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EYE ON THEATRE

Ordinary Lives

By JOHN SIMON

Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” is a good and significant play about blacks in 1959, but does it need to be revived every ten years? Especially so by the same director as in 2004, Kenny Leon, even if he strives to make this one a trifle different. But difference, alas, is not synonymous with improvement.

At this point, going into the play’s plot seems just as otiose as rehearsing the plot of “Hamlet” or “King Lear,” which is not to say that “Raisin” is on the same exalted level. But it is a play that holds the interest as much for its social as its literary value, and manages to seize your attention as if it were new and suspenseful to you. That feeling of renewed novelty and suspense is what makes a classic, and “Raisin” has it, even if it could have waited another decade or two for revival.

Specifically, the 2004 revival with Audra MacDonald, Phylicia Rashad and, yes, Puff Daddy, was easily as good as the current one, and in some ways even superior. The most obvious drawback is ironically its chief drawing point, the star quality of Denzel Washington, who, at 59, with the character of Walter Lee Younger upped for him from 35 to 40, makes questionable the man’s naivety, and unlikely his having a sister, Beneatha or Benny, who is a mere 20.

The aspects in which the present revival is unassailable is the casting of Walter’s long-suffering wife, Ruth, with Sophie Okonedo (remembered from the movie “Hotel Rwanda”), and of the rebellious Beneatha with Anika Noni Rose. Ms. Okonedo, though British, manages the American accent perfectly, and possesses a subtle beauty as well as an effective look of repressed melancholy, from which she can vividly leap to euphoria or sink into despondency,

As for Ms. Rose, she owns a zest, a youthful swagger and easy charm, which will not be gainsaid, and barely puts up with grandmother Lena’s admonishments. You cannot resist either her spiritedness or her pouting, which in other hands might seem schematic, and you cannot help rooting for her. But so much for the production’s obvious pluses.

Most unfelicitous is the replacement as Mama Lena of Diahann Carroll, who couldn’t hack it, with LaTanya Richardson Jackson, an actress lacking or discarding matriarchal dignity, and substituting broad, meretricious farcicalness. Although less culpable, Sean Patrick Thomas, as the student Asagai, Beneatha’s Nigerian suitor, ought to have greater appeal. The other characters are adequate, including the noted director David Cromer, surprising in the small role of the white tenants’ representative, trying to bribe the Youngers into not moving into the house in a white neighborhood that Lena has, somewhat improbably, purchased with the premium from her late husband’s insurance.

That husband’s photograph on the wall, which takes on some significance in the end, is the revival’s one innovation, even if it makes the play’s final touch rather anticlimactic. The physical production—Mark Thompson (set), Ann Roth (costumes) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting)—is convincing, and Leon’s direction once again savvy. But whether this outing was necessary, even with Washington dutifully executing Walter’s prescribed “nervous movements and erratic speech habits,” remains open to debate.
A Raisin in the Sun production image by and courtesy of Bridgette Lacombe.

Venue: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, NY 10026. Tickets online: www.MyBoxOfficeTickets.com; by telephone: Call (855) 305-4862.

I have no such doubts about “The Realistic Joneses” by Will Eno, a playwright beloved by some critics, whose work I have either deplored or simply avoided. This play, acclaimed at its Yale premiere and now transferred to Broadway, strikes me as reveling in deliberate banality and is egregiously unnecessary from beginning to end.  Perhaps especially the end, in which its four characters, contemplating in suburban lounge chairs the night sky, exchange slightly off-kilter trivia, even a love of mints.

All of this is perfectly mundane and lacks any real interest, unless you find the preposterous ramblings of the younger man, a near lunatic, piquant. We have here two married couples, both called Jones: the middle-aged Bob and Jennifer, and the young Pony and John, neighbors in exurbia.

Bob is somewhat peculiar and testy, Jennifer is reasonable but humdrum, Pony is an airhead, and John is, well, crackers. That they are very scrupulously enacted by, respectively, the well-spoken Tracy Letts, the amiable Toni Collette, the cute Marisa Tomei, and the persuasively nutty Michael C. Hall only make matters worse, as you lament such waste of good talent.

Sam Gold, the fashionable director, has staged unfussily, especially good if you fancy scenes played full-front out into the audience. David Zinn’s set is intentionally rudimentary but framed by impressively tall evergreens. Characteristic costumes by Kaye Voyce and carefully naturalistic lighting by Mark Barton only make what is  said and done that much more mundane.

I only wonder about the epithet in the title. Who is realistic here, the characters or the author? And is realistic meant as a compliment or merely a statement of fact? And in any case, why should we care?

Venue: Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10026. Tickets : Call TeleCharge at (212) 239-6200 or (800)432-7250

John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. To learn more, visit the www.JohnSimon-Uncensored.com  website.

 

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