Playwright Lynn Nottage draws a tight web in the first act of her new “Mud, River, Stone.” The characters are clearly defined, the landscape picturesque, the dialogue laced with humor. But despite tight exposition, the cumbersome second act blurs with melodramatic repetition and a wandering focus.
A black couple from Manhattan, who have fond memories of Caribbean vacations, journey to South East Africa in search of the mud and stone ruins of their ancestors. Investment banker Sarah Bradley (Paula Newsome) and her music-journalist husband, David (Michael Potts), take a wrong turn in their rented car, running out of gas, trudging for three days in the bush and even crossing an unidentified minefield. They wind up in the lobby of a tacky, once luxurious hotel.
An elusive businessman, Mr. Blake (Brian Murray), tells the weary travelers, “Twenty years of civil war have made this place a festival of despair.” There is no telephone, no running water, not even a road. Just “perfect martinis,” Blake adds. They are joined by a chain-smoking Belgian intellectual (John McAdams), a forest dweller who lives among the tribes in search of mythic culture.
The play’s antagonist is an inept bellhop and former soldier (Maduka Steady) who takes everyone hostage in a bullying demand for grain to feed the starving survivors of the revolution. The arrival of a U.N. arbitrator (Mirjana Jokovic), who also is taken hostage, adds little to the melee as Nottage’s flavorful writing gives way to a shouting match of political rhetoric. The gunman’s cruel, bellowing tactics and the shrillness of his incessant commands dominate the play’s jarring second half.
Actor Roger Rees has staged the play with strong atmosphere, despite the drawn-out and unsettling hostage crisis. Neil Patel’s wonderfully decadent hotel lobby would be right at home in a Graham Greene novel.