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No Need to Be on the Fence about Denzel Washington in “Fences”

Two productions with major stars in leading roles have only a handful of performances remaining.  For one play, the tickets are free; for the other, you will probably have to pay upwards of $400.

Common sense (and economics) would suggest that the former is a better deal than the latter.  Seeing Al Pacino as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is a better bargain—regardless of how long you wait in line for free tickets—over the $429.50 you’ll have to pay for one of the last remaining premium tickets to see Denzel Washington in the Tony-winning revival of Fences… right?

I have to say: wrong.

Pacino’s Shylock—and Daniel Sullivan’s production of The Merchant of Venice as a whole—is coherent and watchable. On occasion it’s even stylish and entertaining.  But it is not really a major theatrical event (like last year’s Twelfth Night with Anne Hathaway or The Seagull with Meryl Streep 10 years ago) mainly because it doesn’t feel special.  Pacino has done Shylock in a film, his performance is no revelation: he adopts the same affected voice he normally does on stage whether he’s performing Brecht or Eugene O’Neill.  He’s a good Shylock, just not one that will burn deep in your memory.

Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson in FencesThat’s not the case with Denzel Washington’s Troy Maxson.  It’s a performance that you won’t forget.  (I’ve seen many good productions of Fences, including the one staged in the late Pasadena Playhouse a few years back, starring Lawrence Fishburne as Troy Maxson.  This Broadway revival blows that out of the water.)  Denzel gives a volcanic performance as the Negro League star-turned-Pittsburgh garbage man.  Washington inhabits the role, making him funny, tragic, charming, and larger than life.

The role plays to his movie stars strengths.  Washington’s good looks and million-dollar smile don’t diminish the character’s complexity or make him seem glamorous—instead they help build his mystique and add to Troy Maxson’s epic complexity.

Washington is matched by the equally volcanic performance of Viola Davis as Maxson’s wife Rose.  She takes command of the second act and in Kenny Leon’s expertly directed revival one feels her character almost emerges as the principal role in the play.

Fences is arguably on the short list of the finest American plays of the 20th century (it is surely August Wilson’s most accessible work).  This revival’s ability to both capture its greatness (in Washington’s performance) and provide new perspective on it (Davis’ turn) is why spending any sum of money is probably worth it for any serious theater aficionado.

If you can’t muster the $429.50 for Fences, there is another classic American drama closing on Sunday that’s also worth a look: Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest.  Written seven years after her 1939 hit, The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest is a prequel that further charts the scheming of the Hubbard family.

The Peccadillo Theater Company’s revival (directed by Dan Wackerman) makes a convincing case that Forest should be considered in the same league as the much-revived Foxes.  The drama is tight, the dialogue has snap, and like Foxes, Forest is full of big personalities all of whom cannot fit under one roof.  The play’s one fault (and likely the reason it’s never been revived on Broadway) is that it feels so similar in structure to Foxes.

Luckily, Foxes is a great play, so complaining too much about Forest’s similarities is truly a case of too much of a good thing.  The enjoyment of the play is also helped by the capable cast assembled at the Theatre at St. Clement’s on 46th.  The ensemble is strong (especially Sherman Howard as the patriarch, Marcus Hubbard), the costumes and sets more than adequate, and the nearly three-hour play clicks along nicely.  Oh, and like Fences, the tickets are more expensive than before: now $45 instead of the original $25.  And like Fences, it’s worth the extra money.

Image: Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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