August Wilson’s great play The Piano Lesson, perhaps his defining work, has returned to Broadway (at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through January 29) for the first time since its 1990 triumph there, shortly after it won the Pulitzer Prize. The revival has a few rough edges, but it’s still one of the most important offerings of the season. It’s also an implicit rebuttal to the party-line propaganda on race that has overwhelmed the stage in recent years.

The revival has a pleasing symmetry: Samuel L. Jackson, then an unknown, originated the part of the young Southern hothead Boy Willie when the play debuted at the Yale Rep in 1987. Now Jackson has returned to portray Willie’s sensible uncle Doaker Charles and is appearing for the first time onstage under the direction of his wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson. The younger man is played by John David Washington, whose father Denzel is one of the foremost interpreters of Wilson’s work. Washington père has done much to keep Wilson in the public eye since the playwright’s 2005 death, having starred in the stage and screen versions of Fences and produced an incendiary film iteration of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for Netflix a couple of years ago.

Ma Rainey starred a volcanic Chadwick Boseman in the lead role, a character very similar to the one John David Washington is taking on now. Both plays develop Wilson’s great theme: that though massive historic injustices have been visited upon black folks, these wrongs must be kept locked up in the past rather than encouraged to roam free in the present. To dwell on them and treat them as though they demand a fresh response invites a cycle of vengeance and bloodshed that is, in Wilson’s work, a continuing plague on black people. Very often the past violence and degradation visited on blacks by whites is transmuted into current aggression by blacks against other blacks, as in the climactic action of Ma Rainey, in which one black musician murders another in a dispute ostensibly born in the one stepping on the other’s shoe but which is actually rooted in the attacker’s anger at being cheated by a white record producer.

Michael Potts and Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

John David Washington, who has steadily built his reputation as a screen actor with his cool restraint in films such as Tenet and BlacKkKlansman, pushes hard in the opposite direction with a flamboyantly loud and bitter performance as a fast-talking Boy Willie, who at the outset of the play appears in 1936 at the Pittsburgh house that his sister Berniece (a pleasing Danielle Brooks) shares with their uncle Doaker (Jackson). Boy Willie turns up alongside a lunkish and slow-witted companion, Lymon, with whom he has acquired (possibly stolen) a truckload of watermelons the pair intend to sell at a big profit after driving all the way from Alabama with their cargo. Ray Fisher unexpectedly steals the show with his baffled drawl and his witty line readings as the large and ungainly Lymon.

As for Washington, who speaks so rapidly and with such a thick Southern accent that I had difficulty catching some of his words, he comes across as trying too hard to expand his boundaries as a performer. To put it another way, he spends the entire evening shouting every line at top speed. The director, Jackson, bears some part of the blame for not drawing a more nuanced performance from her young star, a former professional football player with very little stage experience.

Yet Wilson’s play remains a towering work. In the piano the playwright devised one of the most powerful symbols of black American experience ever imagined in any medium. In the instrument—an upright worth over $1,000 even in 1936—Wilson has poured slavery, forced family separation, the weight of history, rage, a blood feud, and the role of song as salve and connective thread down the generations when very little else could be kept intact. Boy Willie spends the play scheming to sell the piano, which is equally owned by him and Berniece, in order to use the money (along with the proceeds from selling the watermelons) to buy the cropland of Sutter, the farmer whose family in previous generations owned Boy Willie’s family. In a lengthy digression, Doaker explains that the piano was purchased by one of the previous generation of Sutters during the slaveholding era for his wife—paid for with two slaves, a mother and her child. This meant destroying a family for the sake of assuaging a lady’s need for some entertainment. The lady missed the two slaves, however, so in their memory the traded woman’s husband, a carpenter, carved lovingly detailed likenesses of her and their child, as well as other family members, into the body of the piano. Boy Willie’s father then stole the piano, which he saw as representing both the images and the blood of his family, from the Sutters, and was killed for his trouble. The present Sutter died when he fell down a well under murky circumstances, but as the play goes on it becomes obvious that Boy Willie pushed him down the well with an eye toward finally reversing the wrongs of the past and gaining control of Sutter’s farmlands himself. The level-headed Doaker points out that the land is no longer worth very much, and if the family is willing to sell it to someone as analytically unblessed as Boy Willie, the sale is likely to amount to something of a swindle. Sutter’s vengeful ghost now inhabits the piano, and the play heads for a climactic confrontation with that restless spirit.

Handling that confrontation presents a major challenge for a director: although in the early going the ghost exists merely as a matter of discussion, it actually appears before the end of the play. The supernatural element was highly uncharacteristic of Wilson’s work, which ordinarily stuck closely to kitchen-sink realism, and the technical matter of how to present the ghost is mishandled here. The play ends with a sensation of twopenny horror rather than serious art. A more imaginative director would have created a coup de théâtre here; as it is, the climax is at best adequate, not awe-inspiring.

Younger readers will have noticed that there comes a time in a man’s life—say, the stroke of midnight on his fiftieth birthday—when he becomes extravagantly interested in discussing his various aches, maladies, prescription regimens, “procedures,” doctors, and real or imagined run-ins with death. What younger readers may not suspect is that, about the time one becomes a verbal fount of woe, one tends also to become deeply interested in other people’s tales of bodily breakdown and decay. Others are suffering too! And in many cases they’re even worse off than I! It’s an endlessly cheery thought. Which is why hearing Mike Birbiglia discuss his bladder cancer, possible heart disease, near-fatal episodes of sleepwalking, and type 2 diabetes in his monologue The Old Man and the Pool (at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center through January 15) constitutes such a splendid evening.

But I’m being slightly unfair; Birbiglia is a terrific comic writer and performer, with precision timing and superb phrasing, and though I can’t get enough of other people’s medical trauma, he brilliantly elevates each anecdote into comic splendor. Beginning with a story of how he was asked to blow into a tube at his doctor’s office and was told that his breathing was so weak it was at the same level as a man actually experiencing a heart attack, he takes us through a digression-filled reflection on his various medical scares, noting along the way that both his father and grandfather suffered heart attacks at fifty-six. Birbiglia is in his mid-forties and has a seven-year-old daughter to live for. His explanations of why he was disinclined to, say, eat healthier foods or take up exercise are thoroughly convincing. Who wants to eat vegetables or break a sweat? Birbiglia also delves into some childhood trauma relating to an early trip to the ymca when he was growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts: he didn’t enjoy being exposed to quite a lot of penises at eye level. Nor could he shake the image of an old man slowly and lavishly applying talcum powder to his testicles, hence the title of the show.

Mike Birbiglia in The Old Man and the Pool. Photo: Emilio Madrid.

As directed by Seth Barrish on a set with a curved backdrop that suggests a cresting wave, the show differs only slightly from an ordinary stand-up-comedy routine. Some adjustments to the projections suggest a swimming pool or a doctor’s office, and the performer obligingly moves around the stage or lies down to recreate, for instance, the experience of snuggling with his daughter. Birbiglia is an ordinary-looking, ordinary-seeming chap who eschews all traces of the please-love-me mugging that characterizes many stand-ups, and his self-deprecating observations are completely engaging. Recalling his early onset distaste for exercise, he notes that he enjoyed only the first part of the push-up, meaning the part where you lie down. When his doctor told him to take up swimming if he wished to get his heart into better shape, he said, “I don’t have a swimmer’s body. It’s more of a drowner’s body.” When he missed a weekly appointment in the pool, he skipped a second week as well because “it was so fun not going the first time.” How can we not like Mike Birbiglia? He is everyman.

I hope I’m not giving anything away when I report that, despite his ongoing woes, the comic seems to be in good health. His bladder cancer was never treated on the suspicion that it might simply settle in and do no harm, and so it has indeed done. He undergoes regular checkups that involve camera surveillance, and how the camera makes its way into the bladder provides him with some typically wry one-liners. He has gotten the diabetes under control, and has even managed to get in the swimming pool five times a week. The passing mentions of his daughter, Oona, clarify how he accomplished this last feat: though we men do have a tendency to destroy ourselves, if there’s any force on earth that can dissuade us from so doing, it’s the face of a little girl. When we fail at living for ourselves, we sometimes do just fine when it comes to living for others.

Birbiglia, for all of his lumpen traits, is a sneakily charismatic man, with a smile charming enough to fill a very large theater. The Vivian Beaumont would seem a strange place for a slightly embellished stand-up routine, but I certainly haven’t seen anything this funny on Broadway in years, and laughs are laughs. The advantage to ticket buyers is obvious: it’s so hard for a show as simple as this one to sell out a space of this size that cheap seats are bound to be obtainable at the last minute. Running a sprightly ninety minutes, The Old Man and the Pool is one of the major delights of the season.

Richard Greenberg’s funny, smart, and ultimately tragic baseball play Take Me Out, which first hit Broadway in 2003 and returned last spring for a revival before shutting down and transferring to the Schoenfeld Theatre (through February 5), is a reminder that, until very recently, any play that hoped to reach Broadway had to offer something other than a politically correct cri de coeur. Though the play deals with racism and, especially, anti-gay prejudice, it can’t be dismissed as yet another tiresome indulgence of vacuous sloganeering.

Equally surprisingly, there is evidently much love for, and knowledge of, baseball contained in the play. Greenberg was plainly inspired by late-nineties baseball, when the New York Yankees (lightly disguised as the New York Empires) were preeminent and the biracial shortstop Derek Jeter seemed (like Tiger Woods at the same time and Barack Obama after him) to constitute an appealing model of nonconfrontational assimilation and cross-racial harmony. The Jeter cognate in the play, Darren Lemming (Jesse Williams), is not only proud to call himself both black and white, he also announces to the public that he is gay.

Michael Oberholtzer (Shane Mungitt), Bill Heck (Kippy Sunderstrom), and Jesse Williams (Darren Lemming) in Take Me Out. Photo: Jeremy Daniels.

Homosexuality is of course a central concern of the Broadway sensibility but remains totally off-limits in Major League Baseball. To this day, no currently rostered member of any Major League Baseball team has publicly stated that he is gay. Yet to its credit, the play sketches out a scenario in which the first openly gay ballplayer is publicly and privately supported. Darren continues to enjoy sparkling conversations with his thoughtful best friend on the team, Kippy Sunderstrom (Bill Heck), and as for the knuckleheads on the Empires, one of whom is a bit grumpy about being obliged to shower and dress in front of a gay man, they mostly do their best to be accommodating. Though the team is in a slump, Darren is having a wonderful season, and his financial adviser Mason Marzac (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) tells him he’s so rich he should think about starting a foundation. Darren considers this for a moment and decides the object of his charity should be psychologically damaged kids under the age of ten. This thought amounts to a sort of monkey-paw prophecy: a product of exactly the sort of environment Darren imagines turns up on the team, and he’s a phenomenally talented relief pitcher who single-handedly reverses the Empires’ losing habits. Too bad he’s a racist gay-basher who uses words like “spic” and “faggot” in media interviews.

The new teammate, Shane Mungitt (powerfully and chillingly portrayed by Michael Oberholtzer in the showiest role in the play), had such a disjointed upbringing that, when asked where he was born, he offers, “Arkansas. Tennessee.” Or maybe Mississippi. Shane’s dad killed his mom, then himself. As an infant, he was present for these events. Life has not gone well for him. The second great surprise of the play is that, instead of making Shane into a simple object of detestation, Greenberg burrows into his psyche and makes the audience pity him, even as they may remember how much they hated the late-nineties relief pitcher John Rocker, a member of the Atlanta Braves who was excoriated after making racist and anti-gay remarks about New York and saw his career dissolve shortly thereafter. The relationships among Darren, Shane, and a third player, Davey (Brandon J. Dirden), a conservative Christian from a rival team who is a close friend to Darren, blur all lines about prejudice, hate, and responsibility in a crackling ending.

Greenberg’s play attracted considerable attention on both its Broadway runs for the nudity it features in several scenes set in lockers and dressing rooms. Ticket-buyers to the latest production are required to put their mobile phones in sealed pouches for the duration of the show to deter photography. Yet this supposedly sensational aspect of the play is its least interesting one. (Can there be anyone who would take the trouble to go to the theater to observe male genitalia?) Greenberg poses a question that has become considerably more pertinent, indeed urgent, in the twenty years that have passed since the play debuted in London: who are the bullies in our culture? Is it the Shane Mungitts—the gibbering, semi-literate, vigorously marginalized, and wholly pathetic racists who are not only shunned but despised with a kind of religious fervor? Or is it the clever cosmopolitan apostles of diversity who enjoy the adulation of the press and of Madison Avenue? Darren briefly threatens to retire rather than play on the same team with Shane; today he would simply demand Shane be traded. By turns, Shane’s career would be ruined and Darren would stagger beneath the weight of the various “human rights” awards sent his way, struggling only to figure out what to do with the colossal sums he’d be pocketing in endorsement deals.

In a moment when a large proportion of theater, and culture in general, concentrates on flattering the audience and reassuring them that their beliefs are the correct and enlightened ones, Greenberg’s play does the opposite, reminding us who the marginalizers actually are. The phrase “punch a Nazi” began to gain some purchase on social-media platforms a few years ago, and encouragement keeps growing for the idea that physically attacking someone with unattractive ideas is not only theoretically justified, but perhaps necessary and brave. After all, if the people with the bad ideas are allowed to continue unpunished in society, isn’t society itself threatened? If you love peace, prove it: go out and slug the nearest fascist.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 5, on page 49
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