As I've stated before, there are just so many things one fellow can review, especially while pursuing a full-time writing career elsewhere, and I find I must be brutally selective about productions on the off-off Broadway level. But every now and again, a press release or an invitation comes across my desk, and there's something about it that says to me--with as much urgency as that loud teevee redneck who hawks Beanie Babies and sports collectibles at two o'clock in the morning--don't miss out. In this case, the something was the presence of the lead actors: Ruben Santiago-Hudson (a Tony winner for "Seven Guitars") and Christopher Murney. (Murney is hardly a household name, but he's a grand veteran pro whose career I have casually followed since his award-winning appearance in the 1972 flop musical "Tricks". It was a brilliantly funny performance that I've always remembered because--among other things--it was in the first play for which I ever received press tickets.) Traditionally, an OOB production charges $12 to $15 bucks a seat, has a severely limited run (blink and it's outtathere) and gets done for love; cuz you sure can't make money at it. And my feeling was: if Santiago-Hudson and Murney had signed on, it was not inappropriate to imagine Nat Cole singing, "L is for the way you look at me," in the background. Big time. So I booked my date for a performance of "Deep Down" by Doug Grissom.
As I've also stated before, I've come to believe, more and more strongly the more I do this, that the opening image of a production is enough to tell you if you're in good hands. Not necessarily if the piece will work entirely, or be successful...but whether or not you're about to embark upon a journey under the guidance of a creative team with a clear grasp of craft, a solid sense of purpose and a worthwhile artistic vision.
There is no show curtain at the small Intar Theatre on 42nd Street. Thus, as my companion and I took our seats, the set was visible. The first thing we saw. And it was this:
To audience left, midstage depth, a ramshackle shack. To the right, three telephone poles, wired together, that seemed to recede into the distance--a mere trick of set design perspective, of course, the poles upstage progressively shorter than the pole downstage...but unusually convincing nonetheless. Why unusually? I thought. It didn't strike me right away until my companion said, "Will they actually be digging?" There was a certain sense of wonder to the question--oddly, because pretend-digging is hardly the epitome of theatrical illusion. But I followed her gaze. And then I understood the wonder in the speculation, and the brilliance of Charles Kirby's set.
It gives the impression of a road leading up to the shack. The stage floor is designed on a diagonal, what's called a rake, or raked angle. But where most raked stages start at the downstage lip of the proscenium and travel up, this one does the reverse. Since the seating plan at Intar is designed so that most spectators are always looking down at the stage, rather than up, or level, Kirby just extends the visual metaphor. The rake of the house is continued as the stage rakes downward into the distance. Thus the receding telephone poles seem to follow the curvature of the earth! As for the digging my friend alluded to--
--well, that had to do with more than just the dirt floor onstage and visible shovels. It had to do with the fact that the backwards rake allows for mounds of dirt that both visually, and in a practical sense, provide depth. Rather than digging into a trap or a recess built into a stage floor, the actors could actually dig a couple of feet toward the stage floor--no fakery, no theatrical cheating. That the play had sparked this degree of inspiration seemed to indicate that the designer, too, was one more of the creative team who really cared about it.
Then, too, there was Bill Simms, Jr. sitting in a chair to the left, just below stage level. A veteran, revered rhythm and blues guitarist with a career going back to the late 50s. Strumming a guitar, sporting a wide brimmed hat, sunglasses and an open-necked shirt, as if to say, Greek chorus means black, worldly, laid back and cool. Obviously, these were the sounds that would be setting the mood and underscoring key moments through the entire show. Just as obviously, authenticity was at a premium. (The Nat Cole in my head was wailing now: LOVE is for the way you LOOK at me...)
If the play came even close to matching the opening images (and sounds to match), this would be a helluvan evening.
Indeed, the play comes close. Not quite so close that you feel you're in the presence of a masterpiece...but close enough to know that a writer (and director, John Lawlor) worth keeping track of have crossed your path.
The play is simple enough to describe: We're in Florida, it's 1963, and Ned, an eccentric white farmer (Murney), has just hired Daniel, a recently paroled black ex-con (Santigo-Hudson) to dig alongside him on this seemingly empty land he owns. Daniel wants to know what they're digging for; but Ned, an obstreperous old coot, remains evasive. There is also the undercurrent of white boss/black hired hand, and racism that's liable to pepper the speech at any moment. Though sometimes playwright Grissom toys with your expectations too. "You know what you are, Daniel?" asks Ned derisively, and you can see Daniel tense for the word nigger "You're an idealist," Ned says instead. "And a philosopher."
Eventually it becomes known what Ned is digging for. And eventually the two men find--in both the practical and spiritual sense--something more valuable still.
Further complicating the mix is Ned's nearly-adult teenage daughter (Catherine Zambi), starved for attention and knowledge, constantly trying to fit various all-inclusive attitudes onto a half-formed personality. That there will be sexual tension between her and Daniel seems inevitable, and, sure enough, here Grissom follows a tried and true formula.
But what keeps the dynamic from feeling formulaic is the depth and detail of character, the sharp humor of the dialogue and the layers of humanity that are unearthed in direct proportion to the earth that is dug out of the ground.
Under John Lawlor's direction, the performances crackle just like the play. Murney's Ned is a grand blusterer, trying desperately to camouflage the yearning in his soul. Santigo-Hudson's Daniel is, in a way, his opposite--a man who makes no bones about his yearning, and wishes he had something to bluster about. Catherine Zambi's Hannah, for all the fragments of her personality, is an utterly convincing backwoods teenager: both unpretty and compellingly sensuous, wise and absurd.
Lawlor's direction is subtly effective at other moments too...the transitions between scenes, traditionally clumsy affairs in such small theatres, where there can be no true blackouts, are unfailingly smart uses of the space, the ambiance, lighting effects...and music.
As I write this, it is September 6th. "Deep Down" is scheduled to close on the 12th. Don't let it do so without your having been there. Give it a reason to extend...or move...
...so that you and I aren't the only ones who leave the Intar, bopping to the spelling song with ole Nat...
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