Unlike those warts-and-all biodramas that humiliate the celebrated figures they profess to humanize, Katori Hall’s imaginative two-hander “The Mountaintop” does, indeed, burnish the legend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Set in Memphis on the eve of his assassination, this soul-stirring drama finds King confiding his doubts, fears and morbid premonitions to a sassy motel maid — a deceptively trite situation that Hall transforms into an emotionally powerful and theatrically stunning moment of truth. Factor in the double dose of charisma from certifiable stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, and this show has wings.
Play comes to town after bowing in a small London theater and transferring to the West End, where it won the 2010 Olivier Award for best play. But the show is almost at its midpoint before it reveals what prompted all that overseas adulation.
Under Kenny Leon’s helming, the creative staff has taken a severely naturalistic approach to the factual aspect of the material, which is grounded in the shabby motel room (a sad hole in the wall, in David Gallo’s design) where King (Jackson) spent the night of April 3, 1968.
The night is dark, there’s a storm outside (nice sound work from Dan Moses Schreier), and threats of violence are keeping King in his room. But the motel doesn’t offer much in the way of creature comforts, and he’s tired, hungry and desperate for a cigarette.
In Jackson’s physically imposing and emotionally honest perf, the great man is also immensely weary — and a bit lonely — after delivering his inspiring “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a rapt congregation at Mason Temple. So when a gorgeous maid named Camae (Bassett, whose range extends from adorable to breathtaking) shows up with a cup of coffee on a tray (and cigarettes and a flask of liquor on her person), he turns on the charm to get her to stay a while.
It’s Camae’s first night on the job and she’s aiming to please, and the flirtatious relationship they strike up is just the sort of thing that a playwright might seize on to “humanize” a legendary figure like King. Indeed, Camae reassures the preacher, “You just a man,” when she catches him eyeing her up. “If I was you, I’d be starin’ at me, too,” she tells him with appealing candor.
Jackson does absolutely the right thing by King, playing all the flaws that make him human without robbing him of his basic dignity. Bassett’s comedic skills come into play when Camae teases him about those flaws — the vanity about his looks, the swaggering pride in his own oratory, the holes in his socks. She also gets behind Camae when the sassy maid taunts King with the memory of the virtuous Malcolm X, who didn’t, she says, “Drank. Smoke. Cuss. Or cheat. On. His Wife.”
Fun as it is, this light banter goes on too long, dragging out what appears to be a famous man’s rather awkward seduction of an irresistible maid. But when Hall is finally ready to drop her cover and declare her true intentions, she does so in a big, big way.
With a magisterial wave of her hand and an abrupt shift in theatrical style, the scribe lets it be known that this is no ordinary night. This night King walks into his own Garden of Gethsemane and falls on his knees to face his terror and despair, to confess his fears and doubts about his mission, and to pray for the strength to accept his martyrdom. But throughout King’s long night of existential darkness, one young playwright has seen to it that he is not alone.