Review: The Mountaintop

The night before his assassination, Martin Luther King gets a strange visitor.

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    The Mountaintop

    The Mountaintop at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    The Mountaintop

    The Mountaintop at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    The Mountaintop

    The Mountaintop at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

Photograph: Joan Marcus

The Mountaintop

The Mountaintop at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>2/5

In the opening seconds of her much-heralded Broadway debut, Katori Hall takes the piss out of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Quite literally. King enters his Memphis hotel room the night before his assassination in 1968 and heads for the bathroom, where we hear him urinate. It's as if the playwright were saying, "He pees! Just like us!" For some in the audience, this simple demonstration of MLK's humanity might be shocking—which says plenty about how we've deified the civil-rights pioneer. Gently bucking that trend, Hall attempts, in her impish and mystical vision, to embrace both the man and the myth.

Taking the piss, or mocking, is English slang, and the (unintended) aural pun probably came across more clearly when The Mountaintop premiered last year in London, where it snagged the Olivier Award for best new play. (To be fair, any U.S. drama whose first scene has the line, "Why America is going to hell" is required by law to win a British award.)

The current production, staged by Kenny Leon with film stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, opens with considerable hype and celebrity wattage, neither of which does it any favors. Miscasting and directorial overkill turn what could have been a beguiling chamber meditation on fallibility and destiny into an awkward, mawkish blend of docudrama, surreal whimsy and pandering black-history triumphalism. If this description sounds vague, that's because I'm trying to honor the producers' request not to reveal The Mountaintop's cosmic plot twists.

Let me say up front that I applaud Hall for having a questing theatrical imagination. Like last season's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, her play takes a delicate subject and instead of approaching it with bland realism for easy moral lessons, it uses iconography to fuel an eccentric but humane vision. And while it is heartening to see a young African-American woman produced on Broadway, Leon's literal-minded staging (tricked out with expensive-looking special effects) does not justify the script's bold arc from the trivial and personal to the epic.

Bassett plays a hotel maid named Camae, who comes to King's room to deliver coffee and the next day's newspaper. They smoke, drink a little booze, flirt and debate the merits of nonviolent resistance versus Malcolm X--type militancy. In the script, Camae (inspired by Hall's own mother) is described as being in her twenties. Bassett is feisty and radiant, but she's at least 20 years older than the role. She also seems determined to act Jackson off the stage, telegraphing laugh lines and hammering the sassy-gal routine. The fact that Camae turns out to be otherworldly might be taken as an excuse for suspending disbelief, but it's hard to ignore the cynicism of the casting.

Jackson is also too old to play the 39-year-old King, but at least his performance is more nuanced and thoughtful than Bassett's showy diva turn. She acts like she's in a vacuum, which ends up sucking the oxygen out of the room. It leaves no space for mystery or chemistry. The play explicitly alludes to King's extramarital dalliances, but there's no spark between Jackson and Bassett. And without such erotic danger, The Mountaintop lapses into the sort of lightly stylized hagiography that Hall probably didn't mean to write.

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Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. By Katori Hall. Dir. Kenny Leon. With Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett. 1hr 35mins. No intermission. See complete event information