by Samuel L. Leiter
Two promising ingredients come together in Lift, now playing at 59E59 Theaters: one is playwright Walter Mosley, the popular and prolific African American novelist, and the second is a production that originated at New Jersey’s respected Crossroads Theatre under the direction of Marshall Jones III. Unfortunately, neither ingredient fulfills its promise, and little can be done to prevent Lift—a socially conscious melodrama set in a high-rise office building elevator—from plummeting, overwhelmed by a clumsy, occasionally titter-generating script, and an overwrought presentation that occasionally borders on the amateurish.
The preposterousness begins right away, as three attractive, nicely dressed (costumes by Anne E. Grosz) African American employees of a large financial institution—Tina Pardon (MaameYaa Boafo), Noni Tariq (Shavonna Banks), and Theodore “Big Time” Southmore (Biko Eisen-Martin)—stand waiting for the elevator after their lunch break. When Theodore, overhearing, chuckles at something Noni says, she shoots back at this tall, well-spoken stranger: “This long-assed niggah here cain’t push his big flat nose in my business.” Poof! went my suspension of disbelief.
After the trio gets into the capacious elevator (things must be very slow at Peabody Resterly and Lowe or else they have a skeletal staff), they are joined by John Thomas Resterly (Martin Kushner), the middle-aged CEO, from whom Tina does all she can to hide her face. The elevator takes its sweet time to reach its destination, allowing Resterly the opportunity to spew biased generalities about the world’s different peoples, noting that blacks and browns “are indispensable” as the world’s Atlas—“holding the world on their shoulders while the rest of us . . . climb up their backs and into the promised land.” This Atlas image recurs often in what remains. Finally, after Resterly and Noni exit, the elevator creeps upward again until BANG!! It crashes to a halt, leaving it aslant, its passengers stunned.
Tina and Theodore must either find a way out or wait patiently to be rescued, with the danger of the cables snapping at any moment. We learn eventually from the offstage voice of a nearby victim with a smart phone that a terrorist attack (not from the usual suspects, by the way) is responsible, fires are raging, and many have been killed. Why someone else’s phone can get this information but not Tina’s or Theodore’s (who actually never produces one) is not explained. Meanwhile we are stuck with Tina and Theodore—whom she insists, to his growing frustration, on calling Southmore, an awful name that sounds like “sophomore”—for the remainder of this bloated, two hours-plus drama. (Note: When I saw the play, it had an intermission. I’ve learned that, along with some other tightening, the intermission has been removed, cutting the running time to an hour and forty-five minutes).
When the elevators were installed, Theodore had been on the maintenance staff (from which he worked himself up, using basketball as his springboard—don’t ask), so he’s a veritable fount of information about all the security measures installed—including soundproofing and phone restrictions—making it nearly impossible to get help. Not to worry, his Swiss Army knife is handy, and with Tina’s wrists of steel helping unscrew a wall plaque—that’s what work in a family bakery can do for you (if, indeed, that’s where she strengthened her muscles)—he manages to open the ceiling hatch.
Everything that follows is either predictable or unbelievable, so why bother with the details? Still, I can’t resist noting that people stuck in neighboring elevators seem to have been able to pop their hatches (your screwdriver: don’t leave home without it!) because we hear a whole lot of badly acted offstage shouting from supposedly soundproof boxes. We also overhear (because they’re obviously screamed for our listening pleasure) two personal dramas, one concluding in a suicide when a guy finds out . . . Nah. You’d think I was joshing.
To top it all off, the play, like all those movies about people trapped in elevators (I assure you, they exist), is not only about how people survive (or not) in such dire circumstances (bathroom needs and sex are de rigeur); it’s just as much about the power dynamic in black male-female relationships, starting when Theodore shows discomfort with Tina’s dating a white guy. Mosley does not stop with this, though, and throws a cornucopia of family issues into the conversation, much of it intended to explain Theodore’s dope addiction (as if he does not have enough to worry about).
But wait, there is also a detailed narrative about what Tina, an Americanized woman of Somalian birth, had to do to earn enough money to aid her poor parents and also pay for her tuition at Princeton, from which she graduated magna cum laude (the last word of which the actress mispronounces). I won’t reveal what she did to earn her money—it, too, challenges credence—but it does have to do with why she earlier hid her face.
It’s a shame, but the only lift you’re likely to appreciate from this exercise in theatrical improbability is the one you’ll get when you rise to take your leave.
59 E. 59 Street
Through November 11
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).