Robert Beitzel and Chris McKinney in Light Raise the Roof(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Robert Beitzel and Chris McKinney in Light Raise the Roof
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Kia Corthron's Breath, Boom and Force Continuum deal in gritty realism but with Light Raise the Roof, her play about the homeless, the playwright has gone mythic. A man called Cole (Chris McKinney), an architect for people who have no fixed address, wanders through an episodic idyll in a manner not unlike Virgil guiding Dante through the nine rings of hell. Or maybe it's just as accurate to say Corthron has crossed Homer with Brecht in order to make a concerned statement about the injustices of housing and welfare in contemporary New York City. It's a concept, all right, but is it ultimately a fruitful one?

At first, it seems that the idea is going to be effective. Cole, throwing in some remarks on Frank Lloyd Wright's famous and cost-efficient Usonian projects, erects in quick succession three very different shelters for needy clients. The dynamic, low-rent master builder couldn't do this, it should go without saying, without the great aid of inventive set designer Narelle Sissons, who contributes immeasurably to perhaps the classiest junkyard environment ever erected on a local stage. Chains haul small roofs aloft; lead-pipe scaffolding is wheeled here and there to suggest various instant edifices; plastic walls are snapped in place; tires lie around. The thorough Sissons has even positioned a few mattresses and related clutter in the theater's aisles.

Complementing her work, lighting designer Ben Stanton has met a handful of intriguing challenges. Since the bright light of day is not in playwright Corthron's plan, Stanton suggests many shades of night as it only partially illuminates above-ground niches and recesses. He has also created underground half-light and has cast enveloping shadows across the stage as well as against the auditorium walls. Perhaps his most beautiful accomplishment is his calling attention with an eerie, greenish-blue light to the series of metal beams that hold up the New York Theatre Workshop space. In a manner of speaking, Stanton has taken Corthron's title to heart and literalized it: His lighting raises the roof.

Cole, who seems extremely well educated without ever indicating how he came by his knowledge, goes about trying to house as many people as he can at a cost of a few dollars per tenant. As he does so, he's joined by Free (J. Kyle Manzay), a panhandler with scams on his mind, and Free's sister, Bebbie (April Yvette Thompson). He also encounters Zekie, a stammering lad with obvious mental problems and an unexpected talent for apartment design. Zekie's disappearance not long after he and Cole bond, and Cole's determination to find him, become the impetus for much of the rest of the action. Cole visits dangerous shelters and ventures into a nether realm of subterranean train tracks to talk to people who might know the whereabouts of the missing nervous wreck.

Among the people with whom Cole exchanges the time of dark day on his compulsive journey are Marmalade (Colleen Werthmann), who thinks of herself as a superstar and wants to make sure that she's moving to a "good neighborhood"; Bay (Royce Johnson), a drug dealer who wields a knife and is into petty thievery; Arnell (Caroline Stefanie Clay), a single mother who has been forced to live in the below-street world thanks to the city's current welfare policy; Arnell's daughter Em (Moe Moe Alston), a precocious child who loves her cat; and Mai (Mia Katigbak), an outspoken Vietnamese woman with a command of homeless statistics.

Caroline Stefanie Clay and Moe Moe Alstonin Light Raise the Roof(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Caroline Stefanie Clay and Moe Moe Alston
in Light Raise the Roof
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Bebbie is the character who expresses Corthron's reason for wrestling as vigorously as she does with the prickly subject. "Was a time," Bebbie says, "the homeful had empathy for the homeless. Then it got old." In that couple of sentences, the dramatist lays out why an audience member would want to go the distance with Light Raise the Roof but also provides at least part of the explanation for a ticket-buyer's resistance to the ambitious drama. Homelessness remains an obstacle not only locally but nationally; so far, solutions have been only intermittently effective. Maybe Corthron is correct in claiming that empathy has waned -- although she may really mean "sympathy," since the "homeful" wouldn't necessarily be assumed to understand empathetically what the homeless endure.

On the other hand, think about Corthron's word "homeful" for a second or two. It doesn't sound like a word in a homeless person's vocabulary -- or anyone's vocabulary, for that matter. It seems only to be in Corthron's vocabulary as she attempts to illustrate the plight of a segment of the population that other playwrights, let alone much of the rest of the world, don't give sufficient thought to. But the made-up word is a tip-off to the arch quality affecting the rest of the script; the people for whom Corthron feels deeply talk something like this, yes, but not quite like this.

Furthermore, Corthron's reaching for symbolic language rather than realistic street talk extends to another kind of reach. In depicting the homeless problem, she tells a good part of the story but not all of it and not with full accuracy. For instance: Cole is trying to put roofs over the heads of the people who find their way to him during a harsh winter but some of those people refuse to come indoors, however. One of them is Free, who prefers lighting fires in garbage cans and who, when stopped in his endeavors by a parks department worker, apparently freezes to death. Would something like that actually happen in quite this way? Perhaps the turn of events is exactly how similar deaths have occurred but, in the play, the development is unconvincing. At the same time, the playwright may not have convinced herself of her aims. Cole goes on the prowl for Zekie but doesn't follow through; as it happens, Zekie finds Cole at a building that Cole has turned into squatters' apartments. (Hasn't the city made, at least, some conciliatory accommodations for such dwellings that Corthron doesn't mention?)

Corthron's heart is definitely in the right place and her anger is totally understandable. In writing this play, she seems to have decided that exaggeration might be a helpful strategy, though some would argue that the shameful living conditions of the homeless need no exaggeration. Director Michael John Garces has wisely kept the actors from overplaying, with a few exceptions: Robert Beitzel as the paper-edge-thin Zekie and Colleen Werthmann, with her fingers waving as Marmalade, milk their roles for everything they can but probably would be just as good if not better doing slightly less. However, Chris McKinney as Cole, April Yvette Thompson as the cane-reliant Bebbie, and J. Kyle Manzay as the shifty Free strive for the verisimilitude that Corthron eschews. Caroline Stefanie Clay plays the down-under denizen Arnell forthrightly and Moe Moe Alston as her daughter is sweet without being cloying; Mia Katigbak is strong as their housemate, Mai. They're all helped in their endeavors by costume designer Gabriel Berry and sound designer Robert Kaplowitz.

Though Ben Stanton throws plenty of light on Light Raise the Roof, dramatist Corthron isn't as successful in the illumination department.