If you walk up Second Avenue from Houston, making your way to the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village, most likely you’ll see them. One may be sleeping under a tarp on a neighborhood stoop, or one may be sprawled on a bench in Tompkins Square Park, jangling a cup full of change and requesting a smile from passersby. Still another might be shouting angry words at the world, clothes dirty and torn, skin blistered and chafed. If you make a quick right into the theatre on East 4th Street, chances are you’ll see the same world on stage as the one you’ve just come from. Chances are, you’ll recognize it. But maybe this time you’ll grant the scene a little bit more of your attention.
Kia Corthron, author of such incisive works as Continuum; Breath, Boom; and now Light Raise the Roof, doesn’t shy away from the grotesque—in fact, she embraces it. Her latest enterprise centers around the journey of Cole (Chris McKinney), a homeless carpenter who dreams of renovating an abandoned schoolhouse into a shelter for his out-of-luck chums on the streets. You see, Cole is a visionary, sawing and hammering away at scraps of wood, taking leftover shards of metal and glass and turning them into something practical, necessary, and sometimes even beautiful. If there’s a hero in this story, Cole’s our man. He’s the guy turning down five bucks for erecting a stranger’s roof even though he’s forced to sleep under the stars during a frigid northeastern winter.
When Cole meets Zekie (Robert Beitzel), a boyish recluse who shakes, stutters and recites Marlon Brando films in order to ease his neurosis, Cole finally understands the meaning of the phrase "a meeting of two minds." Zekie lives mostly in his imagination, his phrases often incoherent and dreamy, but he’s got ideas about the schoolhouse too, and besides Cole needs a partner in his quest. When a police raid sends a forlorn Zekie out to find a new piece of plywood to sleep under, Cole realizes that though his new accomplice may be a genius, he’s also a vulnerable soul, and it’s up to Cole to rescue him.
Cole’s odyssey is laden with filth and violence. You can practically smell the stale stench of poverty as he traipses though Narelle Sisson’s chameleon-like set, which transforms effortlessly into a park, subway tunnel, dilapidated church and then school. Cole is our eyes and ears in this whirlwind of destitution—he’s our access into an often shadowy and overlooked world, and Corthron has stocked him full of humor, power and brawn so that we can’t help but root for him. Cole’s unlikely friendship with the scrawny and troubled Zekie also rouses interest, though not in the sentimental way you’d expect. Cole insists that without Zekie his housing project won’t be complete; he never admits to what we already gather through his actions, that he’s assumed a more paternal role with Zekie, that here on the streets a six-foot tall black man can suddenly become like family to a twenty-six-year-old white man. Corthron instinctively knows the ties that bind these characters—ties that transcend race or creed. Rather, friendships grow through the common experience of homelessness and a compassion for one another’s hardships.
That said, the play runs into some problems in the second act. Repetitive scenarios from Act I give the audience a bleak case of déja vû, and the discovery of Zekie’s final whereabouts somehow seem anticlimactic. Perhaps this is due to the fact that as the play progresses, the narrative becomes bogged down with other homeless names and faces who seem to have little to do with Cole’s mission. Certainly characters such as the smooth-talking Marmalade lend a hand to Corthron’s down-and-out portrait, but their stories often become lengthy and distracting. Still, Corthron’s language is always engaging, her character’s poetic riffs often musical and intoxicating. Michael John Garces’ direction feeds off Corthron’s labor beautifully, creating a landscape that remains in sync with the playwright’s wild and tumultuous imagery. McKinney’s Cole is earnest and complicated, his voice booming when his temper flares, and softening when cajoling the sensitive Zekie. And not to be forgotten is Robert Kaplowitz’s sound design; its grating cacophony of noise generates an energy that’s both urgent and menacing.
The play’s general pacing could use a bit of a boost—this is perhaps to be expected in a show that runs just over two and a half hours. Still, after the house lights dim, there’s something to be said for leaving the theater, walking down Bowery and observing the crowds. Cole just might be there, with a hammer in his pocket and an eye for design.
LIGHT RAISE THE ROOF by Kia Corthron, directed by Michael John Garcés
through June 13 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th Street (between Bowery and 2nd Avenue)
Tickets, $55, 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250, or www.telecharge.com.
Student rush: $15, senior: $28; $20 tickets on Sundays. For more info, call NYTW box office: 212-460-5475 or visit www.nytw.org
CHRISTY HUTCHCRAFT is a writer living in Brooklyn.