary Pardee’s earth-toned costumes to Lap-Chi Chu’s circusy illumination to the evocative soundscape Michael Keck creates by combining roaring crowds and soaring music. If you goand if you’ve not seen The Great White Hope, you probably should, because it’s likely to be at least another 33 years before it is produced this lavishly againwhat you’ll remember most is the star power of its leading man.
Patrick Marber’s Closer is less a play than a blend of smart one-liners and dumb romantic conflicts. If you can listen to the former while ignoring the latter, you might find Source Theatre’s crisp production reasonably entertaining.
Take, for instance, the leading man’s description of obituary writing”It’s a living”or someone else’s observation about mortality”Thank God life endswe’d never survive it.” Those are perfectly respectable jokes. Henny Youngman would be proud.
On the other hand, take the plot…please. It involves a jerk who can’t commit, the waif he picks up at a traffic accident, the doctor who glances briefly at her shin, and the photographer who shoots all their pictures for a portrait show in which they all look miserable but very stylish. The jerk and the waif move in together, the doctor and the photographer get married, and then they mix and match, remix and rematch. All of this happens with a numbing symmetry that director Joe Banno (the Washington City Paper’s opera critic) seizes onprobably unwiselyas his principal staging conceit. Having the actors trace matched geometric patterns on Source’s black-on-gray grid of a stage only emphasizes the schematic nature of the script.
Of course, you can’t blame Banno for latching onto Marber’s central device. The symmetry actually pays off in one scenea computer-sex encounter between the doctor (who thinks he’s tapping out sweet nothings to a buxom woman) and the jerk (whose cybersex nom de plume is Anna, for reasons I should really leave to the playwright). Their encounter is so sharp and funny that it keeps hope alive right through intermission that the evening will eventually amount to something.
No such luck, unfortunately. Still, because Banno has the sense to keep things zooming along, such lines as “I know what men want: a girl who looks like a boy…and cums like a freight train, but with elegance” always seem to be just around the next corner. The actors do what they can to enliven the proceedings, even when they’re miscast, but neither they nor the staging can finesse the author’s arbitrariness in a last-minute lurch toward tragedy that feels precisely like the overreaching for significance that it is. CP