'Two Trains Running' is almost right on track

Theater

November 18, 1991|By Lou Cedrone

August Wilson's ''Two Trains Running'' is like most of the author's other plays. It may be his best to date, but it is still overlong (almost three hours) and repetitious.

Despite those things, however, the playwright's latest work -- one of 10 he hopes to write about the Black American experience (''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,'' ''Joe Turner,'' ''Fences'' are others) -- is largely enjoyable. Cut out some of the repetition and it will be that much more enjoyable.

As is, "Two Trains Running" plays like six episodes of television -- very good television -- but it could be much better than that.

Wilson, however, is not likely to cut. He is one of those authors whose work is generally regarded as untouchable. Lloyd Richards, who has directed most of Wilson's plays, should persuade him to cut, but then he has probably already tried.

''Two Trains Running'' takes place in a Pittsburgh diner in 1969. The Civil Rights Movement is peaking, Malcom X is dead, and Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated.

The Owner of the diner is Memphis (Al White), so named because he comes from Tennessee. Acting as a waitress-cook is Risa (Cynthia Martells), who moves like a zombie and has self-inflicted scars on both her legs, put there because she wants to put an end to the attention her well-shaped legs win her. She is obviously off men for a time. She has been bruised once too often.

Of course, her scarred legs would be less noticeable if she wore a longer skirt, but Wilson and Richards want to make their point.

Among the customers are Holloway (Roscoe Lee Browne), a 65-year-old man who serves as chronicler of the black experience, Sterling (John Cothran, Jr.), a man who has just been released from prison (he had robbed a bank), and West (Chuck Patterson), owner of a funeral home. We also have Hambone (Sullivan Walker), an emotionally disturbed individual who continually cries for the ham that was promised him by the funeral director, who, for 10 years has refused to live up to his bargain.

''I want my ham,'' Hambone says over and over again, and while much of this is amusing, it perhaps goes on to long. Selectivity is the answer here.

While Holloway recounts the black experience, coming down on the white man as he does (but not all that much), Memphis provides some balance to the discussion. It's as though Wilson, by allowing this dialogue, wants to present both sides.

Browne is the most recognizable face on stage. He has been doing films and television for several decades. He is, as always, professional and quite funny. But then all the characters have their lighter sides, except the waitress, who is really overdone, but this may be the director's fault.

Risa is supposed to be burned out, indifferent, removed, but as Martells plays her, she is almost catatonic. There is a way of conveying this kind of lethargy, but this is not it.

Walker, as Hambone, gives an almost astonishing performance, and Patterson, Chisholm, White, and Martells (despite the walk, she is quite good), do extremely well with their assignments, particularly Cothran, who, as the child-man ex-con who comes on to Risa, makes the character very likable.

All the characters are likable. These are all very nice people, and this is a nice, sweet, if overdone play. And it ends as you hope it will, on an up note.

It is also pleasing to report that Wilson, for once, does not dabble with the supernatural. The play doesn't need it. What it does need, though, is tightening.

''Two Trains Running,'' which originated at the Yale Repertory Theater, will remain at the Kennedy Center through Dec. 7. It will then play Los Angeles in January and open on Broadway in April. We wish it well.

'Two Trains Running' is almost right on track

''Two Trains Running'' *** Assorted characters contribute to the conversation in a Pittsburgh diner.

CAST: Al White, Anthony Chisholm, Cynthia Martells, Roscoe Lee Browne, Sullivan Walker, John Cothran, Jr., Chuck Patterson

DIRECTOR: Lloyd Richards

RUNNING TIME: 175 minutes with one intermission

TICKETS: (202) 467-4600

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