BWW Reviews: THE MOUNTAINTOP Is a Difficult Climb
Here's a common premise for a two-character play: A distinguished man is alone in a hotel room. The attractive maid arrives. Do they have a conversation, does one try to seduce the other, or is there a conflict between them? Or is it all of the above? Everyone from Tennessee Williams from Neil Simon has written variations on this idea, and most of them are valid and interesting.
Katori Hall's The Mountaintop puts the hotel room play into a very specific location. It's April 3, 1968, at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, and the distinguished man is DR. Martin Luther King Jr. He comes in out of the pouring rain, tries to make himself comfortable, and orders a cup of coffee from room service. A few minutes later a neophyte maid named Camae knocks on his door. She's sassy, opinionated, and only slightly humbled to be in the presence of a famous man. Dr. King tries to chat with her, bums a cigarette, and they start talking about their lives. He finds out about her existence, and she asks the questions you can imagine someone asking of Dr. King at that point in history. There is some banter about inconsequential things, and there is the subtle hint that he is interested in more than coffee.
Hall can write, She can create dialogue for King that is believable, funny, and completely in character. (How many men of recent vintage have had their voices imprinted on our minds more than him?) She creates a sexy, funny, and unpredictable character in Camae, and gives her interesting things to say. A high point of the first part of the play is when King asks Camae what she would say to the world if she were in his shoes, and she literally puts on his shoes (and coat) and launches into her own oratory, which is surprising and intelligent, if quite different from King's perspective on the conflict between the races.
However, the play takes a sudden turn about halfway through. We've had portents; King is seized with pain every time the thunder claps, and he seems panicked when he's not trying to charm Camae. Things become less realistic, and Camae turns out not to be who we think she is. The conversations go off into bizarre directions, and there is a phone call that completely sends the script over The Edge into craziness. (Either you have the imagination to go with it, or you don't, but after forty-five minutes of an utterly realistic drama, I wasn't expecting any of it.) We end with a slide show of the last forty-some years of American (and African-American) history, accompanied by what I can only describe as an oratorical rap song. Oh - there's also a pillow fight.
Perhaps I'm not the right audience for this. I'm a white guy from Michigan, after all. I grew up in the area north of Detroit where many blue-collar Caucasians fled when Detroit caught fire in the late 1960s. In my high school, the "N" word was used casually by students and teachers alike. (My only memory of Dr. King is of the night he was assassinated. They kept breaking into the TV shows we were watching and stating, "DR. Martin Luther King Jr. has been shot in Memphis." At five and a half, I was confused, and I remember turning to my mother and asking, "Mommy, why do they keep shooting that man?") I have good intentions...but I'll never know what it's like to be black.
However, I can report that Portland Center Stage has given this odd play a brilliant production. The set by Daniel Meeker is outstanding. As soon as you walk in to the theater, you feel like you're in a cheap Southern motel circa 1968, right down to the fingerprint marks around the light switches. The place looks so realistic that it helps you accept the early, less fantastical section of the play. Likewise, costume designer Jeff Cone puts the characters in outfits that define their era, and their different stations in life.
Director Rose Riordan keeps us involved, always tricky in a two-character play, and fleshes out even the less believable sections of the script. The piece is always entertaining, and the pace never flags, except toward the end, when the characters have to do things that make no sense at all. Short of choosing a completely different play (and there must be some out there, if you're looking to do a piece about Dr. King), I can't think of anything she could have done to make The Mountaintop a more involving experience.