Theater Review: Regarding The Mountaintop

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Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Bassett as Camae in the new play "The Mountaintop" by Katori Hall, with direction by Kenny Leon and original music by Branford Marsalis. Now in performance at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater (242 W. 45th St). Photo Credit: Joan Marcus. Photo: A new play by Katori Hall/??2011 Joan Marcus

Thunderclaps shake the theater; the deluge outside the window is practically Biblical. But for all the Abrahamic ominousness, not too much actually transpires, emotionally or counterhistorically, in The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s giddy and insouciant yet strangely weightless fantasy about the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Samuel L. Jackson). Not much can happen, of course: The play is set at the end of a life and the beginning of a legend. It’s late on April 3, 1968, less than 24 hours before the civil-rights movement’s godhead will be cut down by an assassin’s bullet on the balcony of Memphis’s Lorraine Motel.

It’s a stunning moment, and we wish it led to more. It doesn’t. Hall steadily gives up every piece of ground she gains, and, for extended stretches, The Mountaintop can feel more like a series of molehills. (A bit on Malcolm X here, five minutes on Coretta Scott King there, a Jesse Jackson joke to put the cherry on top, etc. etc.) Hall wants to get closer to King than the history books and marble monuments allow; in spasms, she achieves that. She gets King to pose for “sexy” photographs, smoking his favorite brand. Jackson, relaxed, relaxes us, too, and allows us into a space we’re generally not permitted. But then Hall loses her resolve and retreats into magic and omen; King recedes, only to return for a final speech — the one thing this play didn’t need to supply. Hall dances gingerly atop the marble monuments, but, for good or ill, she’s not prepared to kick any down, or even leave any graffiti that won’t be washed off in the next downpour.