Seen on Broadway: I have been to The Mountaintop, but I’m not entirely sure what I saw from up there. Katori Hall’s play is one part bio-show, with Martin Luther King (Samuel L. Jackson) ruminating on aspects of his life and times in his Memphis hotel room as the rain comes down outside. And it’s one part something I could never get a fix on, as an overeager hotel maid, Camae (Angela Bassett), alternately charms and upbraids him, then reveals a heavenly agenda. Turns out that we’re seeing the civil rights giant on the night before his 1968 assassination, and that Camae is there for more than dusting.

This is a peculiar play, that takes King down to life-size at the start (he smokes, cusses, and uses the bathroom) then builds him back up again as he reluctantly ascends to legend, upset that so much work will remain undone. Aided by Adam Bailey’s excellent prosthetic makeup and Charles G. LaPointe’s unobtrusive wig and hair design, Jackson, in his Broadway debut, is more convincing than I would have thought as King, given a thirty-year difference in their ages. He has both the body language of a younger man and the gravitas of someone on the national stage, and he and director Kenny Leon might have made something of a more standard presentation of King’s work.

Bassett, however, is stuck playing the writer’s conceit, flailing about comically like one of the supporting maids in The Help. I wasn’t certain what she was up to, though I understand Camae is based on Hall’s mother Carrie Mae, who missed King’s “mountaintop” speech, which was delivered the day before he was killed in Memphis. Something about the little people empowering and inspiring the big ones? I can say that Bassett was working it more stylishly toward the end, as the show, including her costumes (by Costanza Romero) goes celestial, and David Gallo’s set and projection design leave behind the workaday Lorraine Motel for a tour of King’s achievements and the starry cosmos. The final scene, a feat of automation as the Bernard B. Jacobs transforms, also gives LD Brian MacDevitt and sound designer Dan Moses Schreier, pumping out a Branford Marsalis score, more to do. Why it was doing it at all is never satisfactorily answered. Buoyed by star power The Mountaintop runs through January 22.

Leading a fine supporting cast into combat against an implausible script Alan Rickman is a good part of the fun in Seminar, an entertaining if shallow play by Theresa Rebeck. He plays Leonard, a writing teacher, respected, feared, and dissolute, who knows within a sentence if something is good or not (like I said, implausible). Submitting to the waterboarding of their work is the well-born Kate (Lily Rabe), who has been rewriting the same Austen-ish story for six years; her impoverished friend Martin (Hamish Linklater), who is less secure than his high standards would indicate; the pretentious Douglas (a nice change of pace for Jerry O’Connell, typically oily in his movie roles); and the slutty Izzy (Hettienne Park). Over the course of their ten-week seminar, held in the rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment belonging to Kate’s parents, a red-hot autobiography comes into play (for a subplot that never quite gels), skeletons are retrieved from closets, and everyone uses everyone else for career and/or sexual advantage—after which the ending, where the sanctity of writing is upheld, seems fairly incredible.

Rebeck, though, has a way with a line and a situation, and under the assured direction of Off Broadway veteran Sam Gold the show moves along, stopping only for the delightful Rickman to roll words like “semicolon” off his silver tongue. Here as in The Mountaintop the main set, tastefully appointed by David Zinn, gives way in a dazzling scenic change to a far more crammed and lived-in environment, a change that brought applause from the audience. But all the design elements—Zinn’s spot-on costumes, Ben Stanton’s scene-setting lighting, and an apt score ably delivered by composer John Gromada—help lift Seminar, which continues at the Golden, off the page.

Chinglish, at the Longacre, could use a little star power. Imported from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago this is a typical in-betweener, too broad for Off Broadway but too modest for Broadway, despite a series of fluidly moving sets supplied by David Korins. Automation is a fitting metaphor for David Henry Hwang’s comedy, where an executive from a sign-making company in Cleveland (Gary Wilmes) is processed from ministry to ministry as he struggles to make business connections in China, with the dubious assistance of a British translator (Stephen Pucci) and a vice minister (Jennifer Lim) who is more interested in an affair than a transaction.

This is a timely, and unusual, subject for a play, and much of it rang true for this old China hand (I had my own collection of photographs of “Chinglish” signs, notably one for “Puking Tailor”). It’s not everyday you hear copious amounts of Mandarin (translated via surtitles and projected on the sets by Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan, along with other Chinese-language ephemera) on our stages. It is, however, on the superficial side, and director Leigh Silverman is so determined to make it flow painlessly it veers toward sitcom, with only the steely, funny Lim giving it any edge. Chinglish does benefit from its tasty design, including MacDevitt’s lighting, which runs the gamut from colorless offices to darkened hotel rooms, Anita Yavich’s all-business costumes, and Darron L. West’s sound, which offers a few booming Mandarin pop tunes.

Seen Off Broadway: No one will accuse playwright J.T. Rogers of having a light touch. His Roundabout show of a few seasons back, The Overwhelming, was about an American family caught up in the tumult of Rwanda in the 90s. He’s now expanded a short piece about Afghanistan into Blood and Gifts, a Lincoln Center production at the Mitzi E. Newhouse. The play follows a square-jawed CIA operative (Jeremy Davidson) through ten crucial years in the country, setting up operations in Pakistan, finding warlords to thwart the Soviets, trying to rally support for the cause in Washington—then attempting to leave the country behind when the short-term goals and the end of the Cold War are achieved by 1991, which we of course realize to be a pipe dream as Afghanistan continues to loom large in our foreign policy muddle.

Bringing in religion, tribal loyalties, assassination attempts, and The Eagles, Blood and Gifts is nothing if not ambitious, and there is a juicy supporting turn by Jefferson Mays as a dissipated English functionary who has strayed in from Graham Greene. It’s also unfortunately didactic in places, and talkier than is perhaps absolutely necessary. As interesting as some of the negotiating and haranguing is we’ve heard a lot of this before, even if the locale is new.

For better or for worse director Bartlett Sher has chosen to emphasize the language of the piece, restricting set designer Michael Yeargan to a mosaic floor, sand-colored walls, a couple of benches, and a few other bits of décor that fly on and off, and LD Donald Holder to evocative shadowplay to offset the naturalism of Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Peter John Still’s sound design. I’m not sure a grander production would have helped this worthy but wanting show, which plays through January. 8.

Equipment Vendors

The Mountaintop

Scenery Automation and Show Control: ShowMotion, Inc.
Projection, Lighting, and Audio Equipment: PRG

Chinglish

Scenery Construction: Hudson Scenic Studio, Inc.
Lighting Equipment: Hudson Sound & Light
Audio and Projection Equipment: Sound Associates

Seminar

Scenery Construction: ShowMotion, Inc.
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound

Blood and Gifts

Scenery Fabrication and Painting: Global Scenic Services, Inc.
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates

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