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John Henry Redwood apparently spends only his days writing scenes like the wildly invigorating ones that fill his comic drama The Old Settler. By night, Redwood is an actor, with credits in most of August Wilson’s plays, including a role in Broadway’s The Piano Lesson and eight separate stints in regional mountings of Fences. I mean it as high praise when I say that Wilson’s inflections have stuck to him.
The characters in The Old Settlera flawed but vibrant Harlem-in-the-’40s romancespeak in that poetically heightened mix of everyday speech and artful sloganeering that theater audiences have come to associate with Wilson’s vivid dramas. Of course, with names like Bucket, Husband, and Lou Bessie, how could they not?
They also throw themselves into life with contagious enthusiasm. Watching most plays, audiences sit back to be entertained. Watching this one, you want to lean forward and root for the characters. Ultimately, the evening amounts to melodrama, but melodrama of a pulse-quickening, laughter-inducing, heart-rending sort.
Redwood takes his title from Harlem slang for a woman who has reached her 40s without marrying. The description fits Elizabeth Borny (S. Epatha Merkerson) all too well. Living with her sour, cantankerous sister, Quilly (Lynda Gravátt), in a spacious Harlem walkup, Elizabeth has surrounded herself with the comforts of home, but she’s strapped and has had to take in a boarder fresh off the train from Carolina. This lad is scarcely out of his teens and innocent enough in the ways of the big city that he leaves his bags on the street when he comes inside. He goes by the unlikely name of Husband (Carl Jay Cofield) and has come to New York to find and marry his hometown sweetheart, Lou Bessie (Deidra LaWan Johnson). Alas, she’s gotten swept up in Harlem’s nightlife and is no longer the country girl he thinks he remembers, as he confides to his landlady. He seems at first to be looking for quasi-parental advice, but it soon becomes clear, both to the two of them and to the disapproving Quilly, that something more is going on.
Complicating the course of this May-December (or maybe May-mid-August) romance is a long-overdue sisterly confrontation that centers on…well, let’s leave that. Plot counts for a lot in The Old Settler, and there’s no sense in giving too much away. Better to concentrate on the performances, which at Studio are nothing short of splendid.
Start with Merkerson, who has always been all business as Lt. Van Buren on television’s Law and Order but comes unhinged here by the most delicate of stages as Elizabeth succumbs to the charms of her young boarder. At first, this is a matter of stealing glances while maintaining her cool. But soon she’s lowering her eyes in flustered embarrassment, and finally, upon seeing Husband in a sleeveless undershirt, she does a double take so broad she momentarily forgets to breathe, turning in an instant from demure matron to giddy schoolgirl and back again.
As the object of her affections, Cofield is handsome, sexy, and as earthy as a freshly plowed field, whether he’s pining for the sound of crickets and the feel of grass between his toes, or bounding onstage in the ill-advised outfitfeathered hat, striped jacket, scarlet vest, blue and orange tie, plaid pants, and pointy red and black shoesthat makes him look, in another character’s dead-on description, like a “runaway from a minstrel show.”
That other character is Quilly, played by Gravátt not merely with suspicion oozing from every pore, but also with brusquely perfect timing. Gravátt’s way with a one-liner is breathtaking, but she can also get a healthy laugh with a perfectly ordinary lineby placing equal stress, for example, on every word when describing Husband as a “young, healthy, strong, country, boy.” The insistence on that final comma makes the phrase hilarious, and Gravátt makes sure it’s accounted for. In the comparatively thankless role of Husband’s still-present ex, Johnson is deliciously cheapand seductive enough to make Husband’s dithering understandable.
Seret Scott’s staging keeps them all careening around James Kronzer’s lovingly realized Harlem apartment for the better part of the evening, so that when there’s an occasional moment of quiet it feels earned. That’s true even when the stillness is designed to highlight the social commentary that Redwood has somewhat inelegantly shoehorned into the conversation. When the quiet comes from plot developments, it can be pretty devastating.
That said, the script remains overwritten, with a tendency to state points several times when once would do. Redwood seems not to trust patrons to listen carefully. Elizabeth doesn’t really need to hear from two different characters that she’s too old to have children. Nor do we.
Still, aided by Reggie Ray’s period-perfect costumes and the warm sunrises and luminous moonlight conjured up by lighting designer Michael Philippi, the production certainly gets a colorful world up there on stage. Even though the play could use some editing, it’s a crowd-pleaser just the way it is. It’ll doubtless be extended, but you’ll want to see it early so you’ll have the option of going back.
With Show Boat, there apparently won’t be extensions, which seems a shame. The production that has sailed so gracefully into the Opera House is the sort of glittering, abundantly tuneful, surprisingly serious-minded evening that might remind audiences why musical theater was once regarded as an art form rather than as mere commercial entertainment.
Then again, that artfulness probably works against it in the summer marketplace. Why should the tour-bus crowd settle for art when it can have plunging chandeliers, after all? So the show will have just eight weeks in D.C. for Ol’ Man River to keep rollin’ along as no one has seen it roll onstage in decades. Maybe ever.
The river does visibly roll in this production, courtesy of one of Richard Pilbrow’s more cunning lighting effectsa rippling reflection that flutters and dances on backdrops from the first downbeat of Jerome Kern’s lilting score. “Ol’ Man River” isn’t just a song in Harold Prince’s staging; it’s a unifying theme and very nearly a character, tugging at protagonists and delivering them to fresh emotional territory with every scene change.
Some of that territory is pretty heady for musical comedy even today. 1998’s self-consciously political musical Ragtime covers much the same period and many of the same racial and class conflict issues. But in 1927, at the time of Show Boat’s creation, musicals were never more than a collection of love songs and vaudeville “turns” hung on a boy-meets-girl story line. A serious musical was such a contradiction in terms that critics weren’t ready for it. The New York Times spent nearly as much time describing the glittering Park Avenue crowd attending the show as it did the show itself. And when it got around to offering commentary on the quality of the evening, the paper opined that with the exception of one or two earlier Follies and possibly Sally, Show Boat was just about the best musical Florenz Ziegfeld had ever produced, though it was unfortunately “crammed with plot which simply has to be explained.” The review didn’t bother alerting readers to the fact that much of that plot was about miscegenation. Then again, maybe it didn’t have to, with Edna Ferber’s novel being a celebrated best seller at the time.
Prince has turned race into one of the show’s primary focuses in this very 1990s revival through a deceptively simple device: While the white cast members fritter, fuss, and have their little love affairs and career problems, he has the African-American cast members laboring virtually every minute they’re onstage. When it’s time for scene changes, muscular black stevedores do all the heavy lifting, lugging enormous set pieces around and hauling on cables to raise backdrops. When streamers flutter to the stage floor, black janitors sweep up as white revelers party. The effect is to make the song “Ol’ Man River,” sung repeatedly during these changes by Kenneth Nichols and a chorus of laborers, seem not merely a hymn to the passing of time, but an anthem of comfort for a nation within a nation.
There are other things going on in the show, of course: Four decades of American history condensed into the tale of Cap’n Andy’s Cotton Blossom, a paddle-wheeler cruising up and down the Mississippi bringing entertainment to the denizens of riverfront towns. The entertainers face complications on every dock and sing up a storm in solving them, with a remarkably youthful Dean Jones and a reserved, disciplined Cloris Leachman heading a cast that’s as light of foot and full of voice as even Ziegfeld might have wished.
Prince hasn’t just staged their comings and goings, he’s found ways to make them flow more gracefully than they needed to in 1927 and to make the musical numbers function as commentary on the action, as is customary today. His reworking is made somewhat easier than it might be by the fact that the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II score could throw out all three of its biggest hits”Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Bill,” and “Ol’ Man River”and still be considered astonishingly rich by contemporary standards.
Musical theater aficionados will have the added pleasure of picking up on a deft little visual catalogue of quotations from shows Prince either directed or produced: There’s the stagewide backdrop that, instead of flying up as a scene ends, falls loosely to the stage to be swept away by attendants (Pacific Overtures), the eruption of streamers through which dancers can gaily swirl (West Side Story), street scene ballets (half a dozen shows, but credit Fiorello), stages within stages (Phantom of the Opera, Follies, Cabaret), model trains (On the Twentieth Century), model boats (Candide), and…well, if you’ve seen the shows, you’ll recognize the quotes.
All that, and plenty that’s fresh as well. It’s safe to say that Washington won’t see a better Show Boat in our lifetime.
A British archaeologist named Molly goes on an African dig in Bryony Lavery’s fantastical history tour, Origin of the Species, hoping to find clues to the origins of early man. Instead she finds early woman…and not just clues, either. In an African cave, Molly happens upon a living, breathing, apparently 4-million-year-old woman who awakens from her long nap snarling and cranky.
Molly names her Victoria and smuggles her home to Yorkshire where, in typical Brit fashion, she sets about “civilizing” her. First come rudimentary English lessons, then cardigans and skirts, and finally a crash course in Western Civ from Plato to Humphrey Bogart. But while Victoria’s lessons are funespecially when the subject is irony (she knows how to make fire, but not how to make fun of)what interests Molly most are Victoria’s secrets.
For Victoria knows how things really startedwho did what. And Molly keeps discovering that early man’s accomplishments were mostly early woman’s accomplishments. He was out hunting when she harnessed fire from volcanos. He was still out hunting when she made clothes from fur. And when she started weaving and planting and cooking and healing and forming social groups, he wasyou guessed itout hunting. Molly is astonished that scientists could have gotten things so wrong.
Which proves, I suppose, that she’s not quite the right person to be teaching contemporary linguistic subtleties to 4-million-year-old women. The notion that the word “man” in the sentence “man invented the wheel” refers to a species of hominids, not to a specifically gendered individual, isn’t an obscure or particularly complicated notion. But Lavery has made confusion about that distinction the whole point of Molly’s interest in Victoria, which means the play quickly devolves from a Pygmalion riff to a gender-based tutorial on human evolution. By the end, when Victoria is offering firsthand support for the theories propounded in anthropologist Elaine Morgan’s Descent of Woman, the drama in Origin of the Species has given way to straightforward agitprop.
Fortunately, it’s brightly performed in Jane Latman’s attractive mounting for the Theatre Conspiracy. Lynn Schrichte’s spunky, quizzical Molly is a charmer, easy to forgive when she turns didactic. And Samarra Green, feral and snarling with red and yellow yarn tangled in her hair, is persuasive enough at imbuing Victoria with dignity that she’s going to find herself typecast as noble primitives if she isn’t careful. Last time she ventured on stage (as the title character in Venus) she played an African woman whose big buttocks were regarded in Victorian England as so exotic that she became the feature attraction in a sideshow. This time, it’s her mind that amazes, and Green is adept at suggesting that the character’s grunted, fragmented syllables represent complex, intelligible thoughts. Would that she could take the play’s fragmented arguments and work similar wonders. CP