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Here’s hoping that the instant August Wilson finishes the epic, 10-play, decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th-century black experience he has been working on since 1979, Studio Theatre announces plans to devote its next two seasons to running the whole, extraordinary, blues-based cycle play after play. Audiences deserve to experience, first chord to last, the theatrical century’s most exuberantly joyful noise, and it’s hard to imagine a better area venue.
Each of Studio’s three runs at Wilson’s seriesMa Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1986, Two Trains Running in 1996, and now the raucous, rending Seven Guitars that Thomas W. Jones II and a sterling cast have brought bellowing to lifehas been among its respective year’s dramatic high points. These productions have helped the company develop one of the city’s strongest reps with African-American audiences, as well as introducing some remarkable new talents to D.C.
Guitars is a sort of tone poem, longer on character than on plot twists. It probably qualifies as the most musical of Wilson’s plays since the recording studio-based Ma Rainey. Its melodies emerge from both the story line, which involves a blues artist whose ambition is being thwarted by circumstances beyond his control, and the everyday chatter of characters whose temperaments make them as likely to burst into song as into one of the author’s verbal arias. The show’s first words are an a cappella ode to cabbage, belted by a woman who clearly knows her way around a dinner table. And when her friends chime in with speeches that ring poetic, often at the top of their lungsoh, what a buoyant racket they make.
Which is not to suggest that all is bright and breezy. The show has tragedy on its mind from the moment director Jones brings up the lights with a funereal blues riff and an aching physical stillnessa quietly disquieting start for so boisterous a play. Turns out we’re at a wake in the spring of 1948, and the rest of the play will tell us how we got there by following the exploits of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (J. Samuel Davis), a talented young blues singer-guitarist with one hit song and a hankering for more.
Having just spent 90 days in a Pittsburgh lockup, he’s anxious to get back to Chicago so he can take advantage of a record company’s offer. But he doesn’t want to go without his girlfriend, a sad-eyed creature named Vera (hauntingly angular Amy-Monique Waddell) whom he has wounded once too often through philandering.
Also on hand are the musical buddies Barton’s hoping to take north with him: Red Carter, a startlingly auburn-haired drummer played by sexy, loose-limbed Greg Reid, and Canewell, a harmonica-playing motormouth amusingly blustered for all he’s worth by Donald Griffin. Vera’s genially squabbling neighbors, Hedley (an initially goofy but ultimately harrowing Frederick Strother) and Louise (tart-tongued Cheryl Collins), and a hot-to-trot siren named Ruby (Deidra LaWan Johnson) round out the remaining voices in the author’s titular septet.
That all of them will speak in different, complementary rhythms as dreams get shattered and new ones get dreamed is pretty much a given in a Wilson play. And Jones’ ebullient but sensitive staging sees to it that even the characters’ pauses say worlds about them. Not that the director has allowed himself many pauses to play with. Pittsburgh’s Hill District is a high-decibel neighborhood, peopled by folks who figure most things worth saying are worth saying at top volume. As it happens, the easiest way to capture attention in this environment is to speak softly.
But tell that to Griffin’s Canewell as he fires off an uproariously ferocious lecture on the difference between roosters from Alabama and Mississippi. Most of the time in Seven Guitars, scenes just naturally bubble over into fireworks. So much as mention the Lord’s Prayer, and Davis will sing the hell out of it in a honeyed rasp that’s just this side of hypnotic. Talk about betrayal, and the discussion turns feverish in language so heightened with imagery (“I laid myself out on that bed and searched my body for your fingerprints”) that it verges on verse.
The performances are uniformly nuanced and rich, and Studio’s production is every bit as strikingly designed as it is well acted, from Daniel Conway’s weathered tenement and parched back yard to the luminous ambers and pinks with which Michael Giannitti has dappled it to the stirring down-home blues (sung by the cast) in Scott Burgess’ original score.
It’s also not going out on a limb at all, even so early in the year, to declare Reggie Ray the guy to beat for next season’s Helen Hayes Costuming Award. Nearly every one of his insanely high-waisted men’s suits and sleek rayon dresses, in shades from scarlet to mustard to cream, is eye-popping. When Vera emerges from her bedroom at one point in one amber shoe and one olive shoe and you find yourself thinking, “Well, that sort of works with that dress,” you have to figure a persuasive world has been created up there onstage.
I remember bumping into the class cutup at my high-school reunion and in the midst of laughing over something he was saying, suddenly understanding why our teachers had found him so annoying. He was as quick, sharp, cynical, and sarcastic as ever, but in a way I’d never noticed as a teen, he was strictly a solo act. It was impossible to have an actual conversation with him, because every time a comment or question floated his way, he turned it into a setup for a punch line. What had once seemed an endearing, if pathological, need to entertain now seemed self-absorption and an inability to listen. Nothing about him had changed, but without turning a hair, he’d turned insufferable.
Encountering Murray Burns, the compulsive smartass at the center of Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns, for the first time in many years, I find I feel much the same way about him. As the lights come up on American Century Theater’s production, it’s April 1962, and Murray (Richard Rohan) is cracking wise in the apartment he shares with his unofficial ward, an adolescent nephew who is currently going by the name Nick (Patrick McMurphy). The TV is tuned to Chuckles the Chipmunk, the inane kiddie show that got even more inane when Murray quit writing for it in a fit of pique.
Would that he’d kept his job. Social workers are on their way over, coming to ascertain whether Nick’s environment is stable. Having an unemployed breadwinner is not going to help the case. Alas, Murray thinks he’s Peter Pan and plans to joke his way through the interview, much as he does through life. After a half-hour of blowing bubbles, waxing sarcastic, evading questions, and flirting with the female half of the social services team (who is as uptight as he is free-spirited), disaster is at hand.
Naturallythis being situation comedy, not Look Back in Anger (though Clowns’ Murray and Anger’s Jimmy do share certain attitudes about the 9-to-5 grind) everything will work itself out. Still, it’s hard not to note the nasty aftertaste the material has acquired over the years. Could Murray’s constant carping ever have struck audiences as charming?
Thirty years after the ’60s social revolution, this guy’s frenetic jests sound like a cry for help, his fiscal irresponsibility reads as self-destructive, and his careless parenting techniques no longer seem merely cavalier; they verge on child neglect. That doesn’t just curdle the comedy, it turns it bitter and (when it centers on Nick) a little scary. Where once viewers might have wanted to take Murray out for a beer and a heart-to-heart, at Gunston’s Theatre Two they’d be more apt to hand him some Prozac and suggest he seek professional help for the sake of the kid.
Michael Replogle’s staging isn’t terribly imaginative, which counts as a letdown coming on the heels of the troupe’s cleverly reimagined Moby Dick Rehearsed. But then, from Katie Benedict’s low-rent setting (the company needs to learn from its successes with Moby Dick and Twelve Angry Men and try to do without sets if it can’t afford to do them right) to the uneven performances, no one seems to have been overly inspired. Rohan and McMurphy don’t really get their buddy act together until halfway through the evening, and while John Tweel’s know-it-all social worker buttons down amusingly, everyone else is either routine or pushing too hard for laughs.
Still, there’s not much they could have done, had they done all they could. While it’s tempting to lay the evening’s problems at time’s feet and say the play hasn’t aged well, in truth, Murray’s brand of cynicism”using a machine to call a machine,” he snorts while dialing a recorded weather linewas never all that bracing to begin with. Gardner was 28 when he wrote A Thousand Clowns, and by the time he had another Broadway hit at 51, this first one had been forgotten, even by theater pros. Just how forgotten can be gleaned from the entry for “Gardner, Herb” in the Oxford Companion to American Theater. It reads, in its entirety, “See I’m Not Rappaport.” CP