TWO TRAINS RUNNING Play by August Wilson. Directed by Lloyd Richards. At the Walter Kerr Theatre.
`TWO Trains Running" looks like the kind of success that should add to the laurels of playwright August Wilson. Such distinctions already include two Pulitzer Prizes (for "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson") and a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award (for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"). The new addition to the Wilson cycle - one play each for every decade in the 20th century - takes place in 1969 in Memphis Lee's cheerful little restaurant in Pittsburgh's Hill District.
Mr. Wilson gathers fragments, incidents, conversations, and self-declarations from a representative group of African-Americans, gradually assembling them into a human collage. The results are funny and touching and, at times, gripping. At first, the spectator may wonder how the author is going to formulate anything more than an impressionistic sketch from the material provided by these big-city casuals. Trust the author. He knows what he's doing.
The gradually emerging pivotal characters of "Two Trains Running" are Risa, the establishment's ultra-cool waitress-cook, and Sterling, a new arrival whose past includes a recent prison term for bank robbery.
But the playwright pays just attention to all of these interesting denizens. Will restaurant owner Memphis be able to sell a building he owns for the price he has in mind? Will the retarded Hambone emerge at least partially from a long-standing affliction?
As for externals, what about the stir caused by the impending funeral for local prophet Samuel and the rally for Malcolm X? With the directorial aid of long-time associate Lloyd Richards and the work of a first-rate cast, "Two Trains Running" unfolds smoothly in the course of its two acts. Metaphorically speaking, the two trains of the title represent life and death.
While Al White's Memphis runs his little district cafe with a prevailing bonhomie, it is left to the somewhat austere Risa to keep the orders coming, the food cooking, and the customers reasonably satisfied. Cynthia Martells's Risa moves back and forth across the stage at a pace that can only be described as stately. Her gradual response to Sterling's advances reflects the caution of a young woman who bears the scars of self-inflicted pain and who has survived on her own terms in a little world populated
mostly by men. As her would-be partner, Larry Fishburne's glib-tongued Sterling learns to accord Risa the respect she demands.
The veteran Roscoe Lee Browne invests Holloway, a kind of resident patron, with the elder-statesman air his status demands. As West, the bustling local undertaker, Chuck Patterson handles the requirements of his profession with authority and brisk attention to detail. Sullivan Walker makes a touching figure of the hulking, almost inarticulate Hambone. The small assembly is completed by Anthony Chisholm as Wolf, whose numbers-running Memphis barely tolerates, especially when it involves incoming calls tha t tie up the restaurant pay phone.
"Two Trains Running" seems the most comic of the Wilson cycle thus far. Wilson doesn't write jokes. But he finds constant humor in the speech patterns and verbal idiosyncracies of his characters.
The production has been hospitably accommodated in Tony Fanning's cheerful cafe setting, with lighting by Geoff Korf, and costumes by Chrisi Karvonides.
Previously seen in several other cities, the Yale Repertory Theatre production should be entertaining Broadway audiences for months to come. Like any piece of substantial playmaking, "Two Trains Running" is more than a pleasant diversion by a skilled dramatist. It's an experience. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE Drama by Tennessee Williams, directed by Gregory Mosher. Starring Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
The sensational Playbill cover photo for "A Streetcar Named Desire" displays more passion than audiences may expect to encounter on the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The earnest revival of the 1947 Tennessee Williams masterpiece costars Jessica Lange as the doomed Blanche DuBois opposite Alec Baldwin as Stanley Kowalski, her Polish-American nemesis. Mr. Baldwin fares moderately well in the revival directed by Gregory Mosher. But Ms. Lange demonstrates anew that successful movie acting doesn't nec essarily translate into effective stage performance.
The production lacks nothing in the way of atmospherics. Designer Ben Edwards has provided a sleazy New Orleans semi-basement flat with a half-shuttered glimpse of the street outside. Dimly lit by Kevin Rigdon, the premises prove more than suitable to the playwright's tale of decline and disintegration.
The problem lies in the portrayal of the central character. Lange proves less than a match for a neurotic heroine prey to fantasy, illusion, and prevarication. (Recurrent inaudibility presents a further problem.) The intense contrasts provided by the script - notably the conflict between Blanche and her brutish brother-in-law - fail to achieve their full impact.
The other principals fare considerably better. Without diminishing Stanley's macho animality, Baldwin perceives the man's redeeming feature - his elemental devotion to his wife Stella, Blanche's sister. Amy Madigan rewards the role with a refreshing performance of a Stella who has come to terms with her reduced status in life and is undisturbed by her husband's lack of manners.
As the initially deferential Mitch, Timothy Carhart undergoes the requisite transformation from modest attentiveness to disillusionment as Blanche's would-be admirer discovers the tawdry details of her past. Aida Turturro makes occasional contributions as the Kowalskis' upstairs neighbor. James Gandolfini and Lazaro Perez complete the play's poker-table foursome, and Matt McGrath is a cautious but youthfully polite Young Collector. Jane Greenwood has costumed the revival for dramatic effect. Michael Barr ett is credited as musical consultant on the subdued between-scenes jazz breaks.