It took seven years and multiple readings and workshops to bring Kia Corthron’s latest play to full production, which raises unsettling questions about workshops in general and, in particular, about the work done on this material. Was no one at such responsible non-profit houses as the Long Wharf and the Manhattan Theater Club able to keep this simple urban fable — about a street saint on a holy mission to build shelter for the homeless — from becoming so theatrically bloated?
Corthron’s grim vision of New York as a hostile environment for homeless people struggling to survive a cold winter on the streets is at least well-served by the expressionistic staging. The city looks like hell frozen over in Narelle Sissons’ scenic design, which uses rigid planes and metallic grid constructions to suggest such regions of dubious refuge as subways, highway underpasses and abandoned buildings. Shrouded in the ominous shadows of Ben Stanton’s forbidding lighting, these recessed nooks and crannies feel like forgotten graveyards where the dead and the might-as-well-be-dead are ritualistically awakened by the maddening din of Robert Kaplowitz’s jangling sounds of the city.
Wandering this twilight netherworld like some modern-day Orpheus is a street artist named Cole (Chris McKinney), a natural-born architect who constructs from scraps of scavenged junk modest, but ingeniously designed shelters for his homeless friends. The action of the play follows Cole’s painstaking search for his lost friend Zekie (Robert Beitzel), who is no dream-tossed Eurydice but a brain-damaged youth who seems to share Cole’s uncanny artistry. The conflict comes from two quarters: the authorities who periodically descend to wreck Cole’s work and the street denizens who inflict more damage on the fragile community through drugs and violence.
As outlined, the piece has promise. But it is stupefyingly overwritten, and Michael John Garces’ slack production indulges its most pretentious excesses. And aside from McKinney, who plays Cole with a muscularity that is at once tough and tender, the ensemble players outdo one another at clawing the boards.
To be fair about it, Corthron has all but handed the thesps a framed and notarized license for grandstanding. Although the dialogue aspires to be poetic, its mannered idiom of made-up words and convoluted sentence construction lands with a thud. The actors are hardly responsible for speeches like this one, from a woman who wants Cole to replace a vandalized church window: “We think it a miracle, Jupiter Effect. Our temple levels beneath the street but perfect alignment so a little topside light come down reach us. We find it a holy thing.” But one does wonder why any performer would want to milk a line like that.