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A CurtainUp Review
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Jordan G. Teicher
Roy Williams' theater adaptation, which is now making its US debut after a production in London, puts the story's universality and elasticity to the test. While the transition to stage is a bit bumpy at times, the roots of the drama remain intact, making this a story worth re-telling.
The building blocks are the same— a teenager, Colin Smith (Sheldon Best), ends up in prison school after committing a petty crime. He turns to long distance running for a sense of freedom, but finds himself at a moral crossroads when he's asked by a government administrator, Stevens (Todd Weeks), to race against private school students.
In Williams' update, these events are set against the backdrop of the 2011 riots, partially a response by the young "lost generation" to unchecked unemployment. David Cameron, seen on the television here preaching the need for a "culture of responsibility," is the face of a ruling class that seems hopelessly out of touch.
In this production Colin is directionless, more interested in hanging out and committing small crimes with his friend Jase (Joshua E. Nelson) and chasing girls like Kenisha (Jasmine Cephas Jones) than looking for a job. Under Leah C. Gardiner's direction, Best brings a sprightliness and energy to Colin, making him more of an "aimless young man" than an angry one, as he's been portrayed previously. It might seem a bit foreign for those familiar with Courtenay's brooding performance, but Best does service to this interpretation of the character.
Generally, the action moves along swiftly as Colins runs that final race, moving back in time to show us the reasons for his arrest, clashes with his recently widowed mother, and his romance with Kenisha. At times, however, the Williams' dialogue falls flat, particularly in Colins' internal monologues throughout the race. "Trot, trot. Puff, puff, puff. Slap, slap, slap, go my feet on the hard soil. Swish, swish, swish as my arms and side catch the bare branches of a bush," he says. Best manages to make those line work, but I'm not sure exactly how.
He also seems up to the role's physical challenges, which include fight scenes with bully Luke (Patrick Murney), push-ups and some pretty impressive cardio. Unlike the London production, which used a 25-foot treadmill for the running sequences, the New York production requires Best to run in place in front of video projections, a feat that requires a bit of magic to pull off without awkwardness. Other staging choices can't be saved. As Best runs, he flashes back to snippets of dialogue from family friends, who appear in the background, lit by solitary spotlights. Think the ghostly voices and floating faces of a cartoon nightmare. Not pretty.
The play, and Best, are at their most genuine when exploring Colins' deeper feelings. Those come best in his slipshod relationship with Kenisha (due, perhaps, to a natural and charming performance by Jones). His frustration, meanwhile, emerges in earnest in a final confrontation with Stevens about British society and his place in it. That conversation constitutes the meat of the ideological argument at the heart of the play, but it comes a bit late and a bit muddled.
It's unclear how exactly we're meant to understand Colin in relation to the rioters, whom he never quite joined but with whom he shares sympathies. At the play's conclusion, Colin himself seems no surer about the direction of his fate. He knows only that he'll be going it alone.