Monday, February 23, 2009

The Book of Lambert


By Leslie Lee. Directed by Cyndy A. Marion. La MaMa E.T.C. (CLOSED)

Adrienne Cea of Offoffonline and Jason Fitzgerald of Backstage found much to enjoy in this first staging of Leslie Lee's 30-year-old play, but they are the only ones. In the play, an African-American ex-English professor named Lambert moves into an abandoned subway station after a break-up with his Caucasian girlfriend. Most critics find the story dated, the dialogue unrealistic, the characters one-dimensional, and the acting uneven, though they mostly admire Andis Gjoni's sets.

Offoffonline A
(Adrienne Cea) Leslie Lee's bleak drama, "The Book of Lambert" is a strong, unflinching character study of six souls wasting their lives away in the shadowy corners of a subway station. When the play opens, each character stirs in his or her sleep, eventually stretching to life to reveal the events of the past that have anchored their present. The obstacles range from small faraway memories to unsettled insecurities to the most debilitating neglect and disapproval from unloving parents... With this sizeable heaping of heavy subject matter, "The Book of Lambert" could easily feel as weighty as its characters' troubles. Fortunately, Lee keeps the action fast-paced, colorful, and at times even humorous.

Backstage A-
(Jason Fitzgerald) The play's imagery is delicate and sophisticated, as in the oranges -- tragic because so banal -- that Zinth bruises to get a rise out of Otto. Lee emerges as one of America's great poets of race relations in the interracial love affair between Lambert and his "Juliet," Virginia, which unfolds less as a romantic melodrama than as a condemnation of white liberal hypocrisy. She loves for the same reason she leaves him: his "black magic."... Still, La MaMa E.T.C. has given The Book of Lambert a fine -- and overdue -- world premiere. Clinton Faulkner as Lambert is a dead ringer for a young Denzel Washington and a revelation as a leading man. Andis Gjoni's set is deep and decrepit enough to be a picture of the play's journey into the dark, and the haunting lights from a facsimile subway tunnel are a reminder of the darkness that always accompanies the path to light. D+
(Allison Taylor) When you piece together the various episodic scraps (the dream sequences, the memories, the non-sequitur scenes), Lambert clearly want to explore racial strife and gender relations. But those efforts are prevented by Marion's dreamily disjointed direction and Lee's stream-of-consciousness writing. Most importantly, Lee's characterization of Lambert remains distant, hollow in all his howling, despite the best efforts of Clinton Faulkner. Never whiny in his complaints and always noble in his lecturing, Faulkner endows Lambert with real distress, with a genuine need for...well, something. The play's episodic chaos might otherwise be frightening, but without that central character fleshed out and the throughline dimly lit, there's nothing with which to connect and no place to fear going... Somewhat oddly, Lambert's visual components do not seem to match the surreal nature of the acting and the writing. Andis Gjoni's set—a smattering of mattresses, blankets, and well-placed pieces of junk—highlights the comfortableness that this outcast group has created, rather than the inherent eeriness and loneliness of a subway tunnel. In turn, rather than depicting a needed sense of creepy grittiness, Russel Phillip Drapkin's shadowy lighting more often theatrically spotlights the play's emotional moments.

New York Times D+
(Rachel Saltz) At two and a half hours, “Lambert,” which has been reworked and updated, feels overlong and overcrowded with ideas, a piece still searching for focus. It’s not all heavy going. Mr. Lee can be funny. “You know what I’m sayin’?” one character asks another. The reply, “Don’t count on it.” At times, though, the subway platform resembles an insane asylum, with all the crazies talking past one another. Some of what they say is interesting, but much of it fails to register as it floats by untethered. The production, directed by Cyndy A. Marion, occasionally has a similarly frantic quality, and Ms. Marion allows some of the performances to devolve into shtick.

Village Voice D-
(Alexis Soloski) Lee has updated some of the language and likely fiddled with the play's mix of realism and absurdum, but he's left in a wealth of extraneous dialogue and some fairly unreconstructed views of women, sexual desire, and race. Yes, Lambert's girlfriend is portrayed as naive, but it's difficult to imagine a cutie so blinkered that she'd exclaim to her black beau, "Gonna be a SOUL sister. Yeah, I'm gonna laugh like you black people do. Yeah, and I'm gonna dance the way you all dance, too." Then she offers a helpful demonstration. Like the script, Cyndy A. Marion's direction doesn't require more than one dimension from her actors, though old hands Arthur French and Gloria Sauve, and occasionally Clinton Faulkner as Lambert, transcend the text. Rather than include this play in Lees canon, it's best consigned to the apocrypha.

Theatermania F+
(Patrick Lee) The playwright has assigned a dominant trait or problem to each of his six characters; it's no wonder that they register as types rather than as believable flesh and blood people... The dialogue is overloaded with exposition -- in dull sequence, we learn how each character has come to live underground -- but the play is entirely free of surprise and of tangible dramatic conflict. This is especially apparent with the main character, a former English professor, and African-American, named Lambert (Clinton Faulkner) who we're told is suffering profoundly after a break-up with white society girl Virginia (Heather Massie). We see the two in ponderous, overly talky flashbacks that consist of their not-at-all believable fights: she has a jungle fever fetish, longing to be his "white chick soul sister," until she takes him home to disgrace her family. We learn all this in declamatory speeches, rather than in dramatized scenes, that bear little resemblance to how people actually talk.

That Sounds Cool F
(Aaron Riccio) Given that Leslie Lee is an OBIE-winning playwright whose First Breeze of Summer was just very well received at Signature, let's just call this passion project of his a Wesley Willis moment. Not to be dismissive, but there's a reason this play hasn't been produced in its thirty-year life. As for other reasons: the narrative device of a memory play crouched in realism doesn't work.

Offoffonline A 13; Backstage A- 12; D+ 5; New York Times D+ 5; Village Voice D- 3; Theatermania F+ 2; That Sounds Cool F 1; TOTAL: 41/7 = 5.86 (C-)

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