Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Thurgood Gets Bullied

Laurence Fishburne in "Thurgood". Photo: Carol Rosegg

Michael O. Smith in THE BULLY PULPIT. Photo Credit: Rick Teller

a review
by Tony Vellela

With apologies to Charles Dudley Warner,  "Politics makes stage bedfellows."  Two current offerings, both solo outings, bring us into the political and personal lives of giants in American history -- President Theodore Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  But the scales of justice have tipped the balance in favor of the executive branch.

"Thurgood," by George Stevens, Jr. stars Laurence Fishburne in the title role, at the Booth, on Broadway.  "Bully Pulpit : Quality Time with Teddy Roosevelt," written and performed by Michael O. Smith, is on view at the Beckett on Theater Row. At this moment [endless as it seems] in our country's examination of all things political, both these offerings use the biographical vehicle format to help us peek behind the great events of the eras their central figures' actions influenced so greatly, TR during the last century's first two decades, and the century's midpoint for the Justice.

The key word here is 'actions.'  Both men were giants, revolutionaries in their respective universes, but only 'Bully Pulpit' shows instead of tells how its hero accomplished so much.  The stage is not a classroom, and probably that central tenet is what dooms "Thurgood" to its thudding presentation.  Stevens sets us up as audience members as the revered Civil Rights champion delivers an address near the end of his life at his alma mater, Howard University.  So we HEAR about what this paragon has accomplished, with an occasional twinkle in his eye when a personal anecdote approaches risque territory.  But the only action, the  only movement that Fishburne's director Leonard Foglia coaxes out of him consists of taking off and putting on his suit jacket, and the extraction of a few papers from a handily-placed briefcase on the solid oak table.  This winds up playing like something close to an automatronic theme park dummy -- looks like Thurgood, sounds like Thurgood, guess it IS Thurgood.  Not even the rear projections take on any life until the final moments, when color is added to the images.  While his legacy is so central to the issues of black versus white, that is not enough of a reason to extend the abstraction to how the play is written and presented.

On the other hand, and it is a hand that is mostly in motion, Michael O. Smith delivers a performance so lively it often seems like a set-up for a musical number.  This was, of course, a man with an outsized, public persona, against which almost no one can stand being compared to.  Smith, under the fluid direction of Byam Stevens, also takes a retrospective approach, as the 26th president of the United States celebrates his 60th birthday at his Sagamore Hill home on Long Island.  It's 1918, Wilson is in the White House, and TR is not.  This script, too, enlightens us on the personal adventures and historical events that shaped the man and his era.  It engages us, provokes us, entertains us, and amuses us, and in the process, humanizes him.

Charles Corcoran's deftly-appointed living room set, which cleverly incorporates an elevated hallway at the rear that doubles as a pulpit when called for, provides the right, warm setting to tell tales, to spin yarns, and to contain (barely) the complex, gregarious Renaissance man that is still counted as one of our most visionary Presidents.  This piece shows us (rather than tells us) why that is.

TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies" His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by The Drama Book Shop.)


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