nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
May 16, 2009
Anyone who has seen the collected works of a particular artist knows said artist's strengths and weaknesses. It is fair to say that as a director, Scott Elliott is far stronger with new plays than he is reinventing classics. While there are some tonal problems in his production of Ian Bruce's play Groundswell, it is leagues better than his last outing for The New Group, his bizarre, four-and-a-half hour disaster Mourning Becomes Electra.
Groundswell is hailed by the marketing team as "South Africa's best new play." Never having been to South Africa to assess this description and compare it to the rest of the theater there, I can only take their word for it. As it begins, it seems to take its plot from the scams that beg you to send money to a particular place to help them do something and you'll make it all back and then some, not to worry. Thami and Johan live and work at a beachfront guest lodge on the South African West Coast, hoping to create better lives for themselves by buying a government-owned diamond concession. However, they need an investor. That's where Smith, the rich businessman, comes in.
The characters are your typical archetypes: black South African Thami is the brains and conscience, white South African Johan is the brawny drunk, and white South African Smith is the unsuspecting elderly statesman. When you see Johan playing with his knife at the beginning, you know you'll see it again.
This is where 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. That there are laughs received when the utterly desperate (and somewhat crazed) Johan pulls the knife on Smith damages what Bruce is trying to say. 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. Lansbury himself doesn't go for comedy, which provides for a strange juxtaposition between physical blocking and acting. But when he's on, he's on. Sy Savane makes a very strong theatrical debut as a desperate individual who just wants to feed his family. Bryggman, at times histrionic in movement with a noticeably different dialect (or lack thereof) than the other men, continues to perfect the no-nonsense upper class individual he's played before.
Unobtrusively designed by Derek McLane (set), Eric Becker (costumes) and Jason Lyons (lighting), this is a piece worthy of a New York audience. Yes, it starts out slow and the tones are confused, but the topic is an important one. While Groundswell will never be the next Ruined in terms of sheer power, it certainly has something to say.