Theater review: 'Fences' at the Cort Theatre
NEW YORK -- Troy Maxson, the protagonist of August Wilson’s 1987 drama “Fences,” tells his sons that they've got to take the “crookeds with the straights,” the bad with the good. This advice comes in handy at the unsettled new revival at the Cort Theatre on Broadway starring Denzel Washington, a solid gold superstar playing an embittered Everyman.
Don't get me wrong: No one onstage is below par here. The main roles are flush with insight. But the only truly extraordinary performance comes from Viola Davis, whose crushing poignancy as Troy's betrayed wife, Rose, is the reason to see this production.
Under Kenny Leon's fast and forward-leaning direction, Washington has some difficulty modulating his theatrical intensity early on. And the residue of his Hollywood glamour works against his character. Troy, an ex-Negro League baseball player struggling to live up to his family responsibilities as a sanitation man in 1950s Pittsburgh, has been shortchanged by history, whereas Washington enters to deafening entrance applause and exits the theater to a pack of autograph hounds.
The two-time Academy Award winner is not as natural a Troy as James Earl Jones, who earned a Tony for originating the role of a gifted athlete denied his turn at the big time by policies of segregation. Nor is Washington able to lose himself in his sanitation overalls the way Laurence Fishburne did in the 2006 Pasadena Playhouse production. (Tellingly, when Washington's Troy is off duty, costume designer Constanza Romero, Wilson's widow, dresses him in a manner that suggests Troy has a secret Saks charge account.)
But despite these drawbacks, Washington turns in a lucid outline of man who can't avoid hurting those he cares about most. Love prompts him to lash out. His impulse is to gruffly protect his wife and sons from an unjust world that has never played fair with him. But he's also letting them know that he's too battle-hardened to give them the softness they need.
Troy browbeats Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his oldest son from his first marriage and a struggling musician, for coming around the house on payday to ask for a handout rather than getting a steady job. And he's even more punishing to Cory (Chris Chalk), the son he had with Rose, cruelly undermining the boy's chances for a football scholarship, a fate he fears is too close to his disappointing own.
Rose knows better than anyone the paradox of her husband’s nature. Troy tells her that she’s “the only decent thing” that ever happened to him, and their passionate connection doesn’t appear to have lost any steam after 18 years of marriage. But he is unable to subdue his restlessness. As he explains to Rose after revealing that the woman he’s been having an affair with is pregnant, “I done locked myself into a pattern trying to take care of you all that I forgot about myself.”
He won't desert his wife, but he can't remake himself into the husband she deserves. When Davis' Rose erupts in sorrowful protest, a backlog of emotion that washes everything away in its path, the cost of this marital compromise is finally exposed.
"I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it," she tells him. "I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn't take me no 18 years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn't never gonna bloom."
Nothing in the play matches Davis' searing crescendo. If Washington supplies the theatrical brawn, she provides the dramatic heart.
“Fences,” which won both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Wilson, seems to be in perpetual revival these days. A favorite of audiences, the play is one of his most conventionally written. Rooted in the everyday, it skirts the mysteries that other works in his decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th century African American life approach more daringly.
The only concession to supernatural concerns comes via the character of Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), Troy's brain-damaged brother, who has glimpses of a world beyond the material one that has strained these characters' souls. But this straightforward production doesn't have much interest in exploring any surreal or expressionistic byways: It's the ordinary rituals that matter most.
When performed by actors who want to savor every realistic detail, "Fences"can drag interminably. Leon’s highly efficient staging -- arrayed on Santo Loquasto's crisply focused yard set, where a fence is slowing being built -- resolves to avoid this trap. The dialogue is swiftly delivered, and self-indulgent pauses are banished. Blink and you can miss a line. And be sure to buckle up as Washington revs his motor for Troy's tall tales, as these long-winded prose arias are performed molto allegro.
In the opening scene, when Troy enters with his fellow trash-hauling buddy, Jim Bono (the accomplished Wilson veteran Stephen McKinley Henderson), sharing a pint of booze to celebrate the end of the workweek, the banter is almost frenetic. Fortunately, the quickened pace never leads to superficiality.
The more Washington settles in, the more he lets us see that underneath Troy's turbulent brutality is a plea for understanding and a wish, however misguided, to help others avoid his suffering. But it's Davis, exquisitely registering all the desire, pain and hope of Rose's impossible predicament, who allows us to categorize these contradictions as love.
-- Charles McNulty
follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty
Photo: Viola Davis, Chris Chalk, Denzel Washington and Mykelti Williamson. Bottom: Washington and Davis. Credit: Joan Marcus, via Associated Press