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NY Theater Reviews

Laurence Fishburne/PH: Carol Rosegg



Thurgood Marshall was a towering figure in our legal history. But this one-hander (Laurence Fishburne) is more history by the numbers than flesh and blood drama

If only great role models with exceptional careers always made great theater. Playwrights would never have to dream up a new plot again they'd just scour the almanac for notables, flesh out the details listed in Wikipedia, sprinkle in wink-wink humor and by-the-numbers pathos, and voila! Drama.

Scoff if you want, but William Luce made a career of it. And during a not-so-long-ago era of Broadway cost-cutting, solo shows about familiar faces were far more appealing to producers than big-budget musicals and untested tragedies. On the downside, most of these projects came bearing a whiff of the school auditorium and had all the dramatic tension of a World Book essay.

While Thurgood, which profiles Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, has lively moments and an intelligent appreciation of the law, it doesn't quite escape the limitations of its one-man, one-life, no-surprises format. As such, we're treated to the usual share of fairly interesting did-you-know-thats:

Did you know that Marshall changed his own name from Thoroughgood when he got tired of writing out the full word in second grade?

Did you know that he had an eye for the ladies and was twice married (his first wife died of cancer)?

Did you know that he was chief counsel for the NCAAP when fighting Brown vs. the Board of Education?
Did you know he won the case?

You did know that? Or you checked Wiki for the answers? Well, you may have saved yourself a trip to the Booth Theater.

Not that spending a hundred minutes in the company of Laurence Fishburne in the person of Thurgood Marshall is a bad thing. The actor, a Tony winner for Two Trains Running, has a comfortable stage presence and, even when shaky with a line or two in late previews, keeps the audience engaged. His Marshall doesn't so much dwell on the outrages of racism as display the stoic resolve necessary to fight the law with the law.

This lower-boil approach has merit in being less showy and less inclined to wallow in rub-our-noses-in-it history. However, it also allows for bloviating and too many direct quotes from testimony, which leaves too little time for Marshall to share the quirks and subtleties of the people around him and the decades he lived through. Ryan Rumery's subdued sound effects don't so much set the scene as offer small breaks from the verbiage.

When, late in the monologue, the audience dutifully applauds Thomas' list of legal victories, it's hard to tell whether they're doing so to cheer the triumph of common sense, to express relief that the government finally used law to further humankind, or simply to cheer their own self-righteous, hindsight-backed liberalism. Well and good either way - just so long as they don't confuse pedestrian historical biography with exciting drama. Unlike schoolchildren, not all plays are equal.