Although Leslie Lee’s “The Book of Lambert, currently at La MaMa, is billed as a world premiere and is set In the present, it’s a revision of a play that Lee wrote 30 years ago. It shows. In both style and theme, the painfully dated play is dead on arrival and Cyndy A Marion’s production amounts to an embalming.
The play depicts six lost souls who live in one of the New York subway system’s abandoned tunnels. One of the play’s many disappointments is its failure to bring adequate specificity and detail to portray life for these “mole people”; the characters may as well live on the same floor in a flophouse. Although Andis Gjoni’s suitably grubby set includes a sunken strip of broken subway track along one wall, little else about the production visually suggests the play’s setting.
The playwright has assigned a dominant trait or problem to each of his six characters; it’s no wonder that they register as types rather than as believable flesh and blood people. There’s Otto (Arthur French) who has gone blind and his wife Zinth (Gloria Sauve) who, despite otherwise displaying world-weathered toughness, is gripped by a seemingly delusional compulsion to repeat their wedding vows on a daily basis. There’s the young and highly carnal Priscilla (Sadrina Johnson), mostly confined to writhing on her mattress for the play’s duration, whose sexual abandon seems to exist in order for the playwright to provide contrast with unwed and pregnant Bonnie (Joresa Blount).
The dialogue is overloaded with exposition — in dull sequence, we learn how each character has come to live underground — but the play is entirely free of surprise and of tangible dramatic conflict. This is especially apparent with the main character, a former English professor, and African-American, named Lambert (Clinton Faulkner) who we’re told is suffering profoundly after a break-up with white society girl Virginia (Heather Massie). We see the two in ponderous, overly talky flashbacks that consist of their not-at-all believable fights: she has a jungle fever fetish, longing to be his “white chick soul sister,” until she takes him home to disgrace her family. We learn all this in declamatory speeches, rather than in dramatized scenes, that bear little resemblance to how people actually talk.
The playwright echoes this central story, of a black man in anguish over a white woman’s rejection, in a minor story where a white man (Howard L. Wieder) remembers the black woman who taught him in grade school (Omrae Smith). When the two stories meet, it’s impossible to ignore the play’s belief in the naïve, antique pop psychology of yesteryear.
The quality of the acting is highly variable, as is the performance style. Wieder and Smith play far too broadly — perhaps their story was mistaken for comic relief — while Blount is working at the other end of the spectrum with a grounded, naturalistic performance.