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The Mountaintop: Big Stars Can't Do It All

11/02/2011 10:55 am ET | Updated Jan 02, 2012

The Mountaintop asks the audience to simultaneously perform two imaginative exercises. First, you're asked to accept and explore the personal life of Martin Luther King Jr. complete with his shortcomings and misgivings. You're asked to set aside whatever heroic qualities you tend to thrust on the civil rights leader. You're asked to see him for the man he was. Secondly, you must also consider what the reverend's last hours on Earth would have been like had he received news of his assassination ahead of its occurrence. What would he make of it all?

Those conditions are vital to the play's setting. Physically, it's set inside a Memphis motel room on April 3, 1968, the day before King's assassination. But it's what comes out through King's conversation with his hotel maid that really paints a picture of why this day was so historic. Many plays have come before that examined a man's consideration of his own mortality and life legacy as he ponders the afterlife. This one, however, stands apart as it centers on such a fierce, but flawed, public figure.

The play does not aim to call King's life and legacy into question; rather, it hopes to make him a more relatable and sympathetic character -- he smokes, curses, craves women, and, yes, even goes to the bathroom. Samuel L. Jackson soars in the lead role as a conflicted man who must prioritize his community and movement ahead of his family's needs. Angela Bassett is equally good as the hotel maid, Camae, who at first resists the intense conversation. Eventually, she comes to challenge King to stand up for his beliefs and values.

Despite wonderful acting and an innovative narrative, the play isn't strong enough to stand on its own. The 90 minutes drag at times, and there aren't enough powerful moments in the script that will keep the audience bracing for the next piece of dialogue. With its simple set, this play might be better off performed at local theaters, not Broadway. Even with such strong actors at the helm, The Mountaintop only rises part of the way.