nytheatre.com review by Trav S.D.
February 25, 2005
The great critic and director Robert Brustein, in his ongoing feud with
August Wilson, has often argued that the problem with most modern depictions of
African Americans onstage is that they are too facile, that they have assumed a
"monotonous tone of victimization." Stephen Belber's new play McReele,
just opened at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, should pique his interest.
Darius McReele (Anthony Mackie) is smarter than your average death-row inmate. Slick and articulate, the 30-ish McReele contends that he was framed for the drug-related murder of a judge's son that sent him up sixteen years ago. He enlists do-gooder journalist Rick Dayne (Michael O'Keefe) to look into his case, and lo, DNA evidence indicates that another youth had pulled the trigger, and McReele is freed. With Dayne's collaboration, McReele is thrust into the limelight, first as an anti-death penalty spokesperson, and then taking on a whole host of issues, using the local TV program of Dayne's girlfriend Katya (Jodi Long) as a rostrum.
His rise is rapid. So effective a speaker is McReele, that the state
Democratic machine enlists him to be its candidate for senator, and Dayne
becomes his campaign manager. McReele has the kind of charisma that sweeps a
person off his feet, and if you fear such a person is not to be trusted,
consider the character's name. While Darius doles out sweet helpings of
McReality, his Fly Girl Opal (Portia) is determined to "keep it real." Thus it
gradually emerges through her relentless influence that McReele may not be what
he seems to be. The problem is that Opal has her own motivations for wanting
McReele to fail. A straight-talking home girl from the 'hood, she is almost
certain to lose him as he joins the power structure. So the question is, whom do
The play gives no clear answer, although judging from subtle aspects of Mackie's excellent performance, we can guess, and it isn't pretty. Belber is perceptive and honest enough to present a world in which a black man can be a genius capable of acquiring and wielding great power. In times when the likes of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice have bestrode the world like colossi, this really shouldn't be a revelation, but we don't see enough of it (if you'll excuse the expression) represented. Belber is also brave enough to tell us that such a person may not necessarily be a saint. Belber's instinct is not unprecedented—O'Neill presented such a character in The Great God Brown, but he was so crudely drawn as to resemble a sinister cousin of Stepin Fetchit. But African American characters who are not helpless and faultless pawns but real flesh-and-blood humans continue to be rara ava on the stage. McReele is no puppet, but a puppetmaster. Belber has written us a person, not a cardboard cut-out.
Mackie is in top form as the mercurial McReele, shifting gears between his two personalities (roughly: politician and punk) like a born huckster. The ensemble cast is equally fine. Jodi Long is hilarious and moving as a no-bullshit TV reporter who turns out to have surprising depth. O'Keefe seems taciturn and morose as the cynical reporter Dayne, but proves to be a volcano in his climactic confrontation with McReele. Portia's Opal is sympathetic as she battles against her own susceptibility to her husband's charms in order to get to the truth. And Henry Strozier is effective in a wide variety of utility parts. The bunch of them function together as a tight, well-tuned machine, thanks to Doug Hughes's deft direction and Belber's amazing script, which synthesizes all the best elements of political and racial drama and possesses the kind of clarity and moment-to-moment logic actors prize.
In fact, so dazzling is Belber's script that it effectively acts as a bait-and-switch worthy of the slick McReele himself. We are so blinded by its virtue that we catch ourselves ignoring two flaws in the script so glaring they ought to be fatal to the whole premise, but somehow are not.
The first is: how on earth, after sixteen years in prison, where his only companions were hardened, illiterate cons, did McReele get to be so slick? While still in the joint, he already talks like Dick Gephardt. The character tells us he has read a lot of books, but that doesn't explain how he is able to speak so effectively, particularly in "the man's" language. Public speaking takes practice. Speechifying no doubt happens in prisons but I can't imagine it doesn't happen in street language—how else would you win over your audience? Furthermore, McReele has spent his time on death row, separated from the bulk of the prison population. Even a natural politician like Bill Clinton didnt spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. He practiced his art from the time he was a teenager.
Which leads us to the second implausibility. Clinton's presidency was nearly brought down by what most acknowledge was a fairly innocuous if reckless peccadillo. We still live in an age where sexual infidelity and past drug use spawn scandals that can ruin politicians. I'm not sure if Belber is being cynical or idealistic in imagining a major political party backing a former death row inmate for the Senate, but I do recognize the idea as pure science fiction. To offset the unreality of the premise, Belber has set the play in Delaware, a small state of the sort where it's relatively easy for a strange character to gain power. (Another Clinton parallel: it was in small, rural Arkansas that Clinton, a kid from a broken home, first gained notoriety as the nation's first Boy Governor, while still in his 20s). But the last time I checked, Delaware was still on planet earth, no matter how funny the people who live there talk.
But like I said, the play's charms compensate for these lapses. And like any good American, I'm a sucker for charms.