nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 16, 2011
Katori Hall's new play The Mountaintop—now at the Jacobs Theatre on Broadway—takes place at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee on the night of April 3, 1968. A note in the press kit asks reviewers not to reveal any of the plot twists that occur, but since the historical record is clear that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel the following afternoon, it's not giving anything away to tell you that The Mountaintop is about what might have happened to Dr. King on his last night on earth. Hall imagines a long conversation between Dr. King and a hotel maid named Camae. Given the gravity of the situation, one imagines that either the audience or Dr. King will learn something as a result of this discussion, but sadly The Mountaintop fails to deliver on either count.
The play flirts with a number of provocative issues. Dr. King's all too human traits—his smoking, his philandering, his obvious love for his children—are all briefly exposed, but to no real purpose. The success of his work in the Civil Rights movement is debated early in the play, and then near the end there's a flickering attempt to place that work in historical perspective some 40-odd years later; but this examination feels only cursory. Playwright Hall is almost playful in her desire to keep us guessing what she's about here. Is Camae going to teach Dr. King something he doesn't know (or perhaps has forgotten) about the status of black working women? About the true nature of God? About arrogance and humility? The Mountaintop travels toward all of these ideas but never seems to settle on any of them, to its detriment.
In the end, the principal thing that Hall succeeds at is to to cut down to human size a towering historical figure, to no particular purpose. We leave The Mountaintop knowing that this version of Dr. King has smelly feet, is all too eager to lie to his wife (about whether he's drinking coffee or not!), and likes to take the occasional swipe at acolyte Jesse Jackson. Larger points regarding Dr. King's vision, significance, or fate do not register.
Director Kenny Leon keeps things as lively as he can in a one-set, two-character, very talky play. His starry cast doesn't actually help very much (except to bring in an audience, no doubt): Samuel L. Jackson, who is in his early 60s (Dr. King was 39 when he died), kind of looks the part but doesn't conjure the man's spirit or voice, while Angela Bassett (lovely but also far too old for her role) works very hard to make Camae make sense, but is ultimately defeated by the writing.
In her Broadway debut, Hall proves to be audacious and ambitious, but the work itself is quite unsatisfying.