There’s nothing like a natural disaster to make people confront both the best and worst in themselves, which is more or less what occurs in Beau Willimon’s uneven drama Lower Ninth, currently receiving its world premiere at the Flea Theater under the direction of Daniel Goldstein.
It’s also a good time to try to come to terms with past mistakes, especially if you end up stuck on a roof with someone with whom you have some longstanding unresolved issues, which is the case with Malcolm (James McDaniel) and E-Z (Gaius Charles), who are stranded on a rooftop following the devastating effects of a flood that is not specified, but is meant to invoke the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Another man, Lowboy (Gbenga Akinnagbe), died during the storm, and his rotting body lies on the roof with the two survivors. In a sequence that may be either a fever dream or a genuine visitation, he talks to E-Z.
As Malcolm and E-Z wait to be rescued, they pass the time playing 20 Questions, arguing about religion, and dredging up memories that reveal the intertwined history between the two men. It’s the bond between them that is at the heart of the play, and which is powerfully realized when one makes a stunning sacrifice for the other.
Willimon touches upon numerous issues in the work, including the unnamed President’s delayed response to the disaster, urban decline, and the effects of drug-running in the African-American community. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really seem to have much new or interesting to say about any of these topics. Moreover, the dialogue never lifts itself above the satisfactory, and the play’s final moments seem a bit too heavy-handed.
McDaniel does a fine job of conveying his character’s stubbornness, his belief in God, and his paternal affection for E-Z. He also provides hints of the violent man Malcolm used to be, particularly when E-Z does something that really incenses him. The charismatic Charles has a dynamic energy, which serves him well in the more confrontational scenes between the two men, but he has trouble keeping still, even when supposedly suffering from dehydration. As a result, the play’s quieter moments are less effective. Akinnagbe only gets one scene in the play, but makes a strong impression even if his otherworldly conversation with E-Z comes across as a little hokey.
Donyale Werle has done a serviceable job with his rooftop set, but Ben Stanton’s lighting gives the production its most remarkable visual effects. He has four large lighting instruments positioned around the playing area that shine with an orange-hue that represents the sun relentlessly beating down upon the men.
While the production is engaging enough to keep your attention from wandering during its brief 75 minutes, it may also have been beneficial for Willimon to take a little more time and delve deeper into the issues at hand.