‘Lift,” Walter Mosley’s world premiere play at New Brunswick’s Crossroads Theater, compacts the life cycle of a romance — encounter, attraction, internal conflicts, vulnerability, and the possibility of genuine love — into a single setting during a short span.
The difference is the black couple experiencing this elided courtship is trapped between the 25th and 29th floor of a Manhattan office building compromised by terrorists’ missiles — its upper stories burning out of control.
The upward elevator car that the pair occupies is thrown off-kilter by the explosion and dangles precariously. A shift of weight, subsequent blast, or plain gravity is liable to hurtle it to the abyss of the skyscraper’s foundation, turning Mosley’s characters from survivors to statistics.
The two characters — the African woman Tina (MaameYaa Boafo) and the African-American man Theodore (Biko Eisen-Martin) — are stuck without refuge in each other’s company until they can be rescued, if they can be rescued.
Unwitting and unwilling partners in calamity, they are also the sole humans on whom each can rely in the smaller emergencies that develop during their confinement, e.g. illness and routine bodily functions, Mosley mixing the mundane and natural with impending mortality. Firefighters bellow updates and angst is expressed from other elevator cars, but Theodore and Tina are essentially alone and abandoned.
Given that the focal characters can perish at any instant, it is clear Mosley brings his knack for creating suspense from the page to the stage. By choosing to concentrate on a single couple, the playwright establishes a world in microcosm, more immediately fragile but equally tension-fraught as the space we inhabit daily, various aspects fostering the need to cooperate, fear of death, affirmation of life, and the sexual frisson between two vital, susceptible individuals.
Mosley may have chosen the British word for an elevator, “lift,” as his title because it denotes more than a literal carriage that transports an individual vertically from one platform to another. It suggests the boost an individual needs, whether to hoist oneself atop an elevator car to ascertain more information or to stay calm and useful during a trying situation. It speaks to the emotional charge when you realize you are with someone with whom you can forge a further relationship, perhaps intimate. It refers to the heightened instincts and responses one has when life and death are literally dependent on balance.
“Lift” covers a lot of human ground in its claustrophobic setting. Though Mosley broaches a plethora of universal topics and mores, he keeps Theodore and Tina decidedly individual instead of establishing them as symbols for all humankind.
The challenge for “Lift’s” director, Marshall Jones III, is to contain all Mosley crams into Theodore and Tina’s time together into a taut production that keeps you on edge and lets you concentrate equally on the double developments of a teetering elevator and an intense personal encounter between two strong but flawed people.
Theatrically, it may be too much to handle. While Mosley — well known for his Easy Rawlins detective novels — constantly adds twists and angles, no real tension radiates from the Crossroads stage. “Lift” remains as emotionally static as the elevator that dominates its situation. Interest and curiosity, literary qualities, take the place of worry, terror, tenuousness, or genuine fear of what might happen to Theodore and Tina. Regard for the characters and their various needs and desires registers because of the affecting performances. Jones’ production has no atmosphere, no dramatic force. It doesn’t grip or stir strong feeling. The Crossroads audience witnesses passion instead of experiencing it, possibly because so much seems episodic instead of organic. Click! Spring this surprise. Click! Oh, she’s not as high minded as we thought. Mosley and Jones foreshadow well, and Eisen-Martin and Boafo win our concern and esteem, but payoffs seem more academic than touching or visceral.
Andrei Onegin’s elevator lurches and crumples scarily before it settles into being a tight, unique stage for Theodore and Tina to reveal their lives. Anne E. Grosz has a perfect eye for how to attire the characters, Tina’s dress being particularly right and attractive. Toussaint Hunt’s sound design creates isolated moments of ominousness. Rocco Di Santi’s lighting is appropriately stark.
Lift, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Trough Friday, April 25. Showtimes are Tuesday, 7 p.m.; Wednesday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 3 p.m. $10 to $65. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.