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NY Theater Reviews

Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett/ Ph: Joan Marcus.

NO FOOTHOLDS

By MATT WINDMAN

A play about Martin Luther King starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett – you'd expect that to be good, right? You'd be wrong.

How can a play about a revered historical figure that allegedly received wild acclaim recently in London turn out to be so terrible?

The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s two-character drama about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination, had been eyeing a Broadway bow for some time. Halle Berry was originally slated to co-star, but the play’s female role ultimately went to Angela Bassett. Samuel L. Jackson, in his Broadway debut, plays King.

The 90-minute, intermission-less drama is set in room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. King, right after having delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, enters while escaping from heavy rain outside. After checking the phone for bugging devices, he uses his charm to get room service to send up some coffee.

After practicing in front of the mirror, Camae, a chatty and attractive chambermaid, arrives at the door. Clearly a fan, she gushes over King’s work with a nervous but giddy air. King, obviously attracted to her, uses her as a sounding board while Camae shares her own thoughts on civil rights. Their flirtation continues until she happens to call King by his Christian name. King, alarmed by her breadth of knowledge, demands to know who she really is.

The show’s production team has specifically asked reviewers to not reveal any plot twists (i.e. the maid’s real identity), but let’s just say it’s a supernatural revelation that turns what had previously been a mediocre bio-drama into a ridiculous embarrassment.

Kenny Leon, who staged the Denzel Washington-led revival of Fences, brings out strong chemistry between Jackson and Bassett. Jackson successfully highlights King’s smoothness and insecurities. Bassett, while genuinely sexy, is also jittery to the point of irritation.

If not much else, The Mountaintop leaves its audience hungry for a more substantial play about King – for instance, one without a silly pillow fight where feathers fly into the audience.