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Things of Dry Hours

Naomi Wallace's pretentious play set in 1932 Alabama never makes its meaning clear. logo
Garret Dillahunt, Delroy Lindo, and Roslyn Ruff
in Things of Dry Hours
(© Joan Marcus)
It is possible that the title Naomi Wallace has chosen for her latest play, Things of Dry Hours, now at New York Theater Workshop, might refer to the series of charged episodes in which African-American, Bible-reading, Community-party-member Tice Hogan (Delroy Lindo), his tough-minded, widowed daughter Cali (Roslyn Ruff), and youngish, white interloper Corbin Teel (Garret Dillahunt) participate contentiously and at length.

But what an observer unfamiliar with the elusive phrase (never explained by Wallace) is more likely to conclude by the time this two-and-a-half-hour, two-act play draws to a close is that the title is the first tip-off to the poetic pretension in which playwright Wallace indulges herself from start to finish -- and with which she severely undercuts any hold she hopes to achieve on the actual behavior of recognizable human beings caught up in genuine dramatic byplay. Not even the undeniably gritty and truly committed performances director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has extracted from his trio of staunch players can do anything more than lend some credulity to the proceedings.

The work, which is set in Birmingham, Alabama in 1932, is another of those "stranger-knocks-at-the-door" plays, which means any experienced theatergoer knows instantly what's likely to occur when Teel barges his way into the Hogan home. For example, wise audience members will immediately suspect that the newcomer is not exactly who he claims to be when he first stumbles through the door to proclaim he's being pursued by the law for possibly murdering a local factory foreman; that something sexual is going to flare up between the two younger characters; and that certain late-in-play, blurted-under-duress information isn't going to turn out to be exactly accurate.

When so much of the play's journey is given away during the first few minutes, it becomes the dramatist's task to make the getting there intriguing enough to keep spectators from tapping their feet with impatience. But Wallace only begins to address the feet-tapping factor, as the interactions among Tice, Cali, and Corbin result in far more questions being asked than satisfactorily answered. For example, why is Tice so insistent on recruiting the apparently illiterate and dim-witted Corbin for communist party membership and an eventual influential position? What is the purpose of the constant knife-wielding and axe-swinging? What is it that the blade-sharp Cali sees in the bumbling Corbin? And what is the audience to make of the abrupt and fantastical second-act dance carried on by two sheets that Cali is laundering?

More importantly, where is the theatrical payoff to any of this in terms of what the tight trio want or need from each other -- and either obtain or fail to obtain? What Wallace is likely after is some new understanding between blacks and whites -- an alliance that surpasses accommodation. But because Wallace goes about her mission with such arch maneuvering, she simply doesn't convey her meaning to the audience.

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