What makes a play worth reviving? First, of course, the quality of the play itself. Then the quality of the revival.
Eighteen years after the fact, Charles Gordone's Pulitzer Prize-winning "No Place to Be Somebody" at the Matrix proves one thing among many: that for once, the Pulitzer committee (whose track record in this area has been far from illustrious) picked well.
Eighteen years after the smash success of the original production at New York's Public Theatre (and then around the country), this Actors for Themselves revival recovers it all, including a member of the original cast (Ron Thompson, known then as Ronnie) and another member of the national company that played Los Angeles in 1970 (Julius W. Harris).
Both repeat their roles here with undiminished gusto and alacrity. Beyond that, producer Joe Stern has given us a revival that's up to AFT's usual high standards, with astute casting (by Joanna Koehler), powerful direction (Bill Duke), a well-designed bar-room set (Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio) and rich, comical, often poetic performances. Stern brooks no compromise with the full range of Gordone's three-act cornucopia of emotional jolts that come at us like a St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
We're talking another bar-room play here, America's favorite setting. But what you do with it--and in it--is what counts, and Gordone does plenty. So much that one plot is not enough. It takes two or three, nimbly threaded together, to give us the big picture.
On the face of it, "No Place" is an action piece. Black tavern-owner and pimp Johnny Williams (Tony Todd) wants to outwit the white Mafia that runs things in his New York City neighborhood. He wants to be big cheese and he's depending on the return from the slammer of his mentor and father figure Sweets Crane (the wily, deadpan Harris) to provide the support and alliance he believes he needs.
When Sweets gets out though, he's a tired and detached old man with no interest in this game. Johnny goes it alone, and not well.
The maze of subplots involves black and white denizens of the bar--from Johnny's girl, a depressed white hooker named Dee (Cristen Kauffman), and her street partner Evie (Tanya Boyd), to the foolish white/liberal judge's daughter (Lynn Clark), who forces her way into Johnny's life with enough benighted zeal to trigger the disasters that cap the play.
This relationship, more than any other, brands "No Place" as a period piece of the early '70s.
Everyone here has a dream. Dee would like to marry Johnny, get out of the life. Big Mel, the busboy (Benjamin Durand), would rather be dancing. Weasel-eyed Shanty (Thompson), the talentless helper-outer, would rather be drumming. Cora Beasely (Lynnie Godfrey), a regular, wants only to find herself a good man.
Itinerant actor and writer Gabe Gabriel (Franklyn Seales, superb as the Gordone alter ego), would just like his life to work out. He's the peripheral observer who ultimately plays the pivotal hand in "No Place" and who begins (and sometimes ends) each act with some of its most virtuosic speeches.
From the dripping sentimentality of Dee's misbegotten life to the cops-and-robbers scenario of its main men, the abundant humor and the poetic interstices that bridge the story, Gordone leaves no turn unaccounted for. Evie connects smartly with an IBM machine. Cora marries a heart specialist--"from Key-bec" (" Orree-vah-ree, y'all")--and we'll leave the rest of the tale untold and unspoiled.
As in 1970, one is struck by Gordone's color-awareness that is so skillfully rooted in deliberate (and accurate) colorblindness. Good guys and bad exist on both sides of the racial divide. And some of Gordone's most telling speeches cover subjects that might be considered racially sensitive (such as Cora's lament about the dearth of good black males).
Again, the acting is compelling where it matters most, adequate where it matters less. Seales, who rarely disappoints, outdoes himself as the light-skinned black with complicated feelings about what that means and a poet's capacity for articulation. Godfrey is a knockout as the amusing Cora in an agile performance that teeters just this side of being too broad.
There's tremendous power in Harris' laconic Sweets, an aptly infuriating blandness to Clark's judge's daughter and healthy doses of comedy mixed into the Godfrey-Thompson-Jurand sideshows. Vincent Guastaferro is properly dense as Mafioso Mike Mafucci and Jack Kehler properly untrustworthy as Judge Bolton.
It is precisely because this playwright is not afraid to see life through the very wide lens of a very candid camera that "No Place to Be Somebody," for all its overt histrionics and blatant melodrama, achieves and retains the stature that it does. It is, as it was, a vividly expressed adventure story enhanced by the playwright's clear-eyed vision of life as he saw it.
It took Gordone seven years to write "No Place" and he has not written another one since. Better one good play than 10 poor ones. We're told he's been working on another for the past three years. We'll wait for as long as it takes.
'NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODY' A revival of a play by Charles Gordone, presented by Actors for Themselves at the Matrix, 7657 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. Producer Joseph Stern. Director Bill Duke. Set and lighting design Deborah Raymond, Dorian Vernacchio. Costume design Sandi Love. Sound design Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Michael Curtis. Production co-ordinator Darsie Marie. Cast Tanya Boyd, Richard Burns, Lynn Clark, Erwin Fuller, Mark Gates, Lynnie Godfrey, Vincent Guastaferro, Julius W. Harris, Tanna Herr, Benjamin Jurand, Cristen Kauffman, Jack Kehler, Franklyn Seales, Ron Thompson, Tony Todd. Performances run Wednesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $12.50-$15; (213) 852-1445.