Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
Mud, River, Stone
By Elyse Sommer
Playwright Lynn Nottage explains the intriguing title of her new play as follows: "Mud, river and stone are the basic elements of life and of civilization. They're what you use to build up a society, but they also can destroy it."
The mud, river and stone from which Ms. Nottage built her play is a news story about a Mozambique village in which a group of demobilized soldiers held hostage everyone who passed through, including the UN representatives who came to negotiate. Their demand was for the grain and a blanket. The society her imagination created from those mud, river and stone elements is a microcosm of all the romanticized notions of what Africa represents and the reality.
At the center of her absurdist melodrama are two upscale African-American Manhattanites, Sarah and David Bradley (Paula Newsome and Michael Potts). She's an investment banker for whom the natural wonders of Africa evoke visions of "white men in fatigues" and whose idea of a vacation is to sun herself at a Caribbean Island. He's a music journalist who persuades her they need to get in touch with his roots. The brief opening scene in Manhattan has the Bradleys telling some shadowy friends about their African adventure that became a near fatal misadventure The quirky humor, (especially Sarah's), and the quick shift from operatic background music to an African beat with accompanying quick changes in the Bradleys' outfit makes you sit up with anticipation. Something fresh, entertaining and perhaps even important seems afoot.
This mood of anticipation is fed by the flashback to the young couple's losing their way and stumbling exhausted into a deserted hotel lobby. The only person in sight, a bellhop named Joaquim ( Maduka Steady) and shortly thereafter a martini-swilling white African named Blake ( Brian Murray) add fuel to the humorous possibilities.
The trouble with this promising beginning is that Ms. Nottage is better at setting up an interesting situation than she is at following through with a believable plot and rounded characters. As the other characters come to the Imperial propelled by their various notions of Africa as they see it and not as it is, the hope for a terrific absurdist comedy fades into a talking-heads discussion melodrama. This makes for two fatal flaws:
The melodrama doesn't work. Joaquim after ten years in the army now finds himself forced to serve these arrivals at the Imperial and, in a fit of disillusionment, grabs Blake's gun and takes everyone hostage. Trouble is that except for a few scenes Joaquim is clearly not sufficiently in control to keep up this hostage situation for as long as he does. He drinks, he leaves the hostages unattended, he must surely drop off to sleep. Thus it's clear that they could easily free themselves -- and are only prevented from doing so by the playwright who wants them to conclude the discussion she started. This unconvincing hostage setup also robs the few moments of real terror of any real conviction or vitality.
The actors are forced to become calcified as types standing for a particular false notion of Africa, instead of having a chance to engage us as flesh and blood people. The initial comedy drama could blend in these ideas but is instead overwhelmed by the talking-head sensibility. The Bradleys and a Belgian who's gone native (John McAdams) equate the idea of appropriating the culture. Ama (Oni Faida Lampley) represents the romantic quest for grain and romance. Blake (Brian Murray) is the old Africa which he considers rightfully his by virtue of being born there. Simone Frick (Mirjana Jokovic) who does not arrive until the second act personifies the entire United Nations and its powerlessness. There's also the unseen Missus, a sort of out to lunch leader of the whole sorry little group with a dollop of Mother Africa.
Despite leaving you disappointed overall, Mud, River, Stone has its dynamic moments, largely due the power of Brian Murray's performance as Blake; and, thanks to Roger Rees' careful direction, the other actors also make the most of the non-talky aspects of their roles. Neil Patel's set perfectly evokes the seedy splendor of an empty hotel with a grandiose name. Also excellent are the costumes by Kaye Voyce, lighting by Frances Aronson and sound by Red Ramona.