Review by Tulis McCall
(14 Oct 2011)
Well. This is mighty unfortunate. Mighty unfortunate! With the dearth of black actors, directors and playwrights on Broadway, this show came in with a lot of high hopes piled on top of that mountaintop. And in the space of a long 85 minutes, every one of them is knocked down to the valley floor.
For starters – there is no story here. Martin Luther King (Samuel Jackson) is spending his last night on the planet waiting for someone to bring him a pack of Pall Malls. He is restless and tired. He is disappointed at the turnout for his speech earlier in the evening. He is working on his new speech “Why America is Going to Hell”. And he is alone.
But not for long, because that coffee he has just ordered up is about to be delivered by a chambermaid, Camae (Angela Bassett) who is not going anywhere. This is the first step into questionable territory – how come the maid sticks around when whoever sent her up with the coffee is most likely waiting for her to return to her duties on her first day of work. But Camae (short for Carry Mae) has other ideas. In Ms. Bassett’s hands these ideas remain buried under a mound of Acting 101 no-no’s. She grimaces, she rolls her eyes, she prances and half curtsies – all manner of things that are exhausting to watch and only serve to hide the character, not reveal. By the time Camae does reveal her agenda, we are so worn down that we just don’t care.
Jackson is able to keep his head throughout the evening, and gives a strong steady performance. The fact that he looks and sounds more like Jesse Jackson is disconcerting, but then even the attempt to be King is an overwhelming responsibility. Were he to have a stronger script, he might have been able to do more. Jackson’s last monologue is evidence of his gravitas and power. He nearly lifts the audience out of their seats.
Unfortunately, Ms. Halls’ script isn’t strong. To her credit she has not tried to duplicate facts, which is often the downfall of history based drama. She chose instead to bend the truth to her own will. But she did so without a commitment to a beginning, middle and end. Because Camae’s agenda remains hidden for much of the play, we are left with a man and a woman amusing themselves for the better part of an hour while keeping their clothes on and their hands off one another. To do this, a writer needs some bravado and spark, neither of which is evident in this script.
Mr. Leon’s direction is as dull as the script. The fact that Bassett and Jackson behave as if they were from different planets falls into the directorial responsibility category. With the exception of Camae’s impromptu speech – to show King how it should be done – these two are operating on different wavelengths. They appear to be focused on getting their lines and blocking right, not on the pas de deux that I believe Hall intended.
And this show is nothing if not well intended. But intentions are not the same as story structure and character development. How this play made it past the first reader’s desk is a mystery. With the exception of Jackson’s final monologue, and one of the best set transformations I have ever seen, there is nothing happening on this stage that comes close to delivering the goods. Those hoping for an insight into Martin Luther King won’t get one. Those looking for a good story won’t hear one. Those eager for an evening of good theatre are out of luck.
A triple play of disappointments!
What the popular press said...
"The tension will steadily seep out of 'The Mountaintop,' despite a teasing mystery at the center of its plot."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"While "The Mountaintop" is tall on imagination, it is short on revelations."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"The path to the peak may be uneven, but the view from there is worth it."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"The playwright has a worthy topic—King's legacy—but she examines it shallowly, settling for easy laughs and sentimental tears."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"Martin Luther King is up there on the stage, but it never quite feels that it's really him."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"Aside from a stunning coup de theatre in the final 10 minutes, "The Mountaintop" is disappointingly earthbound."
Roma Torre for NY1
"The play is well-meaning rubbish that trivializes an extraordinary man."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"This intimate yet epic play builds to its bracing conclusion."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"Emotionally powerful and theatrically stunning moment of truth... this show has wings."
Marily Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...