Sunday, May 9, 2010

Swinging For The Fences

This review will be published in the May 13th issue of The Envoy.

The promotional videos on the website for the new Broadway production of August Wilson's hauntingly complex domestic tragedy, “Fences,” make the play seem light and fun. That it is one of the great dramatic works about the African American experience, almost seems lost in a promotional campaign that (perhaps understandably, but nonetheless annoyingly) squeezes every possible drop of hype from the appearance of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in its lead roles.
But “Fences” is a rich and tragic tale. This staging, nominated for ten Tony Awards and helmed by Kenny Leon, who has directed Wilson's entire repertoire, gives flight to its tragic and deeply human essence, despite some shortcomings. Set mostly in 1957, the play centers around the life of Troy Maxson, a 53 year-old garbage man whose dreams of playing Major League Baseball are thwarted not for want of ability, but by the times he lives in. Those times, though, were changing in 1957. A constant subtext is the way Troy's son, Cory, and his wife, Rose, are able to see which way the wind is blowing, far better than the weathered and wise old man in whose towering shadow they live.
This production abounds with moments of comedic brilliance, and Washington's firm command of his character and impeccable timing make them all the more pleasurable. But what we have far too much is a fast-paced back and forth between stage and house, in which laughs beget adjustments in performance aiming for more laughs, and the heart-wrenching weight of many of the play's pivotal moments are subsumed, their power dealt a blow.
One example is the way that Chris Chalk's Cory betrays a frenetic, almost goofy energy that at certain moments buries much of the emotional dynamism in his relationship with his father. He saws pieces of wood in one pivotal scene with a cartoonish frenzy that steals focus and left me scratching my head. Chalk's energy does accent the contrast between his appearance as a 17 year old high school athlete early in the play, and the stoic discipline of his later incarnation as a twenty-five year old U.S. Marine. The trouble with the younger Cory, though—and it's a problem that plagues much about this staging—is that our attention is lured away from the complexity and completeness of the relationships between the characters, and toward quirks found by the actors.
Those quirks and subtleties, though, are at times just as capable of thrusting the show toward greatness as they are of holding it back. Washington finds in Troy Maxson all the tenderness, vulnerability and suppressed rage befitting a man who has given his life to something he deserved yet always knew he'd never get. Amid a scene in which Cory pulls Troy off of his mother as they fight, Troy, in one motion and with the full conviction of his character, kisses his son on the head before shoving him away and verbally threatening him.
Those moments that require commitment rather than subtlety are also done well. Viola Davis, as Rose, earns our empathy as a waterfall of emotion washes over her at the news of her husband's infidelity. And in a grippingly sad exclamation point on the finality of Troy's journey, in the final scene in which he appears with Bono (played with skill and grace by Stephen McKinley Henderson), the emotional distance between the two old friends is starkly manifest in blocking that never lets them get too close to one another, and by the glaring absence of the brotherly warmth shared by the two men in their earlier encounters.
What stays with you, despite some significant hiccups, is the howling echo of a man whose stubborn and old-fashioned sense of responsibility have perhaps as much to do with his undoing, as the very real and painful injustice of the era that defined and defied his rugged spirit.

“Fences” is at the Cort Theatre, 248 W. 48th St., through July 11th.

Friday, February 26, 2010


One-day snowfall record for Central Park: 11.3 inches.

Wind gusts: up to 50 mph (hurricane strength).

Total snowfall expected: 20-30 inches.

Living through what might be the biggest snowstorm ever to hit New York amid the winter I've taken a vow to get around only by bike and on foot: priceless.