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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
TWO TRAINS RUNNING
at the Peter Norton Space, New York

HEADING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
By Stuart Miller


There's an old writing dictum that if you introduce a gun into a scene it better go off at some point. For August Wilson, such rules couldn't be more irrelevant.

In "Two Trains Running" (first staged in 1992) Wilson introduces not one but two firearms, yet even though the play is set in 1969-a year after the shooting deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy-and one of the men packing heat talks incessantly of a rally commemorating Malcolm X ("by any means necessary"), no one ever fires a shot. The guns, like most of the meandering plot points that, are purely secondary to the bluesy poetry of Wilson's writing.

Who else could write a play that runs over three hours, especially one in which most of the real action takes place off-stage, yet leave audiences thrilled just to have the chance to listen to the denizens of a diner simply talking and talking and talking? "Two Trains" may lack the cohesiveness of "Fences," the hurtling momentum of "Piano Lesson" or the operatic intensity of "Seven Guitars," but it doesn't really matter. Second-tier Wilson, with its echoes of other characters in his other plays, is still countless rungs higher than what most playwrights can achieve: even when his characters are underdeveloped they feel fully alive, singing out magical dialogue you wish you could capture and hold onto. (Unfortunately, the published version is out of print.) And that's particularly true with the wonderful cast under Lou Bellamy's sharp direction in the current production-the second play of the Signature Theatre Company's Wilson season.

One unusual grace note here is the casting. Lance Reddick of HBO's "The Wire" starred in the season's first production, "Seven Guitars," while Frankie Faison and Chad L. Coleman, from the same series, carry this show-"Wire" creator David Simon lacks Wilson's linguistic agility yet shares a rare skill for uncovering the detail and nuance of black life in urban America. Faison plays the diner owner Memphis who hopes against hope to get a fair financial shake as the city seeks to condemn his building while Coleman is the ex-con Sterling, who seeks to go straight by finding a job and a loving woman yet who plays the numbers and buys one of those guns just in case. Both expertly capture the pressures and yearning, the long-term damage done by the routine thwarting of dreams and opportunities.

Of course, they are not the only ones who truly speak Wilson's language. Ron Cephas Jones as the bookie Wolf projects a roguish, confident energy that's an excellent counterpoint to Coleman's edgy, hurting brawn, and Arthur French captures the calm sage Holloway, a believer in staying out of harm's way and in the ageless wisdom of the unseen Aunt Ester. (Ed Wheeler as the wealthy undertaker West and Leon Addison Brown as the requisite Wilson crazy man Hambone are also solid.) But it is probably January Lavoy as the waitress Risa who will haunt your dreams-- she strives desperately to keep an emotional distance from the world that has brought her nothing but pain and disappointment; her character is underwritten but her determined lethargy, resonating in the clip-clop, clip-clop of her shoes shuffling through the diner rings loudly.

The play ends on what seems to be a surprisingly upbeat note: Memphis gets more money than he had even dreamed of while Sterling not only wins big in the numbers, he manages to walk away from violent confrontation, persuade Risa to let down her guard, and find a way to honor Hambone after he dies. But even as Memphis celebrates he remains haunted by the wrongs done him in the past and Sterling's moment of triumph seems likely to be fleeting, his future almost sure to be undone by his own temperament and the array of societal forces lined up against him. The only pure triumph at the end is W

 


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