Reviews BroadwayNYC Published 14 October 2022

Review: The Piano Lesson at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Barrymore Theatre ⋄ 19 September-15 January

Director LaTanya Richardson Jackson brings a revival of August Wilson’s classic play with a starry cast and little splash. Patrick J. Maley reviews.

Patrick Maley

“The Piano Lesson” at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is, on the surface, the story of siblings battling over the fate of a family heirloom. But like all of Wilson’s work, it is about much more than the specific drama of the plot: it is about ancestors and ghosts, family and community, and the great task of characters managing the swirl of supportive and oppressive forces while trying to put one foot in front of the other to make their way in the world as best they can.

In constructing plays with such unwieldy and unfamiliar stylistics, Wilson did directors few favors. His plays are long and uneven, modulating between flashes of emotional intensity, lengthy monologues, relaxed fun, biting social commentary, and tender family or community bonding. And much of any one play’s power comes from its dialogue with the rest of Wilson’s American Century Cycle—ten plays, each exploring Black life in America in a different decade of the twentieth century. But of course only one play can be on stage at a time, and all that is left unsaid between the lines of the script cannot suddenly be given voice. It is therefore the task and the great challenge of the director to maneuver a cast through Wilson’s labyrinth in order to capture the poetry and insight that has made him a giant of the American stage.

For the current Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson, one of Wilson’s most successful and recognizable plays, accomplished actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson is not only taking on the challenge inherent in all Wilson’s plays, but doing so as her major directorial debut. With a blockbuster cast headlined by her husband, Samuel L. Jackson, film star John David Washington, and Danielle Brooks, who has had success on stage but remains best known as Taystee in Orange is the New Black, Jackson and team seem committed to making a splash with big names in big roles.

Ultimately, that splash never comes. This is a fine production with some great moments, but Jackson has not risen fully to the challenge of The Piano Lesson. Instead, she shows her brushstrokes as a directorial novice.

Wilson’s monologues are not blended smoothly into the dialogue; rather, performers come center stage and lights change so that they can speachify as if on a soapbox. Washington’s Boy Willie finds little nuance as his delivery and attitude remain in one consistent register. Brooks’ Berniece is warm and strong, but has little of the edge that makes the sibling rivalry at the play’s center so formidable. Jackson (the actor) is a workable Doaker, but seems miscast as a character who would prefer to stay out of conflict as much as possible. And Jackson (the director) has altered the sequence of the play’s exciting climax in what is either a misreading or a willful altering of the script, but in either case changes and weakens the play’s conclusion (which is punctuated by a heavy-handed bit of scenic trickery).

The Piano Lesson remains a great and important piece of theater, and this production is not without merit. Wilson’s story shines through, and for the most part this cast breathes compelling life into their characters (Michael Potts’ Wining Boy is a particular highlight). But the production’s biggest splash remains in the names on its marquee, and not in any revelatory or exciting work on its stage.


Patrick Maley

Patrick Maley, PhD is a student at Seton Hall University School of Law and author of After August: Blues, August Wilson, and American Drama (University of Virginia Press, 2019). His work also appears in Modern Drama, Theatre Journal, Comparative Drama, Field Day Review, Eugene O'Neill Review, Irish Studies Review, and New Hibernia Review. He also reviews theater regularly for The Star-Ledger and NJ.com.

Review: The Piano Lesson at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre Show Info


Produced by Brian Anthony Moreland, Sonia Friedman, Tom Kirdahy, Kandi Burruss, Todd Tucker, et al

Directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson

Written by August Wilson

Choreography by Otis Sallid

Scenic Design Beowulf Boritt (set), Toni-Leslie James (costumes)

Lighting Design Japery Weideman (lighting), Jeff Sugg (projections)

Sound Design Scott Lehrer

Cast includes Shirine Babb, Danielle Brooks, Charles Browning, Trai Byers, Nadia Daniel, Peter Jay Fernandez, Ray Fisher, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharina Martin, April Matthis, Warner J. Miller, Dorn JéPaul Mitchell, Michael Potts, Kim Sullivan, Jurnee Swan, John David Washington

Original Music Alvin Hough, Jr.

Link
Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 2hr 45min


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