Well into Act 2 of Gloria Naylor’s stage adaptation of her fine 1992 novel “Bailey’s Cafe,” the author’s distinctively bold, elegant, no-nonsense African-American voice is finally heard loud and clear for the first time, in a monologue for drugged-out Jesse (Phyllis Yvonne Stickney) about sex, sweet-potato pie and how to keep a husband happy, among other things.
It’s an exhilarating moment, but it’s too late to atone for all the wrong choices made down the line by adaptor Naylor and director Novella Nelson.
The novel begins slam-bang with the chatty voice of Bailey (Tommy Hollis), the titular owner of Naylor’s mythical cafe, which draws a comprehensive grab bag of the world’s misfits, and continues with a series of utterly absorbing and revealing standup monologues.
The play opens with black-and-white projections that embrace the history of the world from its beginnings through the dropping of the atomic bomb, a portentous prelude to the limbo/hell space “where the human heart makes the ultimate decision to either die — or dream” in which the action takes place.
What is totally unpretentious and unsentimental on the page has been made pretentious and sentimental on the stage as this wildly overproduced play evokes haIbsen’s settingppier memories of Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” and O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.”
What is natural and easy to follow and accept in the novel seems muddled, even pointless in the play. A much simpler, more straightforward adaptation and production might have avoided many of these pitfalls. A staged reading of the novel as it stands could well be more theatrically viable.
Wonderful bits and pieces in the novel are, inexplicably, left out. The heterosexual transvestite Miss Maple, for instance, earns more than a little money by entering soap-flake jingle contests in the novel; the play omits that. And Bailey, in the novel, has marvelous memories of black baseball players and his experiences in World War II; little or nothing of this is in the play.
Moreover, the character of the apparently virginal 14-year-old Jewish-Ethiopian girl Miriam, who may be bearing a miracle baby, is badly served by being introduced only at the very end of the play and by being played by a mature woman rather than a girl. Bailey’s wife, Nadine, who seldom speaks but is a vivid presence in the novel, is reduced to an offstage cash register bell in the play. All odd, odd choices.
Nelson’s slack, diffuse direction only compounds the adaptation’s faults, as does Marina Draghici’s setting with its gauzy cosmic backdrop replete with shooting and raining stars. Hollis, with a big presence, and Stickney as a vividly three-dimensional Jesse are the best in an uneven cast. At this point in its evolution (it’s still being worked on at Hartford Stage) Naylor’s adaptation of “Bailey’s Cafe” is doing her novel no favors.