“Radio Golf,” the 10th and final play in August Wilson’s sweeping, century-covering chronicle about the African-American experience, is easier to admire than to emotionally embrace. Entertaining, humorous vignettes and the author’s expected insights into people and society are plus factors, but tension never builds to a crackling pitch, and the absence of burning dramatic jeopardy prevents the story from hitting the kind of hole-in-one attained by his Pulitzer Prize-winning efforts “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson.”
In the center of the action is real estate developer and aspiring mayoral candidate Harmond Wilks (Rocky Carroll). Harmond has an idealistic dream of transforming the impoverished, blighted Hill District of Pittsburgh into a housing complex that also encompasses Starbucks, Blockbuster and Barnes & Noble.
Aided by partner Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), a golf-loving go-getter, and ambitious wife Mame (Denise Burse), the road to success seems assured until a disreputable old-timer, Barlow (Anthony Chisholm) refuses to sell his dilapidated house and interferes fatally with Harmond’s architectural vision.
A second obstacle to Harmond and Roosevelt is the aggressively cheerful presence of ex-con Sterling (buoyant John Earl Jelks, who has brightened productions of Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”). He and grizzled Barlow function as challenges to Harmond’s moral values, forcing him to question his decisions and put the entire housing enterprise at risk — behavior that horrifies his practical-minded partner and wife.
Conflicts, dimmed by repetition and slow pacing, are frequently talked out rather than dramatized, and the early scenes have a restricted feeling, a revolving-door staginess that has actors entering and exiting too mechanically. Although David Gallo’s office is well designed, the story could use visual opening up to other locales.
Tensions are muted, and events remain moderately interesting rather than absorbing.
The central question of whether to demolish the house that threatens to halt construction of the new complex never looms as a large enough issue to inspire a powerful spectator feeling either for or against.
Part of the problem is Harmond, Wilson’s hero. Carroll, so engaging in TV’s “Chicago Hope,” has built-in warmth and charm. Yet his Harmond lacks edge; he doesn’t seem politically savvy enough to covet a mayor’s position. Carroll doesn’t project the requisite cunning of a politician or the strong economic appetites of a successful Realtor, and his final, somewhat starry-eyed choices register as author concept rather than realistic behavior.
Williams’ Roosevelt is a more intriguing, consistent character. Jovial and enthusiastic at first, practicing his golf swing (in a memorably lighted sequence by Donald Holder, in which the stage is dark except for his ecstatic actions) and charged with excitement when he acquires a radio station, Williams gradually emerges as Harmond’s formidable opponent. He energizes the second act, and his anger about preserving some “raggedy-ass, rodent-infested, unfit-for-human-habitation eyesore” has guts and conviction.
Kenny Leon’s direction encourages the audience to reject Roosevelt and root for Harmond. But when Roosevelt delivers advice to African-American slackers — “Get up off your ass … quit your stealing, quit using drugs, go to school, get a job, pay your taxes” — and Williams does this passionately — he seems more the voice of reason than of ruthlessness.
Portraying cantankerous Barlow, who won’t let go of a house that once was owned by the deceased Aunt Ester (a radiant presence in Wilson’s previous “Gem of the Ocean”), Chisholm remains lively and likable.
Although briskly competent as Mame, Denise Burse’s ambition is too understated, and her final scene with husband Harmond dissolves into unconvincing sentimentality.
Compromised by an unsubstantial protagonist, the overall structure feels curiously off-kilter — much like a housing complex flawed by an old, intrusive home. And Harmond’s climactic, liberating laughter leaves the theatergoer with a sense of dissatisfaction rather than euphoria.