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A Raisin in the Sun (04/26/2004 - 07/11/2004)


 

AP: "Matriarchal Power in Raisin"

Mother scores best. And that goes for daughter-in-law, too. The matriarchal contingent is the reason to see the Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun," Lorraine Hansberry's landmark drama that opened Monday at the Royale Theatre.

As the widowed Lena Younger, Phylicia Rashad totally inhabits the very specific world created by Hansberry, a black family's South Side Chicago apartment in the late 1950s.

Rashad dominates the household and the play, giving a lovely, touching performance as the strong-willed woman who wants to lift her family out of the ghetto on the wings of a $10,000 insurance policy left by her late husband. No less impressive is Audra McDonald as Lena's world-weary daughter-in-law, Ruth, burdened by the drudgery of daily life but also determined to carry on.

That brings us to the revival's obvious box-office draw: Sean Combs, the hip-hop impresario making his Broadway debut in the pivotal role of Walter Lee, Lena's son.

Waiter Lee is an angry dreamer, frustrated with his job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white man. He should be the center of Hansberry's drama, the man who embodies the play's title - taken from a line in a Langston Hughes' poem, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"

It's Walter who grapples head on with those dreams and it should be an exhausting struggle, one that was captured on stage and then on film by Sidney Poitier with a fierce brilliance. Combs doesn't show us the man's bruises.

The actor has a compelling physical presence -and he's fine in the comedy scenes, particularly when a drunken Walter Lee is improvising an African dance with his outspoken sister, Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan). But Combs is not a nuanced performer who can bring to life the enormity of Walter Lee's resentment, much less his eventual redemption in the evening's final scene.

Fortunately, there are the other cast members to savor and plenty of other things going on in Hansberry's play, which seems overloaded with conflicts that Kenny Leon's straightforward direction doesn't minimize.

Consider Beneatha's romance with an African exchange student (played by a winning Teagle F. Bougere) and her determination to celebrate all things African while distaining the advances of a wealthy admirer (Frank Harts). All this is filtered through the young woman's desire to become a doctor, one of the many dreams "Raisin" celebrates.

Watch Rashad, in what could be a throwaway moment, as Lena sadly looks at a photograph of her dead husband. His death has brought them the money that will allow them to own a home of their own, a house in an all-white neighborhood. It's heartbreaking but the actress skillfully underplays it to get the full effect.

McDonald does something just as magical in a scene when Ruth's bitterness melts as she and Walter Lee rekindle the romance of their faltering marriage. She plays its sweetly, even shyly and with a genuine joy.

Hansberry died of cancer in 1965 at the age of 34 and is basically only known for this play. But with Combs in the cast, there will be a whole new audience for "A Raisin in the Sun."


AP
04/26/2004

New York Daily News: "Diddy does a pretty decent job onstage"

So, how did Puffy do on Broadway?

Well, Sean (P. Diddy/Puffy) Combs -who made his highly anticipated stage debut last night in "A Raisin in the Sun" at the Royale Theater - certainly showed plenty of stage presence.

The play abounds in sharp humor, which he delivers smoothly. And he was wise to pick this vehicle: Lorraine Hansberry's drama about a frustrated black man trying to do right by his family is about as solid a piece of theater as has ever been written.

But the lines in a play - especially a play such as this one -are only the tips of the iceberg. It is the actor's job to suggest all that lies beneath the surface.

In the case of Walter Lee Younger, the role Combs plays, that's quite a lot.

As Younger, who makes his living as a chauffeur and dreams of being wealthy, Sean Combs exudes breezy charm. But Younger has also led a life full of frustration and humiliation.

That is hardly Combs' experience, so it is not surprising, therefore, that he does not project the turmoil inside the character.

Hansberry wrote "A Raisin in the Sun" in 1959 as the civil rights movement was gathering momentum, but its outcome was by no means certain. Few plays have crystallized American history as pungently as this one.

Even now, Hansberry's ability to encompass so many currents of African-American thought and experience in a simple family drama seems astonishing.

What's most remarkable, given the unsettled time, is how affirmative her vision was. This production captures that vision powerfully.

At the end of the play, Younger makes a momentous decision, which would be stronger were Combs able to convey the inner demons that torture his character all evening long.

With the money from his father's will, his mother, Lena, plans to move the family - her college-age daughter, Beneatha; Walter and his wife, Ruth, and their son, Travis - into a white suburb. It's a courageous gesture.

Phylicia Rashad brings galvanizing strength and dignity to the role of Lena, the matriarch who must hold her difficult family together.

Audra McDonald is similarly understated but rousing as Waiter's long-suffering wife.

Representing a younger generation, impatient with conventional constraints and emboldened by curiosity about her African heritage, Sanaa Lathan has joyful exuberance and sassiness.

Alexander Mitchell could not be better as young Travis. Teagle F. Bougere gives a marvelous performance as Beneatha's Nigerian boyfriend. David Aaron Baker is splendid as a white man who represents the homeowners group, and Bill Nunn has deep poignancy as Waiter's hapless friend.

As for Combs, performing a play eight times a week is a learning experience.

By the end of the show's 10-week, limited-engagement run, who knows? He may have found ways to convey the inner Walter.

That way, if the tricky record business runs into trouble, he could always make a living on Broadway.


New York Daily News
04/27/2004

New York Post: "Giddy for Diddy"

Let’s cut right to the chase: Diddy do or Diddy not? Last night, hip-hop king Sean Combs (the artist otherwise known as P.Diddy) made his stage debut in the first Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking play "A Raisin in the Sun" - and yes, Diddy did.

Confidently stepping into the role made famous by Sidney Poitier, Combs was - believe it or not – pretty damn good.

Admittedly, Sidney Poitier he was not - and Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson need not shake in their boots, at least for now.

But Combs exceeded expectations as the petulant, truculent and brooding young hero, Walter Lee Younger, of Hansberry's 1959 hit - the first play about the black experience to make a solid impression on the Broadway scene.

Apart from the 1973 Broadway musical "Raisin," this was its first major New York revival since that Broadway premiere and 45 years of black history.

So Combs' much-publicized debut was not the only question when "Raisin" opened at the Royale Theatre last night.

How was the play after ail these years? Does it stand up as a classic of American theater, or more simply, as a landmark in American history?

Hansberry, who died in 1965, at the tragically early age of 34, was, as her famous memoir put it, "young, gifted and black." Although she wrote much -some of it yet to be published -"Raisin” is her major legacy.

After that first night, critic Brooks Atkinson called it "a Negro 'Cherry Orchard'" - an assessment which may well prove over-generous.

The story is told with a vibrancy of dialogue that often shivers with truth. Yet some of the heroics are more soap-opera than real life, especially the crowd-pleasing ending, which while conceivable still twists too handily the earlier depiction of the characters.

Yet "Raisin" does wear well. This tale of three generations of the Younger family remains engrossing - presided over by a matriarchal grandmother, faced with the windfall of a small fortune, and with it the chance of moving from a tenement in Chicago's black ghetto to a house in a white suburb.

When Hansberry wrote "Raisin," Martin Luther King Jr, had more 10 years to live and civil rights had more mountains to climb.

Yet looking at "Raisin" today, perhaps its real tragedy is not how much the world has changed - but how much it has, for so many blacks, remained the same.

Today there are still many predominantly white suburbs in the U.S. that would not exactly welcome a black family into their midst, and many black ghettos where it might still seem oddly like 1959.

Kenny Leon's staging proves deft, swift and catches every vernacular overtone, suggesting exactly the same authenticity revealed by Thomas Lynch's setting - it's always tricky to cut a Broadway stage down to the size of a small apartment- and Paul Tazewell's spot-on period costumes.

Best of all, the performance captures just that same iridescent honesty of the original 1959 cast, frozen for posterity in the 1961 movie.

Combs' desperately well-suggested shiftless, focusiess but yelping vitality is set up against a living fresco of wonderful acting.

The three women - Audra McDonald, pained and glorious as the wife; Phylicia Rashad, resilient and wise as the mother; and the flighty but determined Sanaa Lathan as the sister - all give magnificent, brilliantly interwoven performances.

All the other roles have also been cast with care and skill, including Teagle F. Bougere, as the dignified, but puzzled, visiting Nigerian student, and Alexander Mitchell, perky and irrepressible as the youngest Younger.

Then there was Frank Harts as a square sincere suitor; the stolid, heart-broken Bill Nun as a man involved with Walter Lee in a get-rich scheme; and finally, David Aaron Baker making a perfect weasel of a man from the White Housing Association offering the Youngers a bribe to forget that suburban jump.

The play was first inspired by Langston Hughes' famous poem, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?"

Perhaps for some the dream is still deferred, but the play has not dried up, and nor will it. Here is an American document of time, place and relevance.


New York Post
04/27/2004

New York Times: "A Breakthrough 50's Drama Revived in a Suspenseful Mood"

Sean Combs's shadow precedes him at the Royale Theater. That's literally as well as figuratively. In the moment before Mr. Combs makes his hotly awaited entrance in the seriously off-center revival of Lorraine Hansberry's ''Raisin in the Sun,'' which opened last night, his wavering shadow is cast from offstage, heralding his arrival like a soft, urgent fanfare. Audra McDonald, the first-rate actress playing his wife, calls his character's name -- ''Walter Lee, it's time for you to get up!'' -- and you can feel the audience drawing a collective breath.

Mr. Combs, of course, is the entertainment mogul, hip-hop artist, fashion entrepreneur and professional famous person better known as P. Diddy (and formerly known as Puff Daddy). His participation makes this production of Hansberry's epochal drama, which is directed by Kenny Leon and also stars Phylicia Rashad, a highly suspenseful event in a season when theatrically green celebrities from Farrah Fawcett to Ashley Judd have turned to road kill on New York stages.

Mr. Combs's anticipatory shadow thus hovers like a question mark over Thomas Lynch's scrupulously shabby evocation of a lower-middle-class apartment in Southside Chicago in the 1950's. Will the very 21st-century figure who is Mr. Combs, whose career has been a sustained triumph of nerve over probability, be able to turn into a man of continually thwarted dreams of the mid-20th century? Will he prove that you don't need long years of experience and training to knock 'em dead on Broadway?

For as much as 10 minutes after Mr. Combs hits the stage, looking appealingly tousled and sleepy-eyed, these questions are left hanging. Portraying Walter Lee Younger, a role immortalized by Sidney Poitier on Broadway in 1959 and in the 1961 film, Mr. Combs seems at first to have made a daring actor's choice that he just might pull off.

''Raisin in the Sun'' depicts Walter Lee's belated emergence into manhood. And in his opening scene -- as he pouts and teases with his wife, Ruth (Ms. McDonald) -- Mr. Combs's Walter evokes a man who in his 30's is still marooned in early adolescence. You might even mistake this Walter for the older brother of Travis (Alexander Mitchell), the little boy who is in fact his son. Clearly, Mr. Combs has left lots of space for Walter to grow. Unfortunately, that space is never filled.

This omission makes the revival a lopsided and ultimately dreary affair. Though the production features sterling work from Ms. McDonald and Ms. Rashad, who plays Walter Lee's formidable mother, it lacks the fully developed central performance from Mr. Combs that would hold the show together. This Walter Lee never appears to change, in big ways or small. Happy or sad, drunk or sober, angry or placating, his evenly measured words and debating team captain's gestures remain pretty much the same.

This is a significant problem, since Walter Lee is meant to represent a new generational spirit among African-Americans in a time of social transition. And neither Mr. Combs nor the exceptionally pretty Sanaa Lathan -- as Walter Lee's ambitious sister, Beneatha, who is studying to be a doctor -- makes an argument for this generation as one to pin your hopes on.

From beginning to end, they register as petulant, spoiled overgrown children with none of the complexity of the maternal figures played by Ms. McDonald and Ms. Rashad. This ''Raisin'' is all about the kids versus the grown-ups, and not in the sense that Hansberry meant it. Instead of contrasting the forces of conservative, God-fearing womanhood with a fresh revolutionary spirit, the show becomes an ungainly counterpoint of mature and callow acting styles.

It's an approach that deprives audiences of an empathetic handle on the trials of the Lee family, headed by the widowed Lena (Ms. Rashad). And it never lets this sturdy kitchen-sink drama involve you even as a soap opera. The plot -- built on the Younger family's squabbles over what to do with the $10,000 life insurance policy on Walter Lee's father that has come due -- may seem creaky in the best of productions.

But as was evident in the more consistent revival at the Williamstown Theater Festival five years ago, ''Raisin'' was remarkably prescient in identifying issues that would continue to shape African-American life: black men's struggles for self-assertion in households dominated by strong women; the movement to separate African from American identities; Christianity as both an oppressive and redemptive power; the restlessness of women imprisoned by domesticity -- all these elements come into play in Hansberry's drama. And that's not to mention the plot pivot in which the Younger family plans to move into a white neighborhood.

Abstract conflicts are given engagingly particular life by Ms. McDonald, a three-time Tony winner, and by Ms. Rashad. Her natural radiance clouded with bone-weariness, Ms. McDonald's Ruth is a life force on the verge of extinction, tethered to an ironing board and her husband's self-centeredness. An unrecognizably folksy, mother-hen-ish Ms. Rashad, who played a very different sort of matriarch on ''The Cosby Show'' on television, admirably finds both the strengths and weaknesses in blind maternal love.

These women become invaluable touchstones. Whenever you want to read the emotional content of a scene, it's their faces you must look to. If they're not onstage, you're in trouble, since Mr. Leon has otherwise emphasized the single-note, high-pitched, perky style of sitcoms. (The audience laughs at bewilderingly unexpected places.)

Mr. Combs is not the wholesale embarrassment that connoisseurs of schadenfreude were hoping for. The Donald Trump-like confidence that has made him the success he is keeps him from dissolving into a spotlighted puddle. But he comes across as smaller than you might expect, as Madonna did when she made her Broadway debut in ''Speed the Plow.''

Most disspiriting, though, is his lack of variety. Though his eyes gleam promisingly in the early scenes, there is rarely a flicker of transforming feeling on his handsome, self-assured face. You can only sympathize with Mr. Leon, who has come up with various devices for working around this stolidity, like having Walter Lee freeze with his back to the audience to stare moodily out the window.

In the climactic moment when Walter Lee discovers that he may have destroyed his family's prospects for happiness, Mr. Combs simply buries his face in his hands, while occasionally registering anguish by massaging his scalp. All things considered, this was probably the right choice.


New York Times
04/27/2004

Newsday: "A Raisin in the Sun"

There are many moving speeches in "A Raisin in the Sun," eloquent cries into the past and the future of a black family on the South Side of Chicago in 1959.

Still, one outburst with special resonance seems to sum up the hype and the force driving the expert, if a bit leisurely, straightforward revival of Lorraine Hansberry's seminal drama that opened last night at the Royale Theatre. The words belong to Walter Lee Younger, the 34-year-old chauffeur who lives with his wife, his son and his grown sister in his mother's three-room flat with the shared bathroom down the hallway.

Walter Lee vows that a man must "Think big. Invest big. Gamble big - hell, even lose big if you have to." He is talking about his scheme to buy a liquor store with the precious money his mother just received from his dead father's insurance policy. Since the actor playing Walter Lee is Sean Combs, the hip-hop mogul in his theater debut, however, the high-stakes declaration could also have been his own.

No more suspense. Nobody loses - at least not in any big way. Combs is better than OK. He has presence playing someone besides his own formidable self. He projects. He allows himself to show a touching vulnerability as a man trapped in black America and infantalized by the mother who loves him.

Combs may not have the most expressive face on the stage and he doesn't yet break our hearts when the situation breaks his spirit. But there is a sweetness in him, and director Kenny Leon makes sure this Walter Lee gets to express his youthful exuberance-and his impotent rage-through his physicality. Could a seasoned actor have found more intricate shadings in the character? Of course. Would Broadway be entertaining all the young and diverse audiences that are lining up? Of course not.

In a gesture that could have been a stunt, pure hubris, a massive humiliation or a really good deed, Combs began his stage career at the top with Hansberry's certifiable classic. With no acting experience, he chose to play one of the iconic characters in black theater history - one originated on Broadway and in the 1961 film by no less an artist than Sydney Poitier. Then Combs is surrounded with the top of the acting food chain - including Phylicia Rashad as the matriarch and Audra McDonald as Ruth, the long-suffering wife.

McDonald, with her three Tony Awards and her musical background, is no less substantial in this nonsinging role created by Ruby Dee. At first, McDonald underplays Ruth's unhappiness about the years cleaning other people's houses and living in someone else's home. But she has a simmering sensuality that plays beautifully off whatever is left of the troubled marriage. And when Walter Lee's mother buys a house with the money, Ruth's happiness gives us a glimpse of the woman who could have been.

Rashad is the revelation as Lena Younger, a character more often portrayed with a forbidding side to her love. We get the sense that this really could be the mother of a man with Walter Lee's potential for joy. When she slaps Beneatha, her bright, ambitious daughter for denying God's place in her accomplishments, the action is horrifying for its uncharacteristic fury.

Sanaa Lathan, better known in movies than stage, is lovely as Beneatha, the woman of the future, who tries on life as if it is a new dress and wants to be a doctor. Teagle F. Bougere makes her suitor from Africa seem as heroic as he is smart. David Aaron Baker is aptly feverish as the representative from the "neighborhood improvement" that prefers its improvements white.

Thomas Lynch's set emphasizes the soft hues of a home filled with character as well as heartache, while Paul Tazewellls attractive costumes somehow keep us from wondering why Walter Lee and his wife are often color-coordinated.

Hansberry, the first black playwright on Broadway with a black cast and director, understood the back-to-Africa movement and the underside of assimilation. She clearly had few illusions about middle-class aspirations. As Walter Lee says, there are "the takers and the tooken." By no means is the ending as happily-ever-after as the conventional structure leads us to expect.

This "Raisin” may have been a gamble, but the payoff is also an investment. Broadway needs these audiences more than Combs needs this kind of old-fashioned, anti-hip validation. We see no obvious cynicism in that.


Newsday
04/27/2004

USA Today: "Sean Combs not a plum choice for Raisin in the Sun"

It's official. Rapper/producer/entrepreneur/marathon runner Sean Combs can now add another slash to his multitasking title: "Broadway actor."

In a revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (* * 1/2 out of four), which opened Monday at the Royale Theatre, Combs - aka Puffy, Puff Daddy, P. Diddy and J. Lo's ex - stars as Walter Lee Younger, a role introduced 45 years ago by a less ambitious fellow named Sidney Poitier.

Poitier went on to do some film work, but to this day has failed to establish a record company or clothing line or score his own series on MTV.

Combs clearly did not slack off in preparing for his latest challenge. The caffeine-achiever drive that has made him a most successful dilettante also fuels his performance here, which merits a solid C, for competence and chutzpah.

There is nothing patently awkward or embarrassing about his portrayal of Walter Lee, a 34-year-old man still living in his childhood home in 1950s Chicago, grappling with a strong-willed mother, a frustrated wife and his own dashed dreams. The theater novice, who has acted in films such as Monster's Ball and Made, appears physically comfortable on stage and projects his character's emotions in a disciplined and expressive fashion.

But projecting is not the same thing as acting, and the finely textured work of Combs' accomplished co-stars makes his own lack of experience and depth all too apparent. Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad are riveting and heartbreaking as Walter's long-suffering spouse and his widowed mom, a pious, haunted woman puzzled by the lack of reverence and gratitude she perceives in her children. Both actresses convey levels of warmth, wit and sensitivity that Combs can't summon.

Combs also is upstaged by Sanaa Lathan, who exudes endearing sass as Walter's younger sister, a fiercely independent medical student, and by Teagle F. Bougere, who plays her good-natured suitor with unaffected charm.

Director Kenny Leon does his best to smooth over the emotional gaps left by a subpar leading man, not to mention a script that, while still engaging and affecting, can seem dated. Racism still flourishes decades after the civil rights movement, often in more subtle, insidious ways. But with black men and women having contributed so much to mainstream culture, the angst of assimilation is less of an issue than it was in the late 1950s.

Still, the Younger family's struggles with pride and prejudice likely will strike a chord with audiences of all ages and ethnicities.

I only wish that the producers had used an equal-opportunity approach to casting the central role, rather than pandering to celebrity bias.


USA Today
04/27/2004

Variety: "A Raisin in the Sun"

For proof that star quality doesn't necessarily translate from one business to the next, look no further than the Royale Theater, where Sean Combs, otherwise known as rap mogul and fashion impresario P. Diddy, is giving a sadly N. Adequate performance at the center of the new Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun."

Fortunately, Combs, a newcomer to the stage who lacks both presence and the requisite vocal technique, is surrounded by a trio of luminous actresses with considerable stage experience: Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan. Individually and collectively, they infuse the proceedings with the warming breath of life.

And it would be impossible to entirely mute the enduring appeal of Lorraine Hansberry's tough-minded, tenderhearted play about the financial and emotional struggles of an African-American family in 1950s Chicago. Audiences new to it may well be engrossed by its story of family love triumphing over economic oppression and despair, moved by the compassion and gritty eloquence of the writing, engaged by its still vibrant humor.

But director Kenny Leon's production draws its generally listless energy from its subdued leading man. It ambles when it should soar, raises a rueful smile when it should break the heart. And too often it translates Hansberry's finely wrought play, with its gentle but distinct poetic dimensions, into a sentimental sitcom.

Combs plays Walter Lee Younger, an ambitious young man in Chicago who is slowly dying inside as his dreams of achievement wither in the absence of economic opportunity. The rap producer is following in the daunting footsteps of Sidney Poitier, who created the role in the 1959 premiere, and Danny Glover, who played Walter in an acclaimed 1989 "American Playhouse" presentation.

Combs deserves some props for following such estimable forebears in the white-hot glare of the Broadway spotlight, with no previous stage training. But he is simply not up to the role's considerable demands. Walter's wild emotional swings -- from despair to elation, from numbness to rage, from abject humiliation to fierce pride -- are writ small in Combs' performance, and the play's impact is accordingly diminished.

"I'm a volcano!" shouts Walter at one point, high on booze and bursting with frustrated aspiration. But Combs' Walter is more like a cigarette lighter, emitting a small, continuous but inconspicuous flame. With his look of smoldering dissatisfaction and loping, truculent swagger, Combs convincingly suggests a young man embittered by life far too early. But his perf rarely moves beyond these defining gestures.

Hansberry's play, very much a product of its time, is constructed around crisply defined confrontations and monologues in which the characters reveal their deepest longings, fears, frustrations. In this production, Walter's big moments glide smoothly by, making minimal dramatic impact. As these mileposts disappear into the fog, all but illegible, one is tempted to conclude that Combs, undoubtedly an intelligent man, has opted to hedge his bets by underplaying. Rather than risk the embarrassment of failure, he strives only for modest success. He doesn't try to stretch toward the play's powerful emotional extremes and risk exposing his limitations as an actor.

When Walter learns he's been swindled out of the precious thousands entrusted to him by his mother, for instance, Combs folds in on himself, slumping forward and enfolding his head in his hands. This may be a plausible manner of depicting Walter's scalding sense of shame, but it's theatrically unsatisfactory. Emotion revealed through gesture and speech, not hidden by it, is theater's stock in trade.

Combs' conservative performance may limit damage to the star's reputation -- it is by no means an embarrassment, and certainly his many fans aren't likely to be disappointed -- but it fails to do full justice to Hansberry's play.

"A Raisin in the Sun" is an uncommonly sturdy piece of writing, to be sure, imbued with the grit of painful experience, clear-eyed but generous in spirit, stocked with richly drawn characters whose struggles against the limitations of their lives become a collective metaphor for the human predicament itself. And Combs' distaff co-stars all give performances of impeccable integrity.

McDonald, who plays Walter's wife, Ruth, sensitively conveys her exhausted fortitude and her inextinguishable love for her husband, whom she loves despite his flaws, and in some sense because of them. She shares Walter's unflagging need to break free from the stifling environment of Chicago's South Side, and Ruth's ecstatic outburst, when she learns the family will finally be leaving the cramped apartment shared by three generations, is among the production's spirited high points.

Rashad's Lena, the matriarch who provides her family with unceasing love accompanied by stern doses of corrective wisdom, is drawn in gentle but sure strokes. The moments in which this indomitable woman lets slip the mask of contentment she dutifully wears are powerfully unsettling, as when she is brought up short, stricken with momentary grief at the arrival of the check that puts a cool dollar value on her husband's long life of toil.

Lathan is bright, funny and energetic as Walter's feisty sister Beneatha. The character's proto-feminism and her staunch anti-assimilationist proselytizing are among the play's more obviously dated elements. Hansberry's writing strikes a rare callow note when Beneatha's enthusiastic exploration of African culture, through her friendship with Nigerian student Asagai (a savvy turn from Teagle F. Bougere), is played for easy laughs.

These are, unfortunately, sometimes underscored by Leon's direction, which settles for the most obvious paths through the play's comic detailing and its moments of poignancy and tenderness.

Harold Clurman wrote at length of the premiere production's "organic" quality. That quality, so essential to the success of this naturalistic play, with its neatly structured narrative, is precisely what's missing from Leon's staging. Thomas Lynch's set, which almost exaggerates the confining dimensions of the Youngers' small patch of real estate, is atmospherically dreary, and Brian MacDevitt's lighting meticulously stints on the sunlight.

But absent from the production as a whole is a crucial, collective sense of authenticity. Clurman also wrote, "The impact of the production transcends its script," but the reverse is the case here: The impact of the production diminishes the play.


Variety
04/26/2004

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