Audiences are being lured to The Mountaintop by the star wattage of Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in a play about the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. But Katori Hall's Olivier Award-winning biodrama thankfully doesn't give the slain civil-rights leader a Hollywood-style treatment. Set in King's Memphis motel room on the eve of his assassination in 1968, this exciting and demonstrative new play combines biography, magical realism and even inspirational drama into a piece that beautifully explores the vastness of time and the interconnectedness of human existence.
Hall's two-hander pits Jackson's beleaguered but still dynamic King against Bassett's feisty, impressionable Camae, a motel worker who brings him a late-night coffee and becomes confidant, object of desire and spiritual adviser as a thunderstorm rages outside. When Camae's celestial origins are accidentally revealed, the play takes a sharp turn from naturalism to mysticism but manages not to veer off course. (The playwright is even nervy enough to put King on the phone with God.) Hall, Bassett, Jackson and director Kenny Leon smartly balance the play's heavy themes with its playful comedic instances, somehow creating a harmonious whole from seemingly disparate elements. Jackson makes King's ambivalence a vital force, but it's Bassett who delivers a powerhouse turn that culminates in a breathtaking, emotionally wrought final monologue.
For some, Hall's fatalistic world vision—no matter who we are we cannot change the course of destiny—may seem naïve and easy to sneer at, and if you can't check your snarkiness at the door for 90 minutes, this probably won't be the show for you. But although it's not didactically immune, The Mountaintop sweeps along with such heart and humanity that many will inescapably buy into Hall's divine scheme.
By Diane Snyder
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Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036