Accounts of Martin Luther King’s final nights on earth did not include details of a pillow fight preceding his assassination.
That oversight is rectified in Katori Hall’s feather-brained two-hander “The Mountaintop” on Broadway.
Set in Memphis, Tennessee, the play stars Samuel L. Jackson as the civil rights leader and Angela Bassett as a -- what’s the word I’m looking for? Sassy? -- maid who brings him coffee but has other things on her mind.
King and his colleague Ralph Abernathy are in town organizing support for black sanitation workers. It’s a dark and stormy night and King has dispatched his friend to find cigarettes, leaving the Reverend alone and jumpy, the thunder bursts sounding too much like gunshots.
He calls for room service and is pleased when coffee is brought by Camae, played to the hilt by Bassett. Camae is no stranger to the leering looks of men, nor is she indifferent to them. Especially when the man behind the look is this world famous marcher.
So the comedy in this sitcom unfolds in verbal thrusts and parries between the practiced seducer and his amiable prey.
Camae is equipped not only with caffeine, cigarettes and a flask, but a new generation’s growing impatience with King’s nonviolence. Hall gives her several brazen monologues and a final, surreal rap, all dazzlingly delivered by Bassett.
Jackson is less comfortable, perhaps because he hasn’t been on stage in over 15 years, and perhaps because, even with prosthetics, he bears less resemblance to King than to his ambitious acolyte, Jesse Jackson.
It’s not news that King was unfaithful to his wife, but Hall and Jackson conspire to paint him as a horndog whose rhetorical gifts are best used as chick bait.
Things turn sober when Camae’s true mission is revealed. King gets to try out his fatalistic “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech before delivering it the next day. Branford Marsalis’s accompanying musical tone poem heightens the mood. Outside, the storm rages ominously. Nothing in “The Mountaintop” is left to the imagination.
Through Jan. 15 at the Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-362-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: **
‘We Live Here’
Zoe Kazan has an increasingly significant career as a stage and film actress. Now she makes her New York playwriting debut with “We Live Here,” which has been given a beautifully pitched staging by Sam Gold at the Manhattan Theatre Club. It marks the welcome return to the stage of Amy Irving (who, like Kazan, comes from theater royalty).
In the opening scene, Irving is furtively unwrapping her elder daughter’s wedding presents, which have been stacking up in the living room of their Connecticut colonial.
Mother is caught in the act by her appalled younger daughter, who announces rather sheepishly that she’s expecting the arrival of her new boyfriend in time to join the nuptial celebrations. Even more sheepishly, she confides to her father that this boyfriend is no stranger to the household.
I can’t reveal more. But you’ll know from his entrance that Daniel, amiably played by Oscar Isaac, is a Bad Seed.
When the big secrets have been revealed and all the rumpled linens have been aired, it’s Irving who is unwrapped, a sorry sight.
“We Live Here” is a melodrama of the “Oh, dear” school: Nearly every sentence made me think, “Oh, dear. I don’t believe a word of this.”
Through Nov. 6 at City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St. Information: +1-212-581-1212; http://www.mtc-nyc.org. Rating: *
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)