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A CurtainUp Review
A Last Dance for Sybil

Teagle Bougere, Earle Hyman & Ruby Dee
Two years ago I went to see Bridgette A. Wimberly's Saint Lucy's Eyes, and found it to be an absorbing small gem that shone with particular brightness thanks to its star, Ruby Dee. The actress, somewhat older and rounder, than most of us remembered her but with the still instantly recognizable smoky voice, made the most of the wonderful part Wimberly had written for her -- so much so, that the play had a second run in another small theater.

Now, Dee's husband,. Ossie Davis, has written a new play especially for her which is playing at the Theater at St. Clements under the auspices of New Federal Theatre. Too bad that the play, besides not being very good, is totally unsuited to Ms. Dee.

In outline, it's a promising enough idea. A high stakes struggle for power and economic freedom entangles the lives of two families -- an African-American family struggling to keep its small Harlem bank afloat and a WASP family whose fortune can collapse if it loses access to the oil now controlled by poor young West African nation.

The title character is the niece of the banker and one-third owner of that family enterprise. She is also executive assistant to the nephew and heir-to-be of the oil-rich WASP family. She is convinced that she -- and her family -- will be best served by working with the Cryders (her white bosses) to get the West Africans to renew the about to lapse oil lease. As she sees it, if her plan and corplomacy succeeds, Anson Cryder (her liberally inclined boss played by Philip Clark) will reward her with an even stock swap with her family's banks along with a push through the glass ceiling that has kept blacks out of the boardroom. It will also help the African nation to thrive. As this "Dance" plays out, the segues from the Cryders' Wall Street boardroom, to the Monyoghese Republic in West Africa, to Sybil's spacious Long Island home, the dancers stumble over the clumsy and unbelievable plot and a text that consists mainly of polemical speeches about black empowerment than real dialogue.

Apparently the director and playwright were aware that things weren't working and have been rewriting since the play began previewing and delayed the originally scheduled opening date. From what I can see, all this has done is to force Ms. Dee to struggle with memorizing additional but not better lines.

Even if you accept the premise of the script, Dee is totally miscast and misdirected. For one thing, she's too old for the part. Her biography doesn't give her birth date but she must have been at least eighteen when she married Davis in 1948 which makes her well past seventy -- not exactly right for a role that calls for a woman in the prime of her career. No doubt to Mr. Davis she's still a convincing love object, but the romance brewing between her and Philip Hoffman's fiftyish Anson Cryder is quite a stretch for everyone else. As for the misdirection, Edward Smith all too often standing around looking painfully uncomfortable.

The rest of the cast doesn't help matters. Earle Hyman as "Papa Obu" chews up the scenery. When his son Teagle Bougere spouts some of his sonnets, you feel as if you're in an Eddy Murphy sketch. Ben Hammer does his best with Enoch Cryder, the unredeemed white robber baron. Alice Spivak as his wife is another case of miscasting, more a suited to a stereotypical Jewish mother role than that of a haughty, lifelong Republican.

I could go on and tell you about Sybil's drunken younger brother (played for maximum melodrama by Count Stovall) who still agonizes over their father's killing. But why belabor the fact that this ell-intentioned play simply doesn't work. One can only hope that Ms Dee and Mr. Davis will cap their distinguished careers with another and more engaging dance.

Saint Lucy's Eyes

A Last Dance for Sybil
Written by Ossie Davis
Directed by Edward Smith.
Supervising director: Lloyd Richards
Cast: Starring Ruby Dee; also Teagle E. Gougerge, Philip Clark, Herb Downer, Craig Allen Edwards, Arthur French, Ben Hammer, Earle Hyman, Alice Spivack and Count Stovall
Set Design: Robert Joel Schwartz
Costume Design: Ali Turns
Lighting Design: Shirley Prendergast
Sound Design: Sean O'Halloran
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, includes one 10-minute intermission
New Federal Theatre St. Clement's Theatre, 423 W. 46 St. (9/10 Aves) 212-279-4200
11/13/02-12/15/02; opening 12/03/02
. Wed-Fri at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm -- $20-$40.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 3rd, official press opening performance.
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