There are undoubtedly new things to be said about Martin Luther King Jr. That’s not the trouble with Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop
. No, the problem is that Hall condescends to her subject and audience in a manner worse than didacticism. Her play hinges on a gimmick, and one that is tired, tonally jarring and toe-curlingly cutesy. Set at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968—the night before King’s assassination—Hall’s Olivier Award-winning play introduces us to a man who’s weary, hoarse-throated and plagued by a bad case of stinky feet. King (Rodney Hicks, who strikes an impressive balance of the ordinary and the extraordinary) spitballs phrases for a new speech as he paces before the mirror, loosening his tie. Into this bare-bones motel room flies Camae (Natalie Paul), an ebullient, potty-mouthed maid. And for roughly the first half of this 90-minute play, the two banter and flirt and engage in various forms of high-flung oratory—in Camae’s case, it involves her deeming God “a funny-ass motherfucker.” But then Hall produces a cheap twist, which I won’t reveal here. Trust me, though: You’ve seen this one before. Let it suffice to say that Camae isn’t what she seems, and this revelation torques The Mountaintop
from a moderately compelling drama to a Lifetime Christmas special. There are phone calls to God, redundant arguments about inevitable things and a boob joke that reminded me of Mean Girls
. It’s a shame, really—Hicks and Paul have an engaging chemistry, one that’s alternately flirtatious and politically charged, which continues all the way to a frenzied pillow fight (it’s a lovely image, with tiny white feathers flying about the stage like snow). And director Rose Riordan keeps things tight and energetic, even as the proceedings spiral into patronizing looniness. Sometimes, a surrealistic flight of fancy allows a play to spread its wings. Other times, we just get flimsy clichés and a mess of feathers on the floor.
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