‘Things of Dry Hours’

“I am a teacher at a local Sunday school. I sing in the choir at my church. I eat apples and save the seeds. And I pay my two cents a month dues as a member and unit leader of the Communist party of Alabama. Hallelujah.”

— Tice

It took a little research to find out what is meant by the title of Naomi Wallace’s play “Things of Dry Hours” (there is no clue in the play or in the program). Derived in part from a line (“We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan”) in a poem, “Kitchenette Building,” by African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), it means that it is the unexpected things in our life that makes us who we are.

Wallace’s intense, emphatically poetic drama is set in 1932 in Birmingham, Alabama, during the depth of the Great Depression. The play revolves around three people, a black father and daughter and a white man who intrudes fatefully in their life. During this period in American history Communism found a receptive territory among unemployed, poverty-stricken Americans. Social disorder was particularly encouraged among the Black American Southern communities where many were recruited as an activist force for liberation and as a new hope for the working class. The playwright uses this incendiary landscape to weave a story as much embraced by metaphors, symbols, and metaphysical happenings as it is cloaked in a grim reality.

Wallace, whose “The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek” and “One Flea Spare” stand out for their fertile word-play and use of historical settings, has a predominantly poetic voice. If, in the case of “Things of Dry Hours,” the text often sounds like a struggle between abstracted naturalism and artistic narcissism, perhaps that is a compliment. However, the result can be a cause for tedium.

It takes only a short time to realize that Tice Hogan (Delroy Lindo), the sturdy, strong, and vital figure who appears to have leaped from a moving train, is really a ghost. Following his opening monologue, in which his dead self considers his fear of “the knock on the door,” and the nature of apples and friendship, he segues into the man he was.

Indeed, a knock on the door could mean the police, the Klan, or in this instance, Corbin Teel (Garret Dillahunt), a fugitive who believes he has killed a foreman in a factory. Corbin claims that he was told that he could depend on Tice to hide him until it was safe for him to leave. It is an uneasy situation for the middle-aged Corbin, whose life revolves around the words in two books — the Bible and the Manifesto of the Communist Party. A literate, if impoverished out-of-work widower, Tice preaches the Lord’s words from a pulpit in Sunday school even as he preaches Karl Marx on a soap box in the park. Although he is obsessed with reading and in contemplating whether human nature can be changed, Tice remains suspicious and wary of Corbin.

Tice’s resolve to not be involved with women is replaced by his devotion to his widowed daughter, Cali (Roslyn Ruff), who works as a laundress for a wealthy family. Although Cali has similarly sworn off men in the light of her unhappy marriage, she is notably energized when she steps into the odd mate-less shoe collection she has usurped from that family. The extended presence of the illiterate Corbin, who claims he wants to be trained by Tice as a Communist activist, presents a challenge to them. Perhaps he is more than that to Cali, who begins to feel the beginnings of a sexual tension growing between her and Corbin.

A triple threat as a playwright, actor, and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson is here wearing only his director’s hat. He works wonders with the lugubrious and occasionally funny text for optimum effects. A scene in which the white sheets on Cali’s bed rise and float around the room (possibly symbolic of the Klan) to the strains of Rachmaninoff is effectively eerie. Much of the play’s mood is entrusted to lighting designer Marcus Doshi, whose added atmospherics add considerably to Richard Hoover’s simple but effective set design.

Lindo, who was Tony-nominated for his role as Herald Loomis in the original Broadway production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” gets Tice’s message out loudly, clearly, and with an impassioned conviction that keeps the play steady on its course. Ruff, another alum of August Wilson (the Signature Theater revival of “Seven Guitars”), seethes with suppressed fire and surface ice as the emotionally confused Cali. To Dillahunt’s credit, he keeps us guessing, as he should, with Corbin’s on-again off-again displays of lust and loyalty. There is no guess work regarding Wallace’s theme: that try as we might we can’t change human nature. But, neither can we change the way a poet like Wallace is disposed to embrace dramatic literature. **

“Things of Dry Hours,” through Sunday, June 28, New York Theater Workshop, 79 East 4th Street. $65. 212-239-6200.

‘Coraline’

"Mum and Dad and I we live on the second floor of this old house that was once one house but is now divided into flats. Above, in the attic under the roof, is a crazy old man who says he’s training a mouse circus. On the ground floor below are two old women who say they were once actresses."

— Coraline

Whoever gets the credit for casting Jayne Houdyshell as a young girl in this musical stage version of Neil Gaiman novel Coraline should take a bow. As the titular character, the courageous Houdyshell is not only totally believable in a role significantly far from her own age but also delightful. This Tony-nominated actress bowled us over for the first time as the mother who healed sick neighborhoods but found solace tethered to her La-Z-Boy in Lisa Kron’s “Well.” Rather than mention the other roles that have continued to validate Houdyshell as one of our foremost character actresses, let me say that she endears herself instantly and continuously as the precocious English girl with a vivid imagination who loves to explore. In Coraline she is the heart and soul of a musical that unfortunately is constructed around too many incredulously conceived and performed characters.

Undoubtedly Houdyshell’s success in portraying the title character has been sparked by Leigh Silverman who also directed her in “Well.” Silverman certainly had her work cut out disciplining the fantastical and metaphysical elements that weave through this story. If she has purposely blurred the boundary that separates a dream from reality, she has succeeded. Where her direction falters is in not keeping a tighter rein on the essential group of supporting actors who unfortunately drift in their portrayals between the amateurish and the acquiescent.

Arriving within a year of the release of a successful cartoon version of the novel, “Coraline” is an adaptation for the stage with some “compressing and conflating,” as noted in the program, by David Greenspan, who not only wrote the musical’s book but takes a prominent role as the Other Mother. In creative partnership with Stephin Merritt (music and lyrics), there is evidence that Greenspan has labored rigorously to grace the short novel (first published in 2002) with a conspicuously audacious sense of theatricality. Much of it, however, falls as flat as the singing, with Houdyshell the notable exception.

It is a good thing that Coraline gets and deserves our attention as she shares with us her annoyance with her workaholic parents (January LaVoy and Francis Jue), who are too preoccupied to notice how much she craves their attention. The family has just moved into a second story flat within a large home, presumably a once stately mansion that has been converted into separate apartments. Set designer Christine Jones and lighting designer Ben Stanton have done a super job creating a basic environment of musty fixtures and relics that transposes itself from the mundane to the mysterious and foreboding with a minimum of ado and fuss.

Serving as confidant/narrator Coraline is especially curious about her new home. She begins to notice that certain things are not exactly normal when rats begin to creep up (as do the songs) from among the floor-boards and that one locked door that . . . well, you know. Of course, traipsing about the damp surroundings in and out of the house in her green rubber boots, Coraline suddenly finds she has entered a world that mirrors her own even as she meets oddly familiar characters that appear sincere, but soon become suspiciously sinister and even frightening.

Although Coraline’s subsequently scary adventures are a barely disguised mirror of Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, Gaiman’s little girl is obviously in more serious danger in this alternate universe. We are also not altogether surprised when the “Other Mother” turns out to be less loving than she first appears and wants Coraline to stay forever. The Other Mother has a nasty end that echoes the demise of the bad witch in “The Wizard of Oz.” It similarly resounds with melodramatic excess. In this blood-curdling finaletto “Falling,” Greenspan gets to span more octaves than have been attempted since the hey-day of Yma Sumac (famed during the mid-20th century as “the nightingale of the Andes” for her octave-spanning vocals).

Considering that this is a musical, there has apparently not been much of an effort to encourage the supporting cast of non-singers to hit the prescribed notes. This may, however, be attributed to the accompaniment supplied by Phyllis Chen at a derelict un-tuned piano. Chen also plunks the piano’s seemingly warped strings throughout the show with aplomb. In considering Merritt’s curious-er and curious-er score, in which the notes follow one another gainfully and mercifully without bumping into each other, there is often something to admire in the lyrics. You have to laugh when Coraline sings about her parents’ cooking: “Dad cooks chicken — and says it’s free range. But he stews it with prunes — and he’s always basting it. Mom cooks chicken — but it comes in frozen packages, and I hate tasting it.”

The story’s significant others are an odd bunch, all of whom live in the different quarters (real or imaginary) in the house where alter-egos and dead spirits are apt to be afoot. Francis Jue, who was so marvelous two seasons past playing 17 characters in David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face,” is again proving his versatility as the Father and, among others, the elderly retired actress Miss Forcible who lives with another has-been Miss Spink (LaVoy). Together they re-live highlights of their careers and even perform a decidedly grotesque vaudeville act for the understandably unappreciative Coraline.

Elliot Villar cavorts amusingly as the eccentric Mr. Bobo who lives on the upper floor and spends his time training a mouse circus, and who also persists on calling Coraline Caroline. Presumably the talking Cat, as played with a grin and some degree of grace by Julian Fleisher, comes from Cheshire and proves a dependable and affectionate companion to Coraline. If you are inclined more to grinning than guffawing, you may find that your time is not ill-spent with Coraline as she discovers that there is no place like her real home and her real parents. In any case, it would have been fun to see Coraline click her green rubber boots three times as everyone sings, “Amazing? Keep chasing your tale. O! Follow your tale.” **

“Coraline,” through Sunday, July 5, Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street. $65 to $95. 212-279-4200.

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