Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Finding Focus on a Dream

"The Conscientious Objector" presented by the Keen Company at the Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row, March 11, 2008

Michael Murphy's play presents us with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the height of his reign as a civil rights leader. The program notes that while it " first and foremost a play. It is a dramatization and some liberties were taken." Personally, I can only vaguely remember when Dr. King was shot in Memphis in 1968, so I cannot speak to the historical accuracy in Mr. Murphy's work, or lack thereof.

What Mr. Murphy does give us in his interpretation of Dr. King (DB Woodside), is a reluctant and unsure man. The evening begins in 1965 when Dr. King first spoke out against the Vietnam War. Mr. Murphy puts forth that Dr. King felt compelled to take this position despite the fact that it would pull him away from the civil rights struggle. He has written a Dr. King who practically bows and scrapes in the first meeting we see with Lyndon Johnson (John Cullum). President Johnson needs Dr. King to back off the Vietnam issue so that he can continue to get similar legislation passed to the Voting Rights Act. King retreats briefly, but can't disregard the issue for the sake of politics. His advisers, Ralph Abernathy (Bryan Hicks), Stanley Levison (Steve Routman), Andrew Young (James Miles) also want him to choose his battles and stay with those he can win. James Bevel (Jimonn Cole) is the lone dissenter of his supporters and keeps pushing him to fight against the Vietnam war.

Mr. Woodside's King is certainly the reluctant hero. His resolve only forms when pushed forward by others whom he respects, or when forced on the defensive. I'm afraid, though, Mr. Woodside (and Mr. Forsman) have been very poorly served by their dialect coach, Meagan Prahl. I've complained about inaccurate southern accents before, and Mr. Woodside's is simply appalling. I would much rather he had spent his time finding the rhythm and music in King's voice and making the role his own. Consider the choices that Frank Langella and Anthony Hopkins made in their respective interpretations of Richard Nixon. Neither imitates, yet both captured the character in vastly different ways.

Note to Ms. Prahl: While I congratulate you on your first coaching gig, be informed that substituting "uh" for "er" sounds and "eh" for "ee" do not a southern accent make. I have no idea where you grew up, but the Brown/Trinity Consortium pedigree leads me to conclude it was well above the Mason-Dixon Line. I know you're excited about your coaching debut in NYC, but you may want to consider spending your coaching fee to pay the Keen to reprint their playbills without your credit for the remainder of the run.

As Lyndon Johnson, Mr. Cullum (thankfully) avoids an imitation of the late president. He also had significant struggles getting his lines out. Having been in previews for a week, one might expect more from such an accomplished actor.

Rachel Leslie's Coretta Scott King gets little do to, other than look lovely and concerned. Seemed a bit of a waste of talent to me.

Mr. Cole's James Bevel suffers from the substitution of volume for passion at the expense of diction and clarity. Bryan Hicks as Ralph Abernathy couldn't pick up a cue if the other actors dropped it in his lap. Jonathan Hogan, in multiple roles, demonstrates the kind of skill one obtains after 25 years with Circle Rep, not to mention his numerous Broadway, film and television appearances. The younger actors in this cast would do well to study his performance and choices.

Director Carl Forsman seems at times overwhelmed by the material (or at least by the actors in it), unable to fine tune performances when needed. At other times, his touches are quite sensitive and thoughtful - the scene when Coretta is boosting Martin up on the telephone, knowing exactly what his physical appearance is and mothering him in support to give.

Once again, Beowulf Boritt's set is the real star of this production. An American flag drapes the back wall and gently raked stage, interpreted in shades of grey - an absence of color yet not reduced to simple black and white. Josh Bradford's lights make a good start, but could use a bit more refinement to distinguish time and location on the abstract set.

I admire the efforts of the Keen Company. I think this is a group who truly attempts to create valid and relevant theatre in New York. I look forward to their next outing.

1 comment:

Esther said...

Wow, sounds pretty disappointing. I guess it must be difficult to play such an iconic figure like Martin Luther King.

I was really curious about this play. I've always been interested in the '60s and the history of the civil rights movement, and I really like John Cullum. I saw him in "110 in the Shade" last summer. I'm seeing "Thurgood" with Laurence Fishburne in May, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

It's interesting that you mentioned the set. I've been amazed by some great sets, how they really add to the atmosphere. I loved the 3-story house in "August: Osage County."

And I know how you feel about the accents. I've heard some pretty sad Boston accents in movies!