The best moments in The
Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s two-hander about the last night of Martin Luther
King Jr.’s life, are surprises. So you won’t read too much here about the
climactic monologue that has me convinced Angela Bassett just won the Tony
Award, nor why David Gallo’s set and projection design work is more complicated
and wondrous than would first appear.
The worst moments of The
Mountaintop, however, are far from surprising, chief among them Samuel L.
Jackson’s performance as MLK. Despite the fake nose and padded paunch, this is
a classic Jackson performance, albeit in a more restrained key and with an
occasional Southern accent.
To be fair, perhaps Jackson is just feeling the constraints
of his character more than Basset, who acts him off the stage as the Lorraine
Motel’s flighty maid Camae. Jackson has to retain King’s gravitas—even as he
flirts incorrigibly with Bassett—while Camae gets to do everything from curse a
blue streak to put on King’s blazer and deliver a rousing speech about the future
of the civil rights movement. Hall provides Bassett with a lot, and director
Kenny Leon ensures that Bassett makes a banquet out of it all.
If The Mountaintop
tends to lag at the three-quarter mark as Hall’s story takes a magical realism
turn, the powerful, penultimate scene more than compensates, as Bassett’s
performance and Leon’s direction meld into one perfect unit. Unfortunately,
this isn’t a play about Camae, and so Hall can’t end the play with her. So
Jackson steps forward to deliver one last sermon, calling out to the audience
as the house lights turn on. The effect, though rousing, feels as if we’ve been
tricked into attending church, as Jackson does his best impression of a
Southern minister. That’s ultimately the difference between Jackson’s pretty
good performance and Bassett’s transcendent one: He’s doing an impression of a
character, and she’s inhabiting a person, complete with physical tics and an
innate speech pattern. The Mountaintop may be an imagining of Martin Luther
King Jr.’s final night, but it’s Bassett’s maid that we really care about by
Through Jan. 15, 20120, Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W.
45th St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), www.themountaintopplay.com; $75–$130.