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A CurtainUp Review
Lower Ninth

. . . Your Mama was special.—Malcolm
Special enough to cut out on her?— E-Z
I was different man back then.—Malcolm
Gaius Charles & James McDaniel
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The devastating Hurricane Katrina has sent countless New Orleans citizens to the roofs of houses awash in the rising tide of putrid waters. Two such citizens are E-Z (Galus Charles), a young teenager and Malcom (James McDaniel), his mother's lover with whom he has an uneasy relationship. Also on that lonely roof is a plastic-covered body.

Set Designer Donyale Werle has recreated a reasonable replica of such a rooftop, its cheap shingling probably typical of the houses in the city's especially disaster prone lower ninth district. Playwright Willimon has used that horrendous natural disaster to create what is essentially one of those buddy stories where survival depends less on derring-do action than accepting mutual caring and dependency. In this case the buddy thing involves an older man (McDaniel) who does not easily assume the role of a father figure, and the boy (Charles) who does not easily forgive the older man's earlier transgressions and accept his having turned over a new leaf. As it turns out E-Z's schoolmate Lowboy (Ghenga Akinnaghe), accepted Malcolm as a role model before he found religion and gave up the fast life

With nothing to do but wait for life saving helicopters to rescue them before the heat, thirst and hunger does them in, E-Z and Malcolm hash out their problematic past. They ease the tension by playing Twenty Questions. One of the more pertinent game playing interchanges has Malcolm choosing George W. Bush and E-Z amusingly saying that he's got "twenny questions" of his own for the President, "Number one bein: Where the hell are you?". . .which has Malcolm chuckling "That'd be somethin, huh? If he rolled right up here in some big ole yacht? Said what y'all doin on that roof? Jump aboard boys, we got a barbecue goin'." But there are less playful questions revolving around E-Z's still painful grief over his mother's death and unwillingness to forgive Malcolm for deserting her when she most needed him. That grief is now doubled by not having been able to save his friend Lowboy from drowning in the flooded streets below.

One problem with this play is that what led up to E-Z and Malcolm's present situation and is still going on all around them happens off stage. I suppose you can blame the medium used to tell this story. In a film, a director has all sorts of opportunities to make a survival story like this dramatic and exciting, but on a live stage, especially in a small theater with limited resources, the danger is for the high drama that triggers the emotional situation to feel forced. Of course, you could say that there isn't all that much action as Vladimir and Estragen sit around Waiting for Godot but, while Beau Willimon is a promising writer, he's not quite ready to be likened to Beckett.

That's not to say that McDaniel, Charles and Akinnagbe don't do justice to these characters forced by the storm to deal with their emotionally stormy history. McDaniel shows Malcolm to be a complex man who is fiercely religious and touchingly paternal, but also makes you understand the violence that once defined him. Charles's E-Z is equally convincing as an almost-man who underneath it all is still a lost boy. As in his recent appearance in the film Savages, Akinnagbe makes the most of a small role. All three actors are good enough to keep you engaged even though you never quite feel the heat and stench and fear of what's going on around and below that rooftop way station.

Written by Beau Willimon
Directed by Daniel Goldstein.
Cast: Gaius Charles (E-Z), Gbenga Akinagbe (Lowboy), James McDaniel (Malcolm)
Sets: Donyale Werle
Costumes: Heather Dunbar
Lighting; Ben Stanton
Sound: Jill BC DuBoff
Music: Aaron Meicht
Running Time: 75 minutes, no Intermission The Flea 41 White Street (between Broadway & Church Streets
From 2/14/08; opening 2/28/08; closing 4/05/08.
Tuesday to Friday at 7pm & Saturday at 3pm & 7pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on 2/26/08

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