There is an intriguing premise struggling to express itself in Daniel Du Plantis’ new stage play “Three Card Monte and the Royal Flush.” By personifying South Africa’s history of racial strife in the guise of a confrontation between an aged white Shakespearean actor and an enigmatic young black man over who has the right to play “Othello,” Du Plantis sketches an intimate portrait of what it means to have and have not. Unfortunately, the portrait becomes blurred and trivialized by the playwright’s inability to develop his premise beyond redundant harangues and ineffective forays into comedy.
It is the mid-1970s, and an aged icon of the theater, Sir Clive Morley (Howard Malpas), is making his silver-anniversary appearance as Othello at South Africa’s Royal Court Theatre in Cape Town. Invading Morley’s dressing room is Monte (Timothy Douglas), a young black would-be actor who has never been allowed even to buy a ticket to the Royal Court.
The ensuing battle of words between a crumbling relic of white supremacy and the sinewy voice of an emerging black nationalism reveals its obvious conclusion long before any serious wounds can be inflicted by either side.
Director Anna Stramese makes a valiant attempt to balance the struggle, but she is ultimately defeated by a one-sided script and mismatched combatants.
Malpas offers too feeble a presence to be believed as a legendary white knight of the theater. His Sir Clive has the vocal resonance but none of the power and stature of a Shakespearean immortal. Even his attempts at imperious sarcasm are swept aside by the youthful vibrancy of his adversary.
Douglas commands the play even when he is speaking from offstage. His Monte is at once ingratiating and sinister, comedic and dangerous. Though called upon to offer a few too many self-conscious diatribes against the white establishment , Douglas’ Monte is totally believable as the personification of a force that knows it will one day claim its birthright.
Nectar Redman is bouncy and likable as Sir Clive’s youthful, unfulfilled mistress, and Garrison Thompson is quite believable as a hapless fellow actor. Both are offered up as periodic comic relief during the course of the play. Mostly, their efforts are wasted. Neither adds any real levity to the proceedings.
Mike Pearce’s seedy dressing-room set proves to be quite workable on the Fountain Theatre’s limited stage space. Equally effective is Sean David Forrester’s moody lighting design.