Eclipse Theatre, the company that devotes an entire season to the work of a single playwright, got off to a terrific start earlier this year with its exploration of Lynn Nottage, the Brooklyn-based writer. Its revivals of her scorching 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winner, “Ruined,” and her fiercely poetic 2003 play, “Intimate Apparel,” could not have been better.
The company is far less successful with its third and final production, Nottage’s 1998 “Mud, River, Stone.” Although the drama comes with an intriguing premise, Nottage’s execution is decidedly ham-fisted, and director Andre J. Dymond’s direction fails to find the correct tone that might smooth out some of its innate faults. Nottage clearly was unable to decide whether to make her play a full-out satirical comedy of manners or a tragedy. And Dymond has run into the same problem. Attempting to dance in the middle of these two approaches simply does not work.
MUD, RIVER, STONE SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED When: Through Dec. 14 Where: Eclipse Theatre at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Tickets: $28 Info: (773) 935-6875; www.eclipsetheatre.com Run time: 2 hours with one intermission
The play has a brief preface, as a group of friends gather for a little party in New York, and an upscale black couple, Sarah Bradley (AnJi White) and her husband, David (Robert Hardaway), recount their unexpected adventures during their first trip to Africa. A curtain is then ripped away and the full flashback is played out.
Although Sarah would have much preferred a trip to the Caribbean, David was determined to explore his heritage. But frankly, belief is challenged from the get-go by their decision to just rent a car and go off into some remote section of Southeast Africa rather than signing on to a tour. But OK, let’s say they made a questionable choice.
Not surprisingly the couple find themselves off the map, without gas and caught in the middle of nowhere during a torrential rainstorm. They grab their luggage and hike through the bush until they happen to find a place they see as an oasis, The Imperial Hotel (a handsome set by Kevin Scott). As it happens, it is a microcosm of all that can go wrong in Africa, and the Bradleys, classic Manhattanites, don’t really get it.
Not only has the hotel proprietor fled for the city, but there is no water, no food (only a fully stocked bar) and intermittent electricity. The place also is situated in an area that has been plagued by a bitter civil war. In addition, they are the only guests aside from a regular — the white “businessman,” Mr. Blake (Zach Bloomfield), nephew of the hotel’s builder and a man bitterly resented by Joaquim (Anthony Conway), the hotel’s impoverished “bellboy” and a former soldier in the conflict.
Push comes to shove and Joaquim ends up holding the Bradleys and Blake as hostages along with drop-ins Ama Cyllah (Elana Elyce), a Nigerian woman who runs a local mission, and her laughable assistant, Neibert (Matt Thinnes), a pretentious white, African-born “spirit man” of Belgian descent who fancies himself “a brother.” At one point they are all visited by a European conflict resolution specialist, Simone Frick (Delia Baseman in a hilarious, spot-on performance) — a woman beyond naive and wholly impotent to grant Joaquim’s modest request for grain for his village and a blanket for his mom.
Suffice it to say that there is a whole lot of time-killing chatter here, and then someone dies, though this doesn’t really register much with those involved. Perhaps that is Nottage’s point, but it makes for a rather shallow and belief-stretching story all around.