It’s No More Mr. Nice Guy for This Everyman
When Denzel Washington talks about challenging death to a wrestling match, you suddenly sense that everything’s going to be all right. Not for Troy Maxson, the character portrayed by Mr. Washington in the vibrantly acted Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences,” which opened on Monday night at the Cort Theater; Troy might as well have “Warning: Explosives” tattooed across his forehead, with “Breakable” stamped on his back.
But all at once you feel that Mr. Washington is going to take Troy Maxson into dark and uncharted places, which is what he has to do for this mid-80’s play to register as more than a conventional domestic melodrama. Delivering that poetic riff, early in the first act, about going mano a mano with the grim reaper, Mr. Washington’s Troy morphs from the salty, genial everyman he’s thus far appeared to be into a much more arresting figure.
There’s an exhilarated craziness in his eyes and a confrontational glint that dares us not to believe him. On the subject of his own life, Troy — a former Negro League baseball star turned sanitation worker, and a man whose name aptly evokes a legendary, ruined splendor — is a first-class mythmaker. Which means he’s also a first-class storyteller and a first-class self-deceiver, and that we’re going to hang on to his words.
Mr. Washington, a two-time Oscar winner, has his own personal specter to wrestle with in this production, directed by Kenny Leon and featuring a magnificent performance by Viola Davis as Troy’s wife, Rose. By starring in the first Broadway revival of “Fences,” which picked up about every major prize on offer in 1987, when it arrived on Broadway, Mr. Washington is stepping into the outsize shadow of James Earl Jones.
Large of frame and thunderous of voice, Mr. Jones has a titan’s presence that invested the embittered Troy with an aura of classical tragedy. He was big in every sense of the word, and there was instant pathos in the spectacle of a giant confined by the smallness of a world hedged in by 1950s racism. Mr. Washington has the fluid naturalness we associate with good screen actors, and when he played Brutus in the 2005 Broadway production of “Julius Caesar,” he often seemed to fade into the crowd of milling revolutionary Romans.
His Troy, not unexpectedly, is smaller than Mr. Jones’s was, but that also means it is on a more human scale and in some ways more intricately drawn. Mr. Washington has to work hard to build his Troy, brick by brick instead of with one overwhelming first impression. But any strain we sense comes not from the actor but the character.
A family man with a roving eye and a solid breadwinner with unsettling memories of a sports hero’s past, Troy is twisted by fiercely contradictory impulses — of love and resentment, gentle judiciousness and brutal irrationality, responsibility and a lust for careless freedom. Registering troubled ambivalence has always been Mr. Washington’s great strength as a screen actor (including in his Oscar-winning “Training Day”), and he uses that gift to redefine Troy on his own terms.
This newly detailed reading allows us to look at Troy with fresh objectivity, and to realize that Wilson created a more complex, layered character than we may have remembered. And in his depiction of Troy and Rose’s marriage, Wilson, who died in 2005, delivered his finest and most credible portrait of a relationship between a man and a woman, brought to complete, aching life by Mr. Washington and Ms. Davis. But without the distraction of Mr. Jones’s Shakespearean grandeur, the play’s flaws, as well as its strengths, are more clearly visible.
“Fences” is part of Wilson’s great decade-by-decade cycle of the African-American experience in the 20th century, largely set (as “Fences” is) in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. It shares with more adventurous works like “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “Seven Guitars” a specific sense of the history that brought its characters to their point in time. That includes handed-down recollections of slavery and more immediate memories of the northward migration from cotton country.
These elements are more in the background in “Fences,” and Wilson’s use of the soaring, aria-like monologue is more restrained. This is both his most accessible and least inventive work, seemingly shaped by dramaturgical blueprints from the era in which “Fences” is set. As a study in the Oedipal conflict between Troy and his teenage son, Cory (Chris Chalk), who is teetering defensively on the cusp of adulthood, “Fences” has tinny echoes of Arthur Miller and William Inge. Nor can Mr. Leon’s expertly fluid direction quite disguise the artificial overuse of some fairly tired symbolic motifs, including baseball and the fences of the title.
But there are scenes as vivid and heartfelt as any on Broadway now. Moving within Santo Loquasto’s exactly visualized urban backyard and Constanza Romero’s pitch-perfect period costumes, the ensemble members remind us of the rich pleasures of good, old naturalistic acting. More than most of Wilson’s plays, “Fences” allows its performers to develop sustained one-on-one relationships.
There’s particular pleasure (and sadness) to be had in following the waning friendship between Troy and his longtime pal, Jim Bono (the Wilson veteran Stephen McKinley Henderson, at the top of his form). Mr. Washington’s face and stance alone provide fascinating (and damning) glimpses into Troy’s attitudes toward his son from an earlier relationship, the 34-year-old Lyons (the excellent Russell Hornsby), and the desperate-to-please Cory (an underwritten part). And while I’ve pretty much had my fill of Wilson’s deranged prophet characters, Mykelti Williamson’s Gabriel is fine as Troy’s mad brother, eliciting a stirring mix of guilt and affection from Mr. Washington.
But Troy’s interactions with Rose are what give “Fences” its moments of genuine glory. Ms. Davis, who won a Tony for her performance in Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” may well pick up another for her work here. Her face is a poignant paradox, both bone-tired and suffused with sensual radiance. Rose has resigned herself to her life in a way Troy cannot, but that doesn’t mean there’s not passionate yearning within.
What Troy rants about, Rose keeps to herself, and Ms. Davis draws extraordinary power from that reticence; you never feel that Rose is any less deep than her husband. You can sense, so palpably that it hurts, why Troy and Rose were meant to be together, and when it looked as if the marriage might be going south at the performance I attended, you could hear horrified gasps in the audience. Mr. Washington and Ms. Davis prove that lovers don’t have to be as young and star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet to generate shiver-making heat and pathos.