Friday, May 29, 2009

Pure Confidence


By Carlyle Brown. Directed by Marion McClinton. 59E59. (CLOSED)

Carlyle Brown gets high marks from critics for shedding light on the little-known time in American history before the Civil War when black jockeys dominated horse racing. Gavin Lawrence plays the successful jockey Simon Cato, who wants nothing more than to buy his freedom. Most critics agree that the first act is more compelling than the second, but they still come out in favor of the play, citing Marion McClinton's able direction and the performances, especially Christiana Clark as Cato's wife Caroline, as strengths.

Bloomberg News A+
(John Simon) Brown has come up with a fascinating story, racy characters and salty dialogue. Marion McClinton, astute director of several August Wilson plays, does as handsomely by Brown’s invented, but by no means far-fetched tale. McClinton achieves big effects on a small stage that Joseph Stanley has equipped with telling scenery. McClinton also has chosen an exemplary cast, in which even supporting roles are strongly taken by Mark Sieve, Mark Rosenwinkel and Casey Greig. Chris Mulkey and Karen Landry are compelling as the Johnsons, and Gavin Lawrence is all vim and vinegar as Simon. But even more astounding is the Caroline of Christiana Clark, a performance that grows to staggering power as if in a time exposure. She dazzles with double-decker portrayals of conflicting attitudes: stolid submissiveness on the outside with staunchness transpiring from beneath; later, a fine facade of dignity that does not hide the underlying bruises.

Just Shows To Go You
(Patrick Lee) The story, about a resourceful slave in the pre-Civil War South whose talent as a horse jockey seems to offer him a path to freedom, might have made for a dry docudrama of the “theatre that is good for you” variety. But instead the play, written by Carlyle Brown, is lively and absorbing and the production, with an exceptional cast directed by Marion McClinton who is best known for staging August Wilson, is a crowd-pleaser.

Backstage A
(Karl Levett) The two acts are widely different in tone—the first is buoyant with hope and promise, the second heavy with resignation and melancholy. Brown leaves the play open-ended and director Marion McClinton whose authoritative hand is evident throughout, creates a minuet of great charm for Simon and Caroline as the final image. The cast, led by Lawrence's superbly alive Simon, is strong throughout, especially the two female characters. Landry makes for a wise, if self-serving Mattie and Clark's Caroline grows in stature before our eyes. The title Pure Confidence refers to a beloved, pedigreed horse. This compelling play also has a pedigree that proclaims it as a piece of important theatre.

CurtainUp A
(Elizabeth Ahlfors) Director Marion McClinton, long associated with playwright August Wilson's study of the African-American journey, has turned his focus on this docudrama that's seasoned with doses of comedy and tragedy through Brown's precise, colorful dialogue. Joseph Stanley's set design is minimal but imaginative. With few props it effectively uses lighting and sound to set the moods, utilizing choruses of "Camptown Races" to open and close most scenes. With the talented ensemble, the stage comes alive with action. One scene shows Caroline coming into the Johnson stable where Cato is sitting on a saddle strapped over a barrel. In one hand is a jug of moonshine, in the other a whip. Cato jubilantly describes to Caroline a future race in which he will be riding his own horse, Freedom, against the Bondage Man on Slavery. That neck to neck race has Cato challenging Bondage Man with "You soon be looking at my horses ass." To add excitement, this spectacular win for Cato is staged with background sounds of a cheering crowd.

The New Yorker A
(Unsigned) The enjoyably hammy and charming summer-stock-style production contains glimmers of insight into the depths of the master-slave relationship and the realities of freedom.

Variety A-
(Sam Thielman) The play's longer first act gives us all this information in the first few minutes. Brown's whirlwind exposition slows only for snatches of charged dialogue, like Simon's gratifyingly insolent exchange with sore loser George Dewitt (Mark Sieve), who gets so riled, he challenges a visibly embarrassed Johnson to a high-stakes grudge match. That quick little micro-play is the first thing we see in "Pure Confidence," and the presentation of slave and slaveholder as a team of lovable conmen puts us off our guard. Is Johnson secretly an abolitionist? Will he fight for the noble Union against the craven rednecks of the Confederacy? Thank God, no. The two characters demonstrate Walker Percy's observation that "an old-style Southern white and an old-style Southern black" will have an easier time talking to each other than, say, Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson. If "Pure Confidence" occasionally loses its grip on the subtleties of this decorous banter (occasionally delivered in that I-do-declare accent indigenous to theaters north of the Mason-Dixon), it deserves serious kudos for attempting them in the first place. The lack of nuance is not the fault of the author. The performances are uniformly interesting, but they're not uniform in any other sense.

New York Post B+
(Frank Scheck) The play falters somewhat in the second half, set years later in Saratoga, NY, where the once-proud jockey has been reduced to working as a hotel bellhop. His racist boss has no idea of his past until a newspaper reporter presses Simon for an interview. Here, the play's themes, so subtly presented in Act 1, are hammered home. While director Marion McClinton's lackluster staging fails to do full justice to the material, the powerful subject matter and impressive performances make "Pure Confidence" a winner nonetheless.

Lighting & Sound America B
(David Barbour) Even in these early scenes, Simon's oversupply of brass and sass -- and his skill at getting away with verbal murder -- threatens to saddle Pure Confidence with crippling credibility problems. However, the author, Carlyle Brown, has a way of grounding his whimsical story in the harsh soil of reality... The first act ends on a note of tingling suspense, when a catastrophic racing accident occurs simultaneously with the firing on Fort Sumter. After the intermission, the action moves to Saratoga in 1877, where Simon, his career over, works as a bellboy -- and, sad to say, Pure Confidence takes a tumble from which it never really recovers. Brown has to work extra hard to reunite all the characters -- he even introduces a New York Times journalist whose job is to deliver vast amounts of exposition -- but, once he has his players back in place, he has surprisingly little for them to do besides rehashing the past. A disillusioned, middle-aged Simon is much less interesting than his younger counterpart; the play is left without its primary source of energy.

The Village Voice B-
(Alexis Soloski) Brown has written a melodrama: entertaining, if also sentimental and simplistic. The play's less-than-startling claim—that racism comes in a variety of flavors, from mustache-twirling villainy to friendly paternalism—won't stun anyone possessed of a fair knowledge of American history. Linguistic anachronisms and pop psychology mar many a scene, but, when he wants to, Brown can write a sequence as thrilling as any onstage—as when Simon recounts an imaginary race between two horses named Freedom and Slavery.

The New York Times B-
(Rachel Saltz) Mr. Lawrence understands Simon’s ambition and will, but his character remains one-dimensional, without the doubts and vulnerabilities that would make him compelling. Ms. Clark’s Caroline is a more vivid creation, by turns shy and sly. Her scenes with the pitch-perfect Ms. Landry generate real emotion, even when they strain credulity. Whatever the play’s weaknesses, the veteran director Marion McClinton makes the production a theatrical sure thing. He knows when to slow the drama and when to pump it up, and he stages the action scenes cleverly and simply, using movement, light and imagination. The audience eats it up... This may be a soothing view of the past, but it’s too easy and too sentimental, ugly history as a lullaby.

Bloomberg News A+ 14; Just Shows To Go You A 13; Backstage A 13; CurtainUp A 13; The New Yorker A 13; Variety A- 12; New York Post B+ 11; Lighting & Sound America B 10; The Village Voice B- 9; The New York Times B- 9; TOTAL: 117/10 = 11.7 (A-)


Anonymous said...

Melodrama's not a dysphemism, neither is entertaining. I'd grade it at a B.


Linda said...

I'll be happy to change the grade, but to clarify where I was getting the C- grade, I got the feeling from the phrase "passable showing" that is was slightly below average.