Watching Laurence Fishburne as the melodramatically fey drama teacher at a private school is delightful, yet one gets the feeling playwright Alfred Uhry has dumbed things down a bit in his Without Walls.
Uhry wrote the 1987 play, Driving Miss Daisy, as part of his Atlanta trilogy plays and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama. He later adapted the screenplay for the 1989 movie starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Uhry won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
I've won none of those, but I felt as if I was watching a play that had expositional passages where perhaps there might be footnotes in a book. What would Shakespeare be like on stage with footnotes? Long and a bit boring, I think.
Uhry has written a play set in a private school in Manhattan, centering on a gay, black drama teacher and former chorus boy whose teaching style and influence on his students parallels with the fictional character Jean Brodie.
If you haven't seen Maggie Smith in the wonderful 1969 movie, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and if you haven't read the 1962 book by Muriel Spark or even seen the play scripted by Jay Presson Allen who also provided the script for the movie…you needn't worry.
Smith won an Oscar as the misguided yet influential teacher at a girls boarding school and Laurence Fishburne won a Tony for his work in August Wilson's Two Trains Running. You may have seen him as Orpheus, but on stage at the Mark Taper Forum, he'll make you believe he is an eccentric, lonely, gay man in the 1970’s named Morocco.
If you've had a teacher who was a product of the 1960’s let loose in the 1970’s to experiment on non-traditional teaching, I'm sorry. This might bring back bad memories. The school in question is without walls. For this reason, it attracts a troubled boy (Matt Lanter) who lives almost without parental supervision and on very little love.
Morocco's favorite student (Amanda MacDonald) is at first repelled and then attracted to the new boy. From here, a slightly twisted love triangle emerges, but Uhry saves an extra little twist for the end.
Lanter and MacDonald barely hold the stage when Fishburne comes on, but his role is also flashier in the beginning. Lanter twitches and squirms, suggesting a boy, almost a man, too eager to please and willing to be bad to attract attention and go anywhere for love.
In a post performance talk, Fishburne expressed how cautious he felt taking the role because he didn't want to dishonor or insult the people on whom he based his character. In West Hollywood you see a lot of wannabe actors with a dramatic tone and fluttery ways that border on and even cross the border to camp. Fishburne's Morocco has definitely crossed the border with his faux almost British accent.
This play is amusing and a good opportunity to see Fishburne close up and on stage, but the play itself could use some editing and more trust in the intelligence of the audience.
Without Walls, Mark Taper Forum. Ends June 16.