T e thick of Broadway season is upon New York City, aplomb with revivals of classic productions, enticing new pieces from up-and-coming playwrights and A-list stars including Denzel Washington and Toni Collette. I was able to sample both a revival of an American classic, “A Raisin in the Sun,” and a new play from Will Eno, “The Realistic Joneses.” The two plays are currently in previews, and officially open later this month.
“A Raisin in the Sun”
Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” unveiled in 1959, entered American theater as the singular artistic representation of black American identity in the post-war years. More than 50 years later, little has changed. The Younger family wrestled with themes quintessential to its time: feminism, the questioning of patriarchy and the changing face of the American identity, occupation, marriage and experience. Unequivocally, this was a pointed eff ort. By illustrating such “American” ideas, her interpretation of the black American family – what it means to assimilate, to get in touch with one’s “roots,” to aspire and dream for a lifestyle not quite permitted or accepted by their white neighbors – was both accessible and groundbreaking.
So the question must be asked – why revive it? Ten years ago, director Kenny Leon brought the play back to Broadway for the fi rst time since its original run a half-century ago. He cast musician/actor Sean Combs (or P. Diddy) as patriarch Walter Lee Younger, and reviews were mixed at best.
Whether out of a genuine love for the material or to right what he had perhaps wronged, Leon is again behind “A Raisin in the Sun” with some much-improved casting choices; most importantly, Walter is played by Oscarand Tony-winner Denzel Washington (“Fences,” “Training Day”). The cast also includes LaTanya Richardson Jackson (“Damages”) as Walter’s mother, Lena; Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose (“Caroline, or Change,” “The Princess and the Frog”) as his younger sister, Beneatha; and Oscarnominee Sophia Okenedo (“Hotel Rwanda”) as his wife, Ruth. As this is on Broadway and Leon has tried his hand at this material multiple times – he also directed an Emmynominated television adaptation – the production is handsomely mounted. His stage has depth, the lighting is illuminating yet subtle, and the production design is expertly calibrated. Important also is the fact that “A Raisin in the Sun” still feels vital. Hansberry’s lyrical exploration of the African American experience is remarkably fleshed out and complicated, even for a 2014 audience. In particular, her fl irtation with gentrifi cation and the roles of husband and wife take on new and diff erent meanings as revived for a contemporary audience. Unfortunately for Hansberry, the power of her exposition of American racial and class confl ict is diluted by Leon’s clean-cut approach, a turn toward the commercial and the obvious. While Leon’s set looks great, it does not sit right. If you read “A Raisin in the Sun” or even watch the original fi lm, you get the sense that this family is living on top of each other. Th ey have no space and no privacy. Th is set, however, is spacious, even as Beneatha and Lena share a room. Hansberry depicted a family with little space and big dreams, so physically close to each other that their love for one another appeared impenetrable. Th e physical space given to Leon’s actors renders the production stiff , with characters distant and relationships thus lacking real formation. With a collection of fi lm stars on stage, the anonymity of the Youngers in greater American life is similarly lost. Even with terrifi c actors like Washington or Rose, the depths to which Hansberry goes cannot quite be expressed on this particular stage. Dialect feels off and the performances, particularly of Washington, are inconsistent, ranging from utter despair to frantic happiness with the snap of a fi nger. Th e attempt is admirable, the words still relevant – but there is nothing organic about this “A Raisin in the Sun,” a cleaner and sunnier version of the original, controversial words Lorraine Hansberry unveiled in 1959. At the very least, that is a disappointment. Marginal sat. “Th e Realistic Joneses” Will Eno, a Pulitzer fi nalist for his “Th om Paine: Based on Nothing,” has fi nally made it to the big-time after a string of well-reviewed smaller productions of various plays. One of those plays, “Th e Realistic Joneses” – which premiered at the Yale Repertory Th eatre two years ago – has offi cially hit the Broadway stage. “Th e Realistic Joneses,” a 90-minute