By Ian Bruce. Directed by Scott Elliott. New Group at the Acorn Theatre. (CLOSED)
Critics diverge sharply on Ian Bruce's political thriller about post-apartheid South Africa and its discontents. A few critics find it a tense and masterful study of need and disillusionment, while a number of naysayers find its mix of old-style thriller tropes and testimonial speechifying to be creaky and reductive. Derek McLane's downmarket seaside-resort set gets high marks, and the actors mostly get kudos for their performances, though there's a lot of crosstalk about which actors fare best, and, among the harsher critics, whether the actors' work, under director Scott Elliott, is enough to redeem the play's flaws.
(Sam Thielman) Marvelously economical...Bruce's world is so meticulously observed he seems to be setting the scene at a leisurely pace when he's actually dropping hints and plot points...Bruce has been quietly arranging the play's climax while we were looking at the bottles and glasses making their way around the room during the dinner conversation. The secret depths to which these characters have had to stoop make for a heart-tearing end to the play, and a more eloquent argument for justice than any statistic or photograph.
(Adam R. Perlman) To enlist Smith's assistance, Johan tries every recognizable form of persuasion—enticement, guilt, coercion, violence. It's the progress of institutionalized frustration and a metaphor for race relations in South Africa. But what separates Groundswell from lesser, didactic works is that it never feels like mere allegory. There are high and immediate stakes here. When a weapon is pulled, the characters react to it like it's a deadly object, not a symbol...The triangular tug-of-war generates real sympathy for all sides, a result of finely written characters finely played...Seeing these men fight for post-apartheid scraps of property and dignity serves as a sobering reminder that while oppression isn't good, its absence leaves a void that the victimized and the guilt-stricken are often ill-equipped to fill.
The New York Times A-
(Charles Isherwood) Engrossing...Mr. Bruce’s drama could be described as a cross between David Mamet and Athol Fugard. With surprising deftness Mr. Bruce blends consideration of the economic and social fault lines of postapartheid South Africa with a suspense-stoked tale of desperate men willing to go to dangerous lengths to secure one last chance at a big prize...The director Scott Elliott, an expert at fine-grained naturalism with comic overtones, allows the play’s languid pace to accelerate perhaps a little too gingerly...But when the three men settle down at the table, the tension builds quietly but inexorably...Mr. Bruce draws his characters in admirable depth and telling detail.
American Theatre Web A-
(Andy Propst) Patience is key in Groundswell, which ultimately proves to be an intelligently rewarding and surprising play...On both political and dramatic levels, Groundswell proves to be riveting in Scott Elliot's staging, which is consistently taut. And though Elliott never solves some of the script's more awkward and ungainly structural problems, he has, nevertheless, elicited three grandly eloquent and passionate performances from his company.
Talkin' Broadway B+
(Matthew Murray) Taut, terse, and gracefully acted by Larry Bryggman, David Lansbury, and Souléymane Sy Savané, it savagely twists up the all-too-familiar quandary of “What do you do now that you’ve got what you thought you wanted?” with issues of class, entitlement, and racism that have disquieting parallels with the direction of our own country. Bruce’s play is not complicated or deeply original writing, but it’s uncomfortable in the best of ways when the warring souls at its center hash out a century’s worth of strife during one stormy day...Groundswell, however, is more well crafted than it is good...At least Elliott has smartly helmed things, keeping the pacing at a constant yet unobtrusive push most of the time.
(Martin Denton) Elliott gets the tones confused. Groundswell is a heavy, politically motivated drama-cum-thriller that Elliott, for the first hour, has masquerading as a comedy...The laughs disappear in the last 45 minutes, when the tone shifts and Elliott has clearly realized one of the play's arguments (that the aftershocks of Apartheid are still being felt, no matter what the characters claim) and its implications. Those 45 minutes provide political theater of the highest caliber that, for once, isn't American or British in nature. The three-man cast, Larry Bryggman as Smith, David Lansbury as Johan, and newcomer Souleymane Sy Savane as Thami, is excellent.
(Elyse Sommer) Like some of the flavorful old-time film noirs this setting brings to mind, the story is not without its implausible aspects. These are easily forgiven considering that Bruce manages to combine the thriller genre with a provocative exploration of post-Arpatheid South Africa; even more so because the New Group has enlisted an excellent thespian trio to portray the three very different men whose lives have been dead-ended and whose pleasant dinner turns into a desperate power struggle. The one flaw in this production is Scott Elliott's audience-unfriendly direction...It's hard to understand his thoughtless blocking which has Larry Bryggman positioned with his back to fully half the audience for a good chunk of the intermissionless 140 minutes.
(Barbara & Scott Siegel) While the work -- deftly directed by Scott Elliott and featuring the exceptional trio of Larry Bryggman, David Lansbury, and Souleymane Sy Savane -- is kept afloat by a considerable amount of melodrama, it is nevertheless a remarkably even-handed account of the seemingly intractable problems facing this historically tragic nation...The play brazenly telescopes its plot with the introduction in the very first scene of a monster knife, making the threat of violence very much in the air...Indeed, everything you think is going to happen in the play happens -- except the ending of the play, which is intelligent and valid. What raises this play above the commonplace, however, are the impassioned speeches each of these characters eventually have the opportunity to make.
Time Out NY B-
(David Cote) Mostly engaging...Acted with gusto by an uneven three-man cast wielding a muddle of accents, the story has gritty intensity but lacks finesse and sharp edges at key moments. Lord knows that director Scott Elliott has taken enough heat for his stillborn revival of Mourning Becomes Electra, and his work here is similarly broad-brushed and actorcentric. You sense that he relies heavily on performer chemistry, and most of his work involves ramping up big emotions, rather than carefully parsing text...Lansbury gives a bravely deranged performance as the disgraced ex-cop and drunk; Savané has tons of natural charm and an understated stage presence; and Bryggman, forgoing any persuasive accent, plays off both of them credibly. Bruce’s piece has some blunt urgency to recommend it, but this production really ought to cut deeper.
Village Voice B-
(Alexis Soloski) If Bruce's script relies on a familiar form, he manages to inject excellent convolutions into its content and characters. The play's politics aren't easy to unpack and—on the page, at least—one doesn't know whether to embrace or detest the three men at its center...Of course, director Scott Elliott reduces many of these complexities. In previous plays, Elliott has encouraged his actors toward overly broad characterization, and Groundswell proves no exception. Lansbury plays Johan as a psychopath from the first, truncating his character's arc. Meanwhile, Sy Savané—though making a compelling stage debut—endows Thami with so much innate decency that it trumps any of the character's bad actions. Only Bryggman manages to dine at Elliott's table and remain a thrilling cipher, portraying a man both aggrieving and aggrieved, at once genial and despicable.
Bergen Record C
(Robert Feldberg) An ambitious attempt to examine the hopes and failures of a new society, as seen through the prisms of three very different lives. Things start out promisingly under the taut direction of Scott Elliott, with the play taking the form of a socially aware thriller. But everything collapses toward the end of the one-hour-40-minute evening, as each character figuratively grabs a soapbox to air the grievances of his race and class, effectively destroying dramatic believability...Bruce’s picture of a government that cannot fulfill everyone’s dreams, and therefore has created disillusionment, and new kinds of troubled racial relationships, is thoughtful and obviously pained. But instead of letting this come naturally out of the characters’ relationships, he turns them into angry speechmakers and philosophers, which, paradoxically, wipes out their credibility.
The Daily News C-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Strives to comment on the aftershocks of apartheid and builds to a harrowing climax. But the overall story is blunted by a creaky cat-and-mouse construction and too many clichés - like the ominously hazy setting and a nasty knife that is seen being stashed in a drawer...Savané's quiet desperation stands in stark contrast to Lansbury, who goes over the top as an unstable ex-cop. The reliable Bryggman is fully believable as a well-off retired businessman in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Lighting & Sound America D+
(David Barbour) Deploys every trick of the old melodrama...To be sure, I'm not against this kind of hokum; in fact, I yearn for the day when the old-fashioned thriller regains its place of pride among our popular amusements. But I do think this approach meshes badly when you're trying to make a serious point about race, class, and money in South Africa's post-apartheid world...All of these insights may very well be on the money -- I think they probably are -- but here they're undermined by Bruce's presentation, a series of can-you-top-this testimonials to everyone's suffering. The round robin of recriminations becomes repetitive and dull, and the plotting, which is borrowed from the lesser class of crime thriller, makes everything seem silly. It doesn't help that each member of the talented cast is acting in a different style...The director, Scott Elliott, hasn't been able to bring all three actors into the same world. The best thing about the production is the design.
New York Post D
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Despite tense flare-ups and the brandishing of a large knife, though, "Groundswell" departs from Hollywood's usual swindle thrillers. Rather, it all hangs on playwright Ian Bruce's milieu of South Africa, and the way its history shaped his pocket drama's three characters...In the end, we're left wanting on all counts: "Groundswell" is neither satisfying suspense nor illuminating metaphor.
Variety A 13; Backstage A 13; The New York Times A- 12; American Theatre Web A- 12; Talkin' Broadway B+ 11; Nytheatre.com B 10; CurtainUp B 10; Theatermania B 10; Time Out NY B- 9; VV B- 9; Bergen Record C 7; The Daily News C- 6; Lighting & Sound America D+ 5; New York Post D 4; 131/14=9.36 (B-)