For proof that star quality doesn’t necessarily translate from one business to the next, look no further than the Royale Theater, where Sean Combs, otherwise known as rap mogul and fashion impresario P. Diddy, is giving a sadly N. Adequate performance at the center of the new Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Fortunately, Combs, a newcomer to the stage who lacks both presence and the requisite vocal technique, is surrounded by a trio of luminous actresses with considerable stage experience: Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan. Individually and collectively, they infuse the proceedings with the warming breath of life.
And it would be impossible to entirely mute the enduring appeal of Lorraine Hansberry’s tough-minded, tenderhearted play about the financial and emotional struggles of an African-American family in 1950s Chicago. Audiences new to it may well be engrossed by its story of family love triumphing over economic oppression and despair, moved by the compassion and gritty eloquence of the writing, engaged by its still vibrant humor.
But director Kenny Leon’s production draws its generally listless energy from its subdued leading man. It ambles when it should soar, raises a rueful smile when it should break the heart. And too often it translates Hansberry’s finely wrought play, with its gentle but distinct poetic dimensions, into a sentimental sitcom.
Combs plays Walter Lee Younger, an ambitious young man in Chicago who is slowly dying inside as his dreams of achievement wither in the absence of economic opportunity. The rap producer is following in the daunting footsteps of Sidney Poitier, who created the role in the 1959 premiere, and Danny Glover, who played Walter in an acclaimed 1989 “American Playhouse” presentation.
Combs deserves some props for following such estimable forebears in the white-hot glare of the Broadway spotlight, with no previous stage training. But he is simply not up to the role’s considerable demands. Walter’s wild emotional swings — from despair to elation, from numbness to rage, from abject humiliation to fierce pride — are writ small in Combs’ performance, and the play’s impact is accordingly diminished.
“I’m a volcano!” shouts Walter at one point, high on booze and bursting with frustrated aspiration. But Combs’ Walter is more like a cigarette lighter, emitting a small, continuous but inconspicuous flame. With his look of smoldering dissatisfaction and loping, truculent swagger, Combs convincingly suggests a young man embittered by life far too early. But his perf rarely moves beyond these defining gestures.
Hansberry’s play, very much a product of its time, is constructed around crisply defined confrontations and monologues in which the characters reveal their deepest longings, fears, frustrations. In this production, Walter’s big moments glide smoothly by, making minimal dramatic impact. As these mileposts disappear into the fog, all but illegible, one is tempted to conclude that Combs, undoubtedly an intelligent man, has opted to hedge his bets by underplaying. Rather than risk the embarrassment of failure, he strives only for modest success. He doesn’t try to stretch toward the play’s powerful emotional extremes and risk exposing his limitations as an actor.
When Walter learns he’s been swindled out of the precious thousands entrusted to him by his mother, for instance, Combs folds in on himself, slumping forward and enfolding his head in his hands. This may be a plausible manner of depicting Walter’s scalding sense of shame, but it’s theatrically unsatisfactory. Emotion revealed through gesture and speech, not hidden by it, is theater’s stock in trade.
Combs’ conservative performance may limit damage to the star’s reputation — it is by no means an embarrassment, and certainly his many fans aren’t likely to be disappointed — but it fails to do full justice to Hansberry’s play.
“A Raisin in the Sun” is an uncommonly sturdy piece of writing, to be sure, imbued with the grit of painful experience, clear-eyed but generous in spirit, stocked with richly drawn characters whose struggles against the limitations of their lives become a collective metaphor for the human predicament itself. And Combs’ distaff co-stars all give performances of impeccable integrity.
McDonald, who plays Walter’s wife, Ruth, sensitively conveys her exhausted fortitude and her inextinguishable love for her husband, whom she loves despite his flaws, and in some sense because of them. She shares Walter’s unflagging need to break free from the stifling environment of Chicago’s South Side, and Ruth’s ecstatic outburst, when she learns the family will finally be leaving the cramped apartment shared by three generations, is among the production’s spirited high points.
Rashad’s Lena, the matriarch who provides her family with unceasing love accompanied by stern doses of corrective wisdom, is drawn in gentle but sure strokes. The moments in which this indomitable woman lets slip the mask of contentment she dutifully wears are powerfully unsettling, as when she is brought up short, stricken with momentary grief at the arrival of the check that puts a cool dollar value on her husband’s long life of toil.
Lathan is bright, funny and energetic as Walter’s feisty sister Beneatha. The character’s proto-feminism and her staunch anti-assimilationist proselytizing are among the play’s more obviously dated elements. Hansberry’s writing strikes a rare callow note when Beneatha’s enthusiastic exploration of African culture, through her friendship with Nigerian student Asagai (a savvy turn from Teagle F. Bougere), is played for easy laughs.
These are, unfortunately, sometimes underscored by Leon’s direction, which settles for the most obvious paths through the play’s comic detailing and its moments of poignancy and tenderness.
Harold Clurman wrote at length of the premiere production’s “organic” quality. That quality, so essential to the success of this naturalistic play, with its neatly structured narrative, is precisely what’s missing from Leon’s staging. Thomas Lynch’s set, which almost exaggerates the confining dimensions of the Youngers’ small patch of real estate, is atmospherically dreary, and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting meticulously stints on the sunlight.
But absent from the production as a whole is a crucial, collective sense of authenticity. Clurman also wrote, “The impact of the production transcends its script,” but the reverse is the case here: The impact of the production diminishes the play.