‘Bang the Drum Slowly’ at The American Century Theater by David Friscic

THREE STARS
The American Century Theater (TACT), a stalwart presence in the DC area theatre community, is now presenting the stage adaptation by Eric Simonson of Mark Harris’ novel (the second in a series of four) entitled Bang the Drum Slowly). The material was also adapted to a successful 1973 film starring Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty.

Richie Montgomery as Bruce, Craig Miller as Dutch. Photo by Johannes Markus.

Richie Montgomery as Bruce, Craig Miller as Dutch. Photo by Johannes Markus.

The American Century Theater has long provided such classic American fare as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, Marathon 33, and I Do! I Do! All three of these productions and others I have seen and written about were superb and TACT “knocked them right out of the ballpark.” I commend them for the attempt at their current effort  but the performance I saw on Saturday night did not fully tap into the promise and potential of this play. Director Ellen Dempsey had not yet succeeded in pulling together the disparate threads of a story that involves baseball team cohesion, competition in the sports arena and – above all – the respect and admiration of baseball player Bruce Pearson (Richie Montgomery) who is dying of Hodgkin’s Disease. And the performance of the character of Henry “Author” Wiggins (Evan Crump), who also functions as a narrator of the proceedings as well as the linchpin from which all the proceedings evolve, lacked emotional power.

The pacing of the scenes for this huge cast of fifteen people also was too turgid and plodding; scenes did not blend organically and intruded on one another in a haphazard fashion.

The mooring point of the show is the lead character of Henry “Author” Wiggins. I was disheartened and surprised (because I am a fan of his work) that Evan Crump’s performance showed little psychological acuity, inflection, or shading in his role. Whether interacting with others or standing and delivering a monologue, Crump delivered it in a most wooden and monotone manner, lacking any charisma. For example, when his teammate, Pearson, asked him to hug him in the spirit of consolation – the moment was hollow and wasted.

In the role of the Bruce Pearson, Richie Montgomery was alternately vulnerable, amusing, and touching in all his scenes. Montgomery showed just the right notes of disarming wit and matter-of-fact demeanor.

 Evan Crump (Author) and Lizzi Albert (Katy). Photo by Johannes Markus.

Evan Crump (Author) and Lizzi Albert (Katy). Photo by Johannes Markus.

The supporting performance of the crusty coach, Herman “Dutch” Schnell (Craig Miller) is superb in its’ infinite variety and authority. John Tweel as Harold “Goose” Williams is also wonderfully effective in his supporting performance. Also effective are some of the ensemble scenes involving the baseball camaraderie in the locker room especially the scene when “The Streets of Laredo” is sung.

The set design by Brandon Guilliams, lighting design by Pete Caress, and Marilyn Johnson’s costume design were solid.

Running Time: Two hours, with one fifteen-minute intermission.

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Bang the Drum Slowly plays through February 1, 2014 at The American Century Theater at Theatre Two in the Gunston Arts Center – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call (703) 998-4555, or purchase them online.

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