Monday, February 6, 2012

Lower Ninth, Ensemble Theatre

(Sitting, from left: J'Vaughn T. Briscoe and William Clarence Marshall. Under the plastic sheet: Joseph Primes.)

You’d think that by setting a play on the rooftop of a house flooded up to the gutters in Hurricane Katrina, and then populating that roof with two survivors and one drowned corpse, you’d have a rich setting for a 75-minute drama.

Well, in this case you’d be wrong, since Lower Ninth now at Ensemble Theatre is a waterlogged effort from start to finish. While very little of the blame for this goes to the three actors involved, the playwright Beau Willimon needs to revise his script almost entirely if he wants to do the Katrina disaster justice.

The two survivors, the Bible-thumping Malcolm and E-Z, a younger man with a hair trigger temper, never act like they’ve just barely escaped being killed by that horrendous flood. Instead, they banter, bicker and play games (!) with each other, as Malcolm digresses into Bible stories and E-Z makes pointed jokes that seem inappropriate given their dire circumstances.

At no time to they try to assess their situation, rip their clothes into strips to spell out “Help” signs on the shingles, or do anything else to save themselves—until the very end, after three or more days on the roof. The playwright is so intent on developing his wobbly metaphors that he ignores how real human beings might react in such a situation.

And in case you’re wondering, the corpse, a friend of theirs named Lowboy, does eventually rise and deliver some lines, due to a forced playwriting gambit that is as misplaced as most of the other material in this work.

However, the three actors do their best to bring life to this flotsam. William Clarence Marshall is strong and believable (within an unbelievable context) as Malcolm. And J’Vaughn T. Brisoe shows a lot of acting promise as the easily agitated E-Z. Joseph Primes does what he can as Lowboy, the “dead” guy.

Director Celeste Cosentino keeps the dialogue sparking fitfully, although some details aren’t attended to (when Lowboy resumes his prone position as a corpse, his arms and legs are in different positions than earlier, meaning that, maybe he wasn’t really dead or…oh, never mind).

In a season of many successes at Ensemble, the Lower Ninth script is deader than Lowboy. And it ain’t getting up.

Lower Ninth

Through February 19 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washingtn Blvd., ensemble-theatre-org.