There are undoubtedly new things to be said about Martin Luther King Jr. That's not the trouble with Katori Hall's The Mountaintop. No, the problem is that Hall condescends to her subject and audience in a manner worse than didacticism. Her play hinges on a gimmick, and one that is tired, tonally jarring and toe-curlingly cutesy.
Set at Memphis' Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968—the night before King's assassination—Hall's Olivier Award-winning play introduces us to a man who's weary, hoarse-throated and plagued by a bad case of stinky feet. King (Rodney Hicks, who strikes an impressive balance of the ordinary and the extraordinary) spitballs phrases for a new speech. "America, you are too arrogant!" he thunders, loosening his tie as he paces before the mirror. We also hear him use the toilet, as if Hall's inclusion of King's stinky feet hadn't made his humanity clear enough.
Into this bare-bones motel room flies Camae (Natalie Paul), an ebullient, potty-mouthed maid. She brings King coffee, which she spikes with whiskey, and cigarettes, which they smoke together. And for roughly the first half of this 90-minute play, the two banter and flirt and engage in various forms of high-flung oratory—in Camae's case, it involves her deeming God "a funny-ass motherfucker." The dialogue is lively if unremarkable, though certain lines are eye-rollingly blunt: "Civil rights will kill you before them Pall Malls will," Camae says.
But then Hall produces a cheap twist, which I won't reveal here. Trust me, though: You've seen this one before. Let it suffice to say that Camae isn't what she seems, and this revelation torques The Mountaintop from a moderately compelling drama to a Lifetime Christmas special. There are phone calls to God, redundant arguments about inevitable things and a boob joke that reminded me of Mean Girls. It's a shame, really—Hicks and Paul have an engaging chemistry, one that's alternately flirtatious and politically charged, which continues all the way to a frenzied pillow fight (it's a lovely image, with tiny white feathers flying about the stage like snow). And director Rose Riordan keeps things tight and energetic, even as the proceedings spiral into patronizing looniness.
Sometimes, a surrealistic flight of fancy allows a play to spread its wings. Other times, we just get flimsy clichés and a mess of feathers on the floor.
SEE IT: The Mountaintop is at Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 pm alternating Saturdays and Sundays, and noon Thursdays through Oct. 27. $40-$55.