January 26, 2007

Wilson’s last play shoots straight into the bunker

Too much of the praise of August Wilson is based on the fact that he wrote a play about the black experience for each decade of the 20th century. Not enough of the praise discusses the uncanny ear for the spoken word, fully realized characters, and flawless ability to weave the real with the spiritual that made Wilson one of the most accomplished American playwrights, black or white, of the past half century. Composed before his death at age 60, Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf, premiered Tuesday at the Goodman Theatre, the only American company to have produced all 10 of his plays. With its season pitched as “Celebrating August Wilson,” the environment was so commemorative that it would make any critic feel uncomfortable about fairly addressing the production at hand. Maybe that was intentional because there’s no way of hiding the fact that Radio Golf is an absolute train wreck.

There were signs that this was coming. In The New Yorker’s review of the play’s New Haven premiere in May 2005, John Lahr commented, “By the time Radio Golf makes it through one or two more productions, if he’s true to form, Wilson will have discovered his play; it will be more focused, more poetic, leaner, and more fun.” Three months later, Wilson announced he had liver cancer; two months after that, he was dead. As a result, the perfectionist Wilson was unable to fine-tune the play, and consequently, Radio Golf accomplishes none of the goals Lahr hoped it would.

Radio Golf , the 1990s chapter of the Wilson saga, features characters unfamiliar to past Wilson plays. Instead of hard-working, embittered have-nots, we get a couple of haves. The play centers around Harmond Wilks, a black entrepreneur born into wealth who, with mayoral aspirations, has plans to revitalize Pittsburgh’s decrepit Hill district with the help of Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Barnes & Noble. He and his business partner, Roosevelt Hicks, play golf, and Harmond’s wife, Mame, is up for a position in the governor’s office.

The only thing holding back the operation is a crazed old man named Elder Joseph Barlow, who claims ownership of the run-down 1839 Wylie Avenue that is about to be demolished for the new apartment complex. As Barlow’s claim increasingly gains legitimacy, Harmond is faced with a political and ethical decision he does not initially see coming.

Wilson’s greatest strength was his impeccably precise dialogue. Although some clumsy phrases appear in the first act, Wilson’s intermittently brutal and hilarious dialogue throughout the first act enhances a building plot, and by intermission, the play leaves a lot of hope for a gripping conclusion.

Unfortunately, the play collapses so disastrously in the second act that it’s almost painful to watch. The main problem stems from Harmond’s maniacal decision to attempt to save the house and ruin his career. Although such a decision may be in line with the spiritualism of Wilson’s past works, it feels entirely out of place in a play set in the ’90s.

In the past, Wilson possessed a remarkable ability to understand the strengths and weaknesses of his characters. It’s depressing, then, to see him misjudge his characters to such a degree. It’s not only Harmond, as Roosevelt inexplicably turns from an ambitious right-hand man to a racist robber baron, and Mame decides to leave Harmond, then to stay with him, then to leave him again without reason over the course of one monologue. Add that factor to that the fact that the play languishes about 45 minutes too long, and we’ve got a bona fide flop on our hands.

It may seem fair to give Radio Golf the same treatment as Eyes Wide Shut and attribute the work’s faults to the creator’s death before the its completion. However, as much as it pains me to say it, I’m not sure if even Wilson could have saved Radio Golf. Wilson’s ability to find a spiritual realm in American life seems out of date, as there’s not much mysticism in the corporate America of 1997. Aunt Esther, the lynchpin of Wilson’s vision for the cultural folklore of African Americans, died in the 1980s (see King Hedley II). The Goodman’s bulletin says that one of the aims of the play was to show how Harmond and Roosevelt struggle with the lack of a sense of African tradition. Yet, by the end of Radio Golf, the play seems less like the work of a lost heritage and more like the work of a playwright who has run out of ideas.

Regardless of the quality of the play, however, it would be irresponsible for a theater company like the Goodman to forgo the completion of Wilson’s cycle if given the opportunity. Thus, director Kenny Leon was put in the impossible position of celebrating the career of a fantastic playwright with the playwright’s weakest work.

Not surprisingly, the brightest spot in the cast is Anthony Chisholm as Barlow, the character most in tune with Wilson’s strengths. Hassan El-Amin tries his hardest to make his character believable, but as with the rest of those working on the production, his best effort is not good enough to salvage the play. In terms of effort, the one exception has to be Michole Briana White as Mame; White’s robotic motion and confused delivery was so amateurish, you had to wonder what that type of performance was doing at the Goodman.

While I’m sure it’s not what Wilson had in mind when writing Radio Golf, the story of a highly successful man with everything going for him who inexplicably gives everything away seems, in retrospect, a bit autobiographical. It’s a shame that such a remarkable career–one of the best American drama has ever seen–should leave such a bitter taste in our mouths.