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Theater review: 'The River Niger' at Los Angeles Theatre Centre

December 3, 2009 |  1:45 pm

400.The River Niger photo 1 "The River Niger" flows nowhere near the fractured Harlem household whose unraveling it depicts, but its symbolic title lies heavy on a family's quest for solid footing in the tides of the post-civil rights era. A runaway hit on and off-Broadway, Joseph A. Walker's 1972 drama paved the way for a new generation of black theater -- critical, confrontational and unapologetic. And while Walker's play is showing wear and tear around its structural seams, it's lost none of its raw ferocity in the Robey Theatre Company's well-performed if unevenly paced revival.

 "A few years ago things were simple," sighs aging housepainter and sometime poet John Williams (Robey artistic director Ben Guillory, in a riveting performance), a latter-day Job trying to hold his family together amid the social upheaval of the early 1970s. Though unpublished, John's poetry is no mere hobby -- it's his link to a better world than the one he's trapped in. When that vision proves unattainable, there's always the bottle he shares with his best friend, Dudley Stanton (Alex Morris, matching Guillory beat for beat), a doctor whose cynical contempt for end-of-life care will be cruelly tested before the play's end.

The play's complex characters are brought vividly to life by this capable ensemble. The attention of Dudley and the entire Williams clan are focused on John's son, Jeff (Dane Diamond), an Air Force lieutenant whose imminent return from navigator training school is seemingly the fulfillment John's hopes.

But just as fathers want to live their unrealized possibilities through their sons, sons need to discover their own destinies. In eloquently scripted rebellion, Jeff chafes at others' expectations in overlapping reunions with his family, his new girlfriend (Diarra Kilpatrick), and his old gang buddy-turned-militant (Tarnue Massaquoi). There's no sugar coating as the noblest and basest impulses in all concerned are clearly illuminated.

Subtly effective period touches notwithstanding, Dwain A. Perry's handsome staging misses with some critical confrontations that call for jarring shifts in pacing and tone. In his passion to pack so many pent-up  frustrations of his black American experience into a classically constructed  play, Walker resorts to clumsy mechanics (particularly in getting characters on and off stage), and lapses at times into melodrama that has not aged well.

-- Philip Brandes

"The River Niger," Los Angeles Theatre Centre, Theatre 4, 514 Spring St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 20. $30. (213) 489-0994, Ext. 107, or Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

Photo: Dane Diamond, left, Alex Morris. Photo credit: Roy Hurst.