Fences Review: Denzel Washington Bats It In
Troy Maxson, the character played by Denzel Washington in the must-see revival of August Wilson’s “Fences,” is greeted by foot-stamping cheers from the audience in the Cort Theater, surely the most ecstatic whoops of delight ever for a Pittsburgh garbage collector. There was a time, though, when Troy was himself a star.
“Ain’t but two men who ever played baseball as good as you,” his best friend Bono tells him. “That’s Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson.” Bono might just be telling Troy what he wants to hear, but, however good he actually was, he lived at a time when people of Troy’s race were barred from major league baseball – and from much else in American life.
But Troy did play in the Negro Leagues, and hit seven home runs off the great Satchel Paige. “You can’t get no better than that,” he tells the youngest of his two sons. He says this proudly, defiantly, but also angrily, and in resignation. It is a phrase that, perhaps unconsciously, he means literally. It is 1957, he is 53 years old, and however hopeful others might be about the change that will be coming for African-Americans, Troy is convinced that things will in fact never get any better.
Denzel Washington is not as physically large as the actor who, to great acclaim, originated the role of Troy on Broadway in 1987, James Earl Jones. But through the magic of his performance, Washington sometimes seems as big as a bear, whether giving a tremendous hug to his wife (the incomparable Viola Davis) or growling warning at his son. Other times, he seems both small and small-minded. Troy is a compulsive storyteller (“you got more stories than the devil got sinners”), an expansive charmer, and also an embittered, limited and illiterate black man; orderly, hard-working, dutiful; stubborn, unreasonable, irresponsible — a complex and believable human being, and Washington embraces this character in all his mercurial contradictions. It is a different interpretation than the original one of a giant fenced-in by circumstances, but it is one of the many things that work in a production that does justice to August Wilson’s deeply moving play.
“Fences” is part of what is sometimes called the Pittsburgh Cycle, 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, that was August Wilson’s singular achievement, written over more than two decades and completed the year of his death in 2005. They all offer specific details of time and place and character and yet, individually and taken together, provide nothing less than a portrait of the African-American experience.
“Fences” was only the second he wrote in the cycle, and is not the best of them – although good enough to have won every big theater award, from the Tony Award for Best Play to the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and for Frank Rich to have written: “’Fences’ leaves no doubt that Mr. Wilson is a major writer, combining a poet’s ear for vernacular with a robust sense of humor (political and sexual), a sure instinct for crackling dramatic incident and a passionate commitment to a great subject. “
Wilson’s later work more smoothly integrates the turns in the plot so that they seem to spring from the characters rather than feeling imposed by the author. In “Fences,” Troy makes a sensational revelation to his wife in the second act that seems to come out of nowhere. (A careful reading of the script shows that Wilson had actually planted clues in the first act, but it still feels abrupt). In a lesser production, the play might from then on have felt derailed, veering into domestic melodrama. Viola Davis, best-known on stage for her Tony-winning performance in Wilson’s “King Hedley II” and on screen for her Oscar-nominated performance as the mother of the (possibly) abused student in “Doubt,” seemed to me almost single-handedly responsible for keeping the play on track, her feelings shaded, moving, and not melodramatic. She and Washington are well-matched. I am not sure I have ever witnessed two actors angrily yelling at each other with such clarity and control.
The real plot in “Fences” is in the artful revelation of character, not just Troy’s but the people who surround him — his wife Rose, his long-time friend Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, a veteran and exquisite interpreter of Wilson’s work); his brain-damaged brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), the older son Lyons whom he all but abandoned (Russell Hornsby), the teenage son Cory (Chris Chalk) — ensemble acting at its finest. Their characters come through in the niggling little arguments (humorous to outsiders) that families repeat endlessly, and in the many stories told to one another of past events and future dreams. Much of what’s happening, as told through incidents on stage but also through recollection, is a tale of fathers and sons, battling one another, escaping one another and becoming one another. Cory wants to play football and has been recruited by a college football team; Troy wants him to work at the local supermarket:
“The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can’t nobody take away from you.”
Times have changed, more than one family member tells Troy, his son is just trying to be like him. Times haven’t changed, Troy says; the last person I want him to be like is me.
In addition to Santo Loquasto’s solidly realistic set, Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, and spot-on costumes by Constanza Romero (the playwright’s widow), Branford Marsalis has composed bluesy music for the beginning of each act. It’s nice, but it’s not necessary. This production of “Fences” fills the Cort Theater with music.
Follow Jonathan Mandell on the New York Theater Twitter account.
Fences by August Wilson
at the Cort Theater (138 West 48th Street)
Directed by Kenny Leon
Original music by Branford Marsalis
Set design by Santo Loquasto, costume design by Constanza Romero, lighting design by Brian MacDevitt, sound design by Acme Sound Partners
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Chris Chalk, Eden Duncan-Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, SaCha Stewart-Coleman, Mykelti Williamson
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Ticket prices: $61.50 to $131.50. Premium seats as high as $326.50. There are apparently no rush or student tickets available.
Recommended for age 13 and older. Under 4 not permitted.
Through July 11th.
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