Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Things of Dry Hours


By Naomi Wallace, Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. At New York Theatre Workshop. (CLOSED)

Despite respectful notices from the AP and CurtainUp, and generally high marks for its cast across-the-board, critics are downright hostile to Naomi Wallace's new play about race, poverty and communism in Alabama during the Great Depression. Many critics reference the ultimate two words of the play's title in summarizing it: it's dry, and it feels like it goes on for hours. The consensus problem is an overly poetic, overly surreal and overly speechified text. David Cote is alone amongst the reviewers placing the blame squarely at helmer Ruben Santiago-Hudson's feet.

Associated Press B+
A stark, complex drama filled with rich imagery and laced with dark humor...skillfully directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, as the personal and political tension escalates.
Dillahunt is compelling as the disheveled Teel, whose true motives and loyalties are unclear. Though he is likable in many ways, his shifty behavior does not inspire trust in either of the Hogans.

The New Yorker B
(Unsigned) . Delroy Lindo gives a powerful, grounded performance as Tice Hogan, Sunday-school teacher, laid-off steelworker, and dedicated Communist; Roslyn Ruff is fierce as his wry and commanding daughter, Cali, a laundry woman for a wealthy family....Wallace’s dialogue sounds like poetry—rich, nimble, raw, and elevated—and the expert cast delivers it with a focussed intensity that makes it at times spellbinding, and almost convincing.

CurtainUp B
(Simon Saltzman) Intense, emphatically poetic... the text often sounds like a struggle between abstracted naturalism and artistic narcissism, perhaps that is a compliment. However, the result can be a cause for tedium...A triple threat as a playwright, actor and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson is here wearing only his director's hat. He works wonders with the lugubrious and occasionally funny text for optimum effects. A scene in which the white sheets on Cali's bed rise and float around the room (possibly symbolic of the Klan) to the strains of Rachmaninoff is effectively eerie. Much of the play's mood is entrusted to lighting designer Marcus Doshi, whose added atmospherics add considerably to Richard Hoover's simple but effective set design.

Time Out New York B-
(David Cote) Earnest, lyrical, idea-driven theater ought to be medicine for the mind but taste sweet as liquor, right? Or maybe I’m just a middlebrow poseur-booster. If a play has severe moral intentions, shouldn’t it be performed with gravitas and slowness, with respect for the potentially sacred and transformative art of theater? But…won’t people feel bored and preached at? Such worries nag the viewer of Things of Dry Hours, Naomi Wallace’s gorgeously written and philosophically rich celebration of a black Communist agitator in Depression-era South. Things is worthy stuff, yet I can’t guarantee a good time at Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s overly somber, gray and measured production.

Newsday C+
(Linda Winer) At its best, this is a passionate, intimate, historical reclamation of the little-known intersection of Southern racism and the black-led Communist Party in '30s Alabama. For all the intensity, however, Wallace does not manage to keep the politics from sounding like flowery lectures. Still, Delroy Lindo - like the director, an August Wilson specialist - is marvelous as the widower committed to the promise of two books, the Bible and the Communist Manifesto.

Just Shows To Go You C+
(Patrick Lee) If poetic dialogue alone made a play, this one (at NYTW) would be one of the best shows in town. The language is so rich and evocative that it's transporting, and the cast (under Ruben Santiago-Hudson's direction) deliver it with the precision and sensitivity of finely composed music. The play (by Naomi Wallace) opens up the soul through the ears. It's a pity then that it is weakened by its narrative construction - it's hard to track the logic in the shifting dynamics between an African-American father and adult daughter and the mysterious white fugitive who forces them to give him shelter, circa the early 30's in the Deep South.

Village Voice C-
(Michael Feingold) I wish...somebody would steal in to light a fire under Naomi Wallace's Things of Dry Hours... Here, the cast has power enough: Delroy Lindo, Garret Dillahunt, and, most of all, the lambently convincing Roslyn Ruff provide solid-pack truthfulness from start to finish. But Wallace, abetted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson's somber, stately direction, makes the hours dry ones indeed with the meandering route she takes through what boils down to be a small, fairly predictable anecdote

NY Daily News C-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) In spite of a terrific three-actor cast and the author’s undeniable flair for evocative language, “Things of Dry Hours” at New York Theatre Workshop makes for an arid trek during its two-plus hours.

TalkinBroadway D+
(Matthew Murray) The acting, too, is largely first-rate: Lindo, in particular, is magnetic as a faultlessly devoted father, man, and fellow traveler whose faith in God, humanity, and Marx knows no boundaries, but never preaches above the character he’s playing... Whether Wallace was more interested in writing a Communism commercial or a playwriting grant application is difficult to tell, but she has only completely committed herself to empty theatricality. A scene in which Cali watches her sheets literally dance around the (blacklit) stage yanks the play into a mystical realm it has no reason to visit. Cali and Corbin engage in an eye-rolling game of dress-up so obvious a pandering statement about racial equality that it seems to parody August Wilson with every second it lasts. And the florid writing... is hopelessly at odds with the gritty determinism Wallace thinks she’s employing and championing throughout.

NYTimes D+
(Charles Isherwood) It’s not looking good when the most compelling writing in a new play comes from Karl Marx. “Things of Dry Hours,” a drama by Naomi Wallace that opened on Monday night at New York Theater Workshop, is about the straitened but dignified life of a poor African-American Sunday school teacher committed to his political ideals. It is a potentially promising subject, but the writing is so static, lifeless and achingly literary that the selections from “The Communist Manifesto” are like sightings of wildflowers among expanses of dead scrub...Under the restrained direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the actors are convincing without managing to create fully compelling portraits from these two-dimensional figures. This is dismaying, considering Mr. Lindo’s imposing presence and potential for mesmeric intensity.

Variety D
(Marilyn Stasio) Helmer Ruben Santiago-Hudson... does not try to impose a naturalistic framework on this shapeless material. But neither does he find a cohesive form for its disjointed varieties of style, from biblical bluster to poetical poppycock. And while he generally works well with actors, you can't blame him or fault the thesps for occasionally stumbling over incoherent images like "a chickadee with a cow's tongue, a wheelbarrow hauling a city, and my own bare ass flashing by in the eye of a beetle."

Backstage D
(Erik Haagensen) In her determination to write a complex, poetic, political drama about neglected subject matter, Naomi Wallace takes a potentially fascinating situation, story, and characters and, sadly, drains the life out of them. Things of Dry Hours is studied, manipulated, opaque, and, well, dry...Wallace is more interested in poetry and symbolism than action or character. Her attempts to lift the play out of realism through poetic language only succeed in making it difficult to understand what her characters mean. She's also too willing to force them to behave in ways she wants in order to make her points. Tice, Cali, and Teel never take on lives of their own. And wrapping it all in a sort of faux magical realism—Tice comes back from the dead to narrate the story, and Cali has a dream about floating sheets—only seems pretentious, not organic.

TheaterMania D
(David Finkle) What an observer unfamiliar with the elusive [title] (never explained by Wallace) is more likely to conclude by the time this two-and-a-half-hour, two-act play draws to a close is that the title is the first tip-off to the poetic pretension in which playwright Wallace indulges herself from start to finish -- and with which she severely undercuts any hold she hopes to achieve on the actual behavior of recognizable human beings caught up in genuine dramatic byplay. Not even the undeniably gritty and truly committed performances director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has extracted from his trio of staunch players can do anything more than lend some credulity to the proceedings.

Lighting and Sound America F+
(David Barbour) To take such an incendiary premise and drain it of anything like drama is, in its way, a remarkable achievement, albeit not one to be encouraged... having seen four of Wallace's plays... t seems clear that she's not so really a playwright at all; she's a word-drunk poet with little interest in character or action...there's nothing here to convince one that Wallace is a prose writer who thinks she can bend the theatre to her own purposes. The result is a dramatic standoff. But that's the dramatic world of Naomia Wallace: Just offstage, the world is in upheaval. On it, stasis rules.

NYPost F+
(Frank Scheck) An arid, airless drama whose serious ideas are undercut by pretentious poeticizing, laborious metaphors and a pace so lethargic, you may want to slap yourself to stay awake...The terrific actors do what they can with the difficult material, with Ruff particularly fine as the fiercely self-possessed Cali. If only the playwright, a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship winner, didn't take herself so seriously.

AP B+ 11; CU B 10; TNY B 10; TONY B- 9; SSD C+ 8; ND C+ 8; VV C- 6; NYDN C- 6; TB D+ 5; NYT D+ 5; V D 4; BS D 4; TM D 4; LSA F+ 2; NYP F+ 2; TOTAL: 77/13 = 5.92 (C-)

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