What plagues The Book of Lambert is how often Lee’s execution doesn't match the high level of his conceit. For a Biblical narrative to work, every word has to drip with a sense of deep, epic emotion without seeming self-important. This is a virtually impossible task, and even the best writers have only partially succeeded in maintaining such a high level (even the Bible). Over the course of the play's 150 minutes, Lee does occasionally reach poetic heights, but more often that elevated dialogue is cheapened with the kind of jive talk Lambert would naturally feel uncomfortable around. There are also times when the dialogue feels extremely childish, almost patronizing the audience.
It’s unclear whether the inconsistent maturity of Lee’s dialogue is a product of his struggle to achieve truly great literature, or of the same kind of insecurities Lambert feels in leaving his cultural roots. August Wilson, Baldwin, and others were often able to mix banter with heady philosophical speech effectively, yet Lee seems genuinely perplexed by how to achieve the correct balance. It’s no wonder The Book of Lambert proved a perpetual frustration to Lee over his career; he had a radical new conception of black literature, but lacked a practical way of expressing it.
On balance, however, at the end of the play, it feels like the successes of the content win out over the failures of style.
The Book of Lambert by Leslie Lee; directed by Cyndy A. Marion; set design by Andis Gjoni; lighting design by Russel Phillip Drapkin; costume design by David B. Thompson; music by Joe Gianono Fight; dramaturgy by Maxine Kern; choreography by Michael G. Chin.
Starring Clinton Faulkner (Lambert), Heather Massie (Virginia), Joresa Blount (Bonnie), Sadrina Johnson (Priscilla), Gloria Sauvé (Zinth), Arthur French (Otto), Howard L. Wieder (Clancy), and Omrae Smith (Miss Wambaugh).
The Book of Lambert runs through March 1 at La MaMa (74 A. East Fourth Street). Tickets can be purchased at LaMama.org.