EmptyCort Theatre, New York
It's understandable if "Radio Golf," the final play in August Wilson's 10-part series of dramas depicting the black experience in the 20th century, is a disappointment. The playwright passed away in 2005, shortly after the play's first two regional theater productions. Had he lived, he might have been able to work his customary magic during the development process and fashioned the play into a more fitting coda.
As it is, the work is both thoughtful and intelligent, and while it lacks the transcendently poetic dialogue and rich characterizations of its predecessors, it is certainly a respectable effort.
The central character of the play, which like most of the others is set in Wilson's hometown of Pittsburgh in 1997, is Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix), a charismatic real-estate developer and mayoral hopeful. With the support of his upwardly mobile wife, Mame (Tonya Pinkins), and business partner Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), Harmond hopes to build a large modern apartment house on a piece of land in a rundown neighborhood that is currently occupied by a crumbling house. Once the home of the late Aunt Esther (a major figure in "Gem of the Ocean"), it is now apparently owned by an elderly, cantankerous street person, Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm). Popping by Harmond's real-estate office periodically to offer acerbic commentary is Sterling (John Earl Jelks), an old acquaintance of Harmond's who is looking to pick up some construction work.
At 2 1/2 hours, "Radio Golf" is breezier and faster-paced than its predecessors. It deals with many of the themes laid out in the earlier plays, such as the moral compromises that are inevitably required for success; the (in this case literal) tearing down of the past that accompanies embracing the future; etc. Far less digressive than is usual for the playwright, it straightforwardly deals with Harmond's crisis of conscience as he tries to fulfill his ambitions.
Unfortunately, the play doesn't make much of an impact, as the weight of Harmond's moral dilemma is never made forceful enough in dramatic terms. And too many of the characters seem either underdeveloped (the wife) or overly reminiscent of previous Wilson creations (Sterling, Elder Joe).
It is only the heated exchanges between Harmond and Roosevelt, who eagerly compromises himself in order to make deals with the white businessman who can further his ambitions, that register with sufficient pungency.
Director Kenny Leon has provided a taut, compelling staging, and David Gallo's elaborate set, depicting the real-estate office surrounded by the crumbling remains of a vintage bar, barber shop, etc., is highly memorable.
The highly talented Pinkins has far too little to do as the wife, and Lennix, recently seen in a recurring role on Fox's "24," does what he can with his underwritten role. Both are inevitably overshadowed by the supporting players, especially Williams, who infuses Roosevelt with a powerful rage and bitterness, and the gravel-voiced Chisholm, mesmerizing as Elder Joe.
Presented by Jujamcyn Theaters, Margo Lion, Jeffrey Richards/Jerry Frankel, Tamara Tunie/Wendell Pierce, Fran Kirmser, Bunting Management Group, Georgia Frontiere/Open Pictures, Lauren Doll/Steven Greil & the August Wilson Group and Wonder City, Inc./Townsend Teague in association with Jack Viertel and Gordon Davidson
Playwright: August Wilson
Director: Kenny Leon
Set designer: David Gallo
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Harmond Wilks: Harry Lennix
Mame Wilks: Tonya Pinkins
Elder Joseph Barlow: Anthony Chisholm
Sterling Johnson: John Earl Jelks
Roosevelt Hicks: James A. Williams