A first-class revival of an American classic: “A Raisin in the Sun” at Two River Theater

There is little that I can add to the praise that has been heaped upon Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” virtually from the hour it opened on Broadway in 1959. Ms. Hansberry, at 29, was the youngest American playwright and the first African-American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. Her play has not only stood the test of time, it has become a revered classic. Reviewing a revival in Chicago twenty-four years later, New York Times critic Frank Rich declared that playwright Hansberry had “changed American theater forever with her first-produced play.”

What I can do, having seen the original, which cemented Sydney Poitier’s stardom, plus a 1995 staging at George Street Playhouse and the 2004 and ’14 Broadway revivals (with Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs and Denzel Washington, respectively), is to offer an assessment of the current production at Two River Theater in Red Bank NJ.

Deeply felt and superbly directed and acted, it is a triumph. If you have never seen the play or would like a reminder of its brilliance, get yourself to Two River before October 8.

From left: Jasmine Batchelor, Owen Tabaka, Brenda Pressley, Brandon J. Dirden, Crystal A. Dickinson [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

           Set firmly in its place and time (Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s), the play transcends those limits in its depiction of the three-generational African-American (“colored” or “Negro” in context) Younger family, in crisis mode over how to spend the $10,000 proceeds from the recently deceased patriarch’s life insurance. Living as they do in a cramped run-down apartment (with a shared bathroom), it is a colossal sum of money.

Crystal A. Dickinson and Brandon J. Dirden as Ruth and Walter Younger

The son, Walter Lee Younger (Brandon J. Dirden, singularly masterful), wants to invest in a liquor store. His mother Lena (Brenda Pressley) has other ideas, including putting some away for daughter Beneatha’s (Jasmine Batchelor) medical-school tuition and putting a down payment on a house, which [spoiler alert] she does – in a previously all-white community. Walter’s wife Ruth (Crystal A. Dickinson) is caught in the middle between Walter’s unrealistic dreams and Lena’s practicality.

That deceptively simple plot line is the framework for the surgical-like examination of the characters’ hearts and souls. The extent to which we learn about the Younger family in 150 minutes that fly by is vast. That their bonds persevere in the face of racism and a cruel, if foreseeable, betrayal is remarkable.

Anguish: Brenda Pressley and Brandon J. Dirden

 

The play has been regarded as a male-star vehicle (starting with Poitier), but, while the demanding role of Walter Lee is central to the narrative, “A Raisin in the Sun” is about its women, evidenced here by three who enact the family as if born into it. (This is not to diminish Dirden’s performance. He is, in fact, so good, especially at establishing relationships, that he brings out the best work in his cast-mates.)

Brenda Pressley appeared in the George Street production referenced above, where she “triumphed,” I wrote, in a “wonderfully sensitive performance – as Ruth! What a pleasure to see her reach even more impressive heights as Lena.

Crystal A Dickinson, Brenda Pressley, Owen Tabaka

Two River’s Ruth is fully realized by Ms. Dickinson, who plays the complex woman’s physical and emotional near-devastation as well as her moments of unbridled exhilaration seemingly from the inside. Beneatha Younger represents an emerging generation of African-American women that Lorraine Hansberry herself embodied. Ms. Batchelor conveys her strength and latent activism and also her – dare I say – girlish charm. It’s no wonder that straight-laced George Murchison and Nigerian mensch Joseph Asagai (the admirable York Walker and Charles Hudson III) both crave her affections.

Walter and Ruth’s ten-year-old son Travis completes the Younger family. Owen Tabaka, also ten, is perfection in his acting debut. Great start, Owen. The sanctimonious man from the New Neighbors Orientation Committee is a weasel in a suit and tie. Nat DeWolf plays him without a sneer, making him even more hateful. An essential cameo is played very well by Willie Dirden, who is Brandon’s real-life father, which also makes him Ms. Dickinson’s real-life father-in-law. (Think about it.)

Brandon J. Dirden, Crystal A. Dickenson, Nat DeWolf, Jasmine Batchelor

The set design (Christopher Swader and Justin Swader) includes a hallway with a bathroom door and a staircase stage left, which I found distracting, but which closes in Two River’s wide playing area to emphasize the Youngers’ cramped conditions. Kathy A Perkins’s lighting design is excellent; one particular dimming effect adds immeasurably to an emotional scene.

When all the elements of a multifaceted play come together as grandly as here, one marvels at its maestro. Bravo, director Carl Cofield.

Through Oct 8 at Two River Theater, Bridge Avenue, Red Bank NJ. Performances Wed at 1pm & 7pm; Thurs & Fri at 8pm; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3pm. Tickets ($40 – $70): 732.345.1400 or at www.tworivertheater.org

Note: While the ending of “A Raisin in the Sun” is uplifting, the play originally included a scene with the Youngers’ busybody neighbor Mrs. Johnson cautioning Lena about moving. “I bet this time next month y’all’s names will have been in the papers plenty,” she says, mocking a headline: “NEGROES INVADE CLYBOURNE PARK – BOMBED.” (The playwright’s caps). The scene was dropped before opening (partly to save hiring another actor), but later, Ms. Hansberry, who had been nearly killed in a real-life racial incident, bristled when a critic wrote that the play had a ‘happy ending’. “If he thinks that’s a happy ending,” she said in an interview, “I invite him to come live in one of the communities where the Youngers are going.” Some things change over time…and some things don’t. Lorraine Hansberry died of cancer in 1965 at age 34; “A Raisin in the Sun” is her legacy.

Blog, Professional, Regional

“Prince of Broadway” = Nostalgia on Broadway

“Prince of Broadway” has been variously compared to a highlight reel, a mix-tape and a best-of list. Simply stated, “Prince” is a compilation of musical numbers from sixteen of the twenty-or-so Broadway musicals produced and/or directed by Harold Prince. Performed by nine Broadway veterans over two acts, the numbers span Prince’s career, from “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees” in the 1950s through “Phantom of the Opera,” directed some 30 years after those early successes.

In between, and also represented here, were “West Side Story,”  “Follies,” “Cabaret” and “Sweeney Todd,” to name a few. (They weren’t all hits: remember “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman”? Me neither.)       The critical reaction to the show has been lukewarm at best; I rather liked it.

Tony Yazbeck and Kaley Ann Voorhees from “West Side Story”

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

“F Theory” in Long Branch NJ: an imperfect blendship

For starters, the F in “F Theory,” world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company, does not stand for what you are thinking. No; it represents friendship, in this case not even with benefits, so if you stop reading now and go back to surfing Facebook, I’ll understand.

The friendship in the play is between two women who meet as college roommates and whose relationship endures – for better and for worse, in richer and poorer, etc. – into old age. Theirs is a friendship-interruptus, with alternating periods of bonding and ghosting as their experiences and values variously coincide and diverge. A show of hands, please, from those who have never had an on-again, off-again friendship? Didn’t think so.

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Blog, Professional, Regional

Curvy Widow on 43rd Street and Songbook Summit on 59th

Pinpointing a target audience for some shows is easy. Ten-to-twelve-year-old girls whose parents took them to “Annie” were seen a decade or so later with one another at “Rent,” while their college professors were at a revival of “Mourning Becomes Electra.”  Along those lines, it is unsurprising that, at a recent Saturday matinee of “Curvy Widow,” I sat among a couple hundred women within shouting distance of 55, either way. And judging by their reactions, they were all having a fine time, vicariously sharing the racy activities of leading character Bobby, one of their own, played with earthy humor by Nancy Opel, one of their own. (Admittedly, I got into it, too, just not to the same extent.)

Nancy Opel, center, and the “Curvy Widow” cast [Photos: Matthew Murphy]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” come true in Central Park

Settings and casting variations on Shakespeare are virtually infinite. “Othello” in an Army barracks? “Shrew” on a Dude Ranch? A female Prospero or even Richard III? A campy “Pericles” set in a tavern? Been there, seen that.

Due to its being the most widely produced of Shakespeare’s plays, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is beneficiary (or victim) of an outsized number of such constructs. In 2014, for example, the Stratford Festival in Ontario had two men alternating performances as Oberon and Titania on the main stage, while in a nearby venue four intense young actors presented a “chamber” version that turned it into a dirge (no easy task).

How refreshing, now, to see the romantic, magical work played where it is largely set, in an open-air nocturnal park, and cast by-the-gender (mostly), if not by-the-book (hardly). The comedy, as funny here as you’ll ever see it, is a perfect fit for The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in Central Park, where last month a recognizable Julius Caesar bought the farm. No killings or politics in this one.

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Broadway door opens into “Marvin’s Room”

In life there are the care-givers, the care-receivers, and those who simply don’t care. All three are represented in Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room,” finally debuting on Broadway, thanks to Roundabout Theatre Company, after its 1990s Regional and off-Broadway runs. Like other socially conscious plays from that era – Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” comes to mind – “Marvin’s Room” attempts to mesh Drama and Comedy, and, like “Heart,” it succeeds.

McPherson’s play was inspired by the circumstances of some older Florida relatives in declining health and further influenced by his personal experience caring for his AIDS-afflicted partner, cartoonist and activist Daniel Sotomayor, who died in February 1992 at age 33. In a tragic irony, the playwright himself succumbed to the same scourge nine months later, also at 33.

Lily Taylor,  Janeane Garofalo and Jack DiFalco  [Photo: Joan Marcus]

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