Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Heleni Thayre

"Ceremonies in Dark Old Men"

Reviewed by Heleni Thayre

Lonnie Elders II's play opens with a forceful confrontation between Adele, a strong and gainfully employed woman, and her father and two brothers, none of whom have contributed much to the family "team" over the years. This pretty much sets up the dynamic for the morality play that follows. The father, "Parker" (Harold Hector), is a lackadaisical barber, with a gift for gab and a flair for hoofin', who spends his small earnings betting the numbers. Theo (Dorian Christian Baucum) has pursued a series of callings in his young life that have made him disdain a regular paycheck. Currently he is an artist -- a painter of uncertain abilities. His brother Bobby (Jason Ross) seems to be getting by on small-time criminal activity. The female head-of-house has just changed. Adele has taken over the role from her mother who has recently died. Adele is convinced that her mother worked herself to death supporting the three non-productive members of their small society. Adele is angry and she is shaking things up: all the men must get jobs pronto or they'll be out on their ear.

This is a topsy-turvy notion for the trio of men who are not accustomed to such unreasonable demands. At first they stonewall, determined to preserve their masculine pride and to refuse to knuckle under to a woman. When they realize, though, that Adele is serious, they become galvanized. The brothers soon hatch a can't-miss scheme for financial independence. Theo abandons his ideas of painting, admitting he was never good at it, simultaneously producing evidence of where his true talents lie by passing around a bottle of corn whiskey he has concocted according to a family recipe. Bobby contributes his ace-in-the-hole connection: the charismatic Harlem boss Blue Haven. The plan is to turn Parker's barbershop into a 24-hour speakeasy and --- for the really big bucks --- supply all the other establishments in the district with his bootleg whiskey too. Blue will protect them from arrest and interference. Parker agrees and leaps in, taking charge of the money and the plan ­ showing a newfound business instinct as long as the money is easy.

As act three opens the characters have been transformed. Theo is a hardworking entrepreneur, manufacturing the whiskey, and putting in sixteen-hour days. Bobby has seemingly found his metier in a flashier level of crime for higher profits. And Parker has morphed into a high-living "ladies-man" who doesnąt bother with any of the actual labor involved in the enterprise. Adele has apparently lost her center and her raison d'ętre and has inexplicably hooked up with a gangster boyfriend who is a rival of the family's "protector" Blue Haven. Despite the manic celebration of their good fortune and cleverness, the downward slide is all but certain.

The plot plays out as one might expect, but in slow motion, interminable in its downward trajectory. The production begins to falter after the beginning of the third act. Carried along in acts one and two by the fine acting of the entire cast, it begins to slow down, as if a victim of entropy, and to lose its focus and pacing. It begins to feel more like real time --­ painfully naturalistic but lacking in theatrical structure. There is more detail than we need (and more reading of the script by Harold Hector who was not off-book for unexplained reasons) --- more detail than the action can sustain without suffering. One longs for a surgical scalpel to make cuts in the script. In short it is --­ or at least it seems to be --- too long. It needs to be tightened up by pruning and by greater directorial control of the pacing and the motivations of the actors.

Despite not being off-book, Harold Hector frequently steals the show in the first two thirds of the play. His wonderful command of voice and body, his creativity in gesture, his physical antics and vocal playfulness carry the show a long way. Especially fun to watch are the moments where Hector breaks into dance. A particular delight: the marvelously choreographed prelude to a chess game that he and his buddy Mr. Jenkins (Dennis Roach) perform as they rattle an old tea can like a single maraca and pluck pieces from it to see who will take the first turn at the chess board. Two old theatre pros doing what they do best.

Naheem Allah turned in a commanding and restrained performance as Blue Haven. He held the stage from his entrance to his exit each time that he appeared. He is an actor who understands charisma --- that it comes from doing less as well as more.

The actors do some fine work; their vehicle needs more work to bring it all together. One thing that could be more powerful is the role reversal which takes place when Theo finds he has taken on what has been the traditional "women's role" as the only hard worker in the family. Now it is two men rather than three that are coasting on the labor of another, falling with ease into their habitual patterns. This creates an interesting dramatic symmetry that is not fully exploited, nor is its emotional fall-out plumbed as the third act essentially falls apart (along with the Parker family.)

"Ceremonies in Dark Old Men" (4, 10, 12, 15, 23 & 26 January)
The 2nd Annual African American Theatre Festival
Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide