nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 28, 2010
The new Broadway production of August Wilson's Fences is solid drama and solid theatre; if you're looking for something substantial and intellectually stimulating to spend your next hundred dollars on, tickets to this show feel like a good choice.
The play is set in Pittsburgh in the late 1950s, and concerns Troy Maxson, a garbage man who was once a star of the Negro Baseball League. Troy blames white racism for his lot in life: he knows he was one of the best players the game ever saw, but when he was playing, back in the days before Jackie Robinson, a black man couldn't get near the majors.
Troy's wife, Rose, doesn't completely agree with her husband about this, however. Times have changed, she tells him more than once during the play; Troy's age had something to do with his failure to be recruited by a major league team, she argues.
That's the social background of Fences; the main thrust of the play, though—unlike most of Wilson's works—is more personal, as the play plumbs Troy's relationships with his two sons, with his brother Gabriel, with his best friend Jim Bono, and especially with Rose. Troy's older son, in his 30s, is Lyons—he's a musician married to a hard-working woman who supports him, and Troy only ever sees him on paydays, when he comes asking for a loan. The younger son, from his marriage to Rose, is named Cory. Cory is in his last year of high school and is hoping to get to college on a football scholarship, but Troy's own bitter experiences in the world of sports have set him against that idea. Troy's brother Gabriel was severely wounded in World War II, and has a metal plate in his head; he's mentally disabled, but he longs for freedom and so Troy allows him to remain uninstitutionalized, for better or worse.
Bono and Rose are the people who know Troy best, and so their dealings with him are weightier and deeper. Rose, in particular, is long-suffering but still very much in love, and her feelings toward her difficult, proud husband remain unconflicted until a betrayal is discovered that she may not be able to forgive.
I realize, as I read over these paragraphs, that I've made Fences sound like a soap opera, and I guess in a way it is a classy example of the form. The social and economic pressures that underlie Troy's actions have the potential to elevate the piece into the stuff of tragedy, in a league with Death of a Salesman, for example. But I'm not sure that Kenny Leon's production quite manages this: there are some fine performances on view here, and the story unfolds tautly and compellingly, but the sharp jolts of emotional heft didn't happen for me, which was disappointing.
The key problem with this revival lies in the casting choice that is its raison-d'etre: Denzel Washington, a fine actor and a charismatic stage presence, is unconvincing as Troy Maxson, much to the play's detriment. Troy, we are told, is stubborn, uneducated, proud, and over-the-hill; Washington seems none of these things—he's just too youthful, too well-put-together, too handsome, and too sophisticated to make us believe in the character he's portraying. Leon's direction is problematic, too: a bluesy score by Branford Marsalis adds style to the proceedings, but also slows them down; transitions between scenes and especially interludes before each act keep us at a remove from a story we want to enter wholeheartedly.
The other performances are uneven: Stephen McKinley Henderson's, as Bono, is masterful, suggesting the years of oppression and struggle that Washington's fails to without a single calculation or strain; while Chris Chalk and Russell Hornsby, as Cory and Lyons respectively, both feel more contemporary (and older) than their characters should. (Hornsby's Lyons seems to be about the same age as Washington's Troy, which is a problem.) Mykelti Williamson has the showy role of the brain-damaged Gabriel, and he plays it with great resourcefulness. Viola Davis is getting the lion's share of critical praise as Rose, a role that here earns so much audience sympathy that at the performance I attended Davis couldn't get through any of her big speeches without being interrupted by applause and howls of affirmation. Is this great acting? I don't know for sure; but Davis plays the heck out of this role and she certainly seems to be striking a chord with the audience.
I was glad to get to see Fences, having missed its original production 25 years ago; and was certainly pleased to see it in a first class mounting like this one (Santo Loquasto's set design is especially impressive). I can see why it's the Wilson play that had the longest run on Broadway, for it is the most accessible of his works, I think, and the most traditional. It's the only time I've seen one of his plays and not, as a white man, felt somehow culpable for the troubles experienced by the African American characters on stage.