Samuel J. & K. By Mat Smart. Directed by Justin Waldman.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Itís okay. Itís what I do."
Owiso Odera as K.; photo: Sam Hough
Reunions are always difficult and never more so than when one concerns two brothers who have had difficulties that seem irreparable. There is nothing more difficult to overcome than the classic clash between siblings over a woman. In Mat Smartís play "Samuel J. & K." we have a situation that calls on the old standby of a man scorned by a woman who prefers his younger, prettier brother. Samuel J. understands that there is a conflict between him and K. He feels the closeness between them stretching out for miles. When he discovers how right his instincts have been he takes a hike, literally. The Naperville, Illinois boy becomes a man of Cameroon.
It is the reunion that takes up most of the second act of this play that is the focus for both men. Neither one has anticipated it in the way it happens. K. assumes that J. is dead. J. believes that K. couldnít care if he is dead or alive. In truth they each have a valid point but their first meeting after a seven year separation (speaking of classic time periods) doesnít go the way they imagined it would.
For one thing Moms has a way of dividing and conquering and she uses it. She may not mean to do this, but she does. For another both men are lying to each other about almost everything which doesnít exactly keep the reunion sparking along. Finally, old conflicts play a role in controlling a volatile situation that neither man can manage alone.
This is the play being presented on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival at the present. It is a very good play, calling on its ancient forebears for style, clarity and form. In the hands of an exceptionally good cast it works as a very modern piece that still tugs at the heartstrings and reverberates in the brain.
As Samuel J. there is the talented Justin Long. He has a way of playing superiority that is actually endearing. Somehow he manages to take the low road and still maintain a certain sanctity about it. In the emotional conflict with his brother he has the upper hand throughout the play but there is an edge to that position that is practically a precipice with him dangerously balanced on its rim. He walks that tightrope throughout the play and it is often difficult to know where his characterís impulses are taking him. Long makes all of these qualities into a seamless singularity. He is a moderate player in a high-tension role and he plays against the anxieties and tensions most of the time leaving the characterís words to reveal the inner man He conveys the surface beautifully letting the mind and heart jump out onto sleeves and lapels and basketballs. His work is just lovely.
K., on the other hand, is all emotional surfaces with facial gestures and physical responses jumping for the hoops and collapsing on the floors. Owiso Odera is perfectly marvelous in the role. Tall, commanding, youthful even in his maturity, with a quizzical face, he brings to K. all of the elements of tragedy. Here is a man trapped in the mysteries of his origins unable to reason with his own past. Odera adjusts his look, augments his motions with vocal transitions, and masks his inner truths with a triumphant rage that escapes him in the games he plays. As the younger brother in this duet, he tries to hold his position but is constantly bumped into corners through his own odd lack of confidence. This is a lot to portray, and Odera manages it handsomely.
Adam Stockhausen has created a marvelous fluid set that functions brilliantly in three separate locales. Nicole J. Smith has brought a fascinating look into the lives of these two men through her excellent costumes. Marcus Doshi does nice work with the lighting of this show, encapsulating moments, creating environments. Bart Fassbinderís sound design seemed to spark odd noises now and then, but perhaps that was a technical glitch. There was enough noise at times that was clearly part of a design sense that it is hard to be sure. Kudos to Thomas Schall for his fight direction in this piece.
Justin Waldman holds this all together nicely with his staging of the show. He knows how to contain violent reactions and he holds back his actors obvious need to physically go further. The tension he creates, over and over, is just right for this play.
When a new play is this good itís a pleasure to see it, talk about it, write about it as well. The only problem is not being able to see it again in two or three months to see how the characters have developed, to see where the play has taken its actors. This is especially true when the show doesnít depend on quirky writing, odd forms or experimental styles. This is just good old-fashioned theater by new artists. Good stuff.
Justin Long as J.; photo: Sam Hough
Samuel J. and K. plays through July 18 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival located in the Ď62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go to their website: www.wtfestival.org.