nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 26, 2008
A middle-aged man, a young man, a Bible, and a corpse—these are the simple elements of Beau Willimon's Lower Ninth, set on a warping New Orleans rooftop a day or two after Hurricane Katrina. For a long time, we don't know the relationship between Malcolm and E-Z, only that it's a little combative, a little fraught, and of course it's hard to tell whether that's the result of a couple of days trapped on a roof without food and water, or whether they've always rubbed each other the wrong way. The play begins with a makeshift memorial service for the plastic-wrapped corpse, Lowboy, a friend of E-Z's who drowned trying to protect his car as the waters rose. E-Z and Malcolm are dehydrated, hungry, overheating, miserable, and trying to hold onto some sort of hope of rescue. They play Twenty Questions, Malcolm reads E-Z stories from the Bible, and they wait. Night falls—with indescribable blackness, lit only sporadically by E-Z's Zippo—day returns, and still they wait.
The premise is strong, and simple, melding the existential anxiety of Waiting for Godot with the anxious, anguished national memory of a recent and very dark moment in American history. And of course, there's considerable poignancy and emotional force simply in the inevitable suspense of the situation. But Willimon sometimes seems to lose faith in the story's inherent drama, relying on exposition rather than interaction to bring us into the lives of the characters. Malcolm's transformation from a junkie into a man of faith and a virtual father to the orphaned E-Z; E-Z's loss of his mother some time ago; E-Z's childhood friendship with Lowboy, and the divergent paths their adolescent and young adult lives have taken—all of this comes out in exposition that feels slightly forced. The play's most powerful scene, a dead-of-night encounter between E-Z and the ghost or dream or vision of Lowboy, also suffers the most from heavy exposition.
Lower Ninth most vividly comes to life in its moments of small but telling detail: Lowboy asking E-Z to have him cremated and buried in the yard of the house where they are stranded; E-Z and Malcolm trying to top each other with persnickety rules in a game of Twenty Questions; E-Z trying to pass the time by counting shingles, only to discover that Malcolm, who shingled the roof, knows exactly how many are there. By contrast, the play's bigger emotional revelations often ring less surprisingly true.
Director Daniel Goldstein, aided by Donyale Werle's starkly detailed set and three strong performances by his actors, strongly conveys the edgy, trapped emotional atmosphere; it really feels like Malcolm and E-Z can't leave. The ensemble, three African American actors best known for their television work (James McDaniel from NYPD Blue, Gaius Charles from Friday Night Lights, and Gbenga Akinnagbe from The Wire), is very strong. McDaniel, as Malcolm, least showy of the roles, has a solidity and strength that make his faith almost tangible, the thing that keeps him going. It's hard to imagine him as the drug addict he once was. Charles's E-Z (short for Ezekiel), is the anchor, the emotional center of the play—it's his journey between despair and faith that we're meant to follow. But E-Z is sort of a cipher as a character—we know more about what he isn't (not a gangster, not a student, not yet found his place in the world) than what he is; Charles has a strong physical presence and a genuine sweetness, but we never truly get to know him. Lowboy, too, can feel a little generic as a character, as if the details of his gangster life haven't been fully imagined. When given richer, more evocative material to work with—like foreshadowing for E-Z the circumstances of his own uneventful death—both Akinnagbe and Charles come to life.
I wish Willimon had given them more such moments to work with, had trusted his characters and his set-up more—there's a lot of potential here, and flashes of beauty in the writing, but the play isn't the overall success it comes so close to being.