Atop-flight cast, led by intensely watchable K. Todd Freeman, helps lift Charles Smith’s “Freefall” above mundane good brother/bad brother melodrama. Diagrammatic, occasionally downright implausible, this cautionary urban tale of a man gone wrong is too pat to drive home its pro-family message, yet some of Smith’s well-performed dialogue penetrates the B-movie setup.
Freeman, the quirky, expressive star of Broadway’s “The Song of Jacob Zulu,” plays Monk, a just-sprung con trying to scratch out a living collecting aluminum cans while avoiding the persistent recruitment efforts of neighborhood drug kingpin Spoon (Eugene Fleming). Monk is a near-casualty of the streets, while his brother Grant (Geoffrey C. Ewing), a desk-job cop, has found refuge in middle-class yuppiedom with his Iowa-raised wife, Alex (Valarie Pettiford).
Dramatic clash comes as the angry, homeless Monk reenters the life of the brother who sent him up the river on burglary charges. As the streetwise Monk mocks his brother’s buppie lifestyle (biggest laugh comes with Freeman’s incredulous expression on being offered a glass of ginger ale), the flaws of Grant’s seemingly perfect marriage come clear.
Smith touches on but barely explores conflicting images of African-American identity, opting instead to keep the tension on a smaller, personal scale. But his characters are stick figures, the tensions among them contrived. Grant’s flaws — he works too much, ignores his wife — seem introduced only to give Monk something to attack.
Smith also relies too heavily on devices that simply don’t work. Credulity is stretched when Monk is moved to ponder fratricide upon learning that the inspirational letters he received in prison were written by his hated brother. Plotting can be equally silly, as when the corn-fed wife hits the mean streets in search of her brother-in-law. Kansas, this ain’t.
Cast goes to considerable lengths to fill these potholes, particularly Freeman and Pettiford. Fleming laces a standard-issue drug dealer with real menace and unexpected humor, while Ewing, so winning as Muhammad Ali in his one-man show last season, finds a similar and necessary likability here.
Despite an expository, metaphor-laden writing style, the playwright delivers some sharp bits of speech (when asked how he’d like his scotch, Monk asks, “You got any cups?”). And Smith is convincing in a heartfelt affection for his characters, so much so that he hands them a happy ending that is anything but convincing.
Set, which juxtaposes Grant’s well-ordered living room with the squalor of Monk’s streets, gives director Donald Douglass ample room for mobility. The director is less adept at smoothing over the text’s abruptness, though, so that “Freefall,” despite its title, moves in herky-jerky ways that defy gravity.