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First Nighter: Denzel Washington Good, Not So Good in "A Raisin in the Sun"

04/03/2014 09:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2014

Has The Broadway League or anyone else ever thought of an official commendation for movie stars and television names who make a point of appearing in what nowadays has come to be called "live theater"?

(What is theater, if not live?)

I'm thinking of marquee magnets like Al Pacino, Tyne Daly, Alec Baldwin, Scarlett Johansson, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, the late and great Philip Seymour Hoffman and this season Bryan Cranston, Michelle Williams, Patrick Stewart, Daniel Radcliffe, Neil Patrick Harris. Orlando Bloom, Deborah Messing, Toni Collette, Marisa Tomei, James Franco, Chris O'Dowd, Michael C. Hall, Tony Shalhoub and, of course, Denzel Washington.

They're all owed some kind of bannered gratitude for reminding a public that increasingly regards theater as negligible that it remains a significant element of a nation's culture.

With Washington's return to The Great White Way in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 A Raisin in the Sun at the Barrymore, he does a tremendous favor. Once again, as he did with his limited-runs Julius Caesar and Fences, he brings large audiences--especially African-American audiences--to a theater and to theater in the larger sense.

For his limited 14-week run, he'll easily sell-out the venerable Barrymore venue (the name alone tributing a theater dynasty, perhaps only memorable now for Drew Barrymore's prominence.)

This time, however--superb actor that he is--the favor he's doing comes with his doing an unfortunate disservice to Hansberry and her autobiographical play about a black family whose matriarch Lena Younger (LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who early replaced Diahann Carroll) is at odds with 35-year-old chauffeur son Walter Lee (Washington) over what to do with a $10,000 life insurance check coming to her.

Better scotch the 35-year-old part. For this version, Walter Lee describes himself as 40, and therein lies the problem. Washington is 59, and can get away (almost) with appearing as a man almost 20 years younger than he is, but something is still wrong.

Hansberry intends Walter Lee's playing fast and loose with the much needed incoming funds to be attributed to a young man's impetuosity. His behavior in those circumstances is understandable if not excusable. Washington, on the other hand, looks too much like a man who long should have known better.

As he schemes with two friends to raise money for a questionable enterprise, this Walter hasn't youth as a possible excuse for his callow behavior. And that means his behavior not only towards Lena but also towards his increasingly alienated wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo). He also looks far too old to have a college-age sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose).

(FYI: When Sidney Poitier originated the role, he was 32. When he reprised it in the 1961 film, he was 34. He was the right age to play the part.)

Having established all that, I should add that the manner in which Washington skews Hansberry's purpose probably won't bother the actor's fans. They'll be thrilled again to see him up close and personal. And it isn't as if--aside from the way he's miscast himself (the revival is, of course, his choice)--he doesn't give a committed performance.

He obviously respects the play (while not respecting it enough) and has good reason to. Hansberry's scrutiny of the Youngers' living in tight quarters where Lena and Beneatha share a bedroom and Walter and Ruth's son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) sleeps on the living-room couch is well-constructed--and for that received the New York Drama Critics Circle award at the year's best play.

Hansberry weaves additional affecting sub-plots into her tapestry of people aching to better themselves, striving to realize their dreams. Walter Lee wants to start a business so he no longer has to open and shut a limousine door all day. Lena wants to move to a better Chicago neighborhood and has her eyes on nearby white enclave Clybourne Park, although white realtor Karl Lindner (the director David Cromer in a rare stage appearance) is discouraging.

Beneatha wants to go to medical school as well as meet a good man. Preppy George Murchison (Jason Dirden) and enterprising Nigerian Joseph Agasai (Sean Patrick Thomas) provide those possibilities.

(More FYI: Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park picks up from this. Curious that Norris won the Pulitzer Prize for his work but Hansberry, the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, didn't. And by the way, Hansberry made up the Clybourne Park name.)

On Mark Thompson's properly claustrophobic version of a shabby home where a plant on the windowsill in the inadequate kitchen is the only sign of hopeful green life, all cast members, like Washington, give strong performances. Perhaps the strongest is Jackson's, since A Raisin in the Sun is as much Lena's play as it is Walter Lee's. Beseeching the God in whom she staunchly believes for strength in the face of Walter Lee's infractions, Jackson embodies that strength throughout.

But they're all good--and that includes the always indispensible Stephen McKinley Henderson as Walter Lee's would-be business partner Bobo. When Beneatha gets herself up on a tribal outfit supplied her by Joseph (and costumer Ann Roth), Rose goes into a native dance that delights the crowd. Drawing the best out of them is director Kenny Leon, who knows the text inside and out for having helmed the 2004 Sean Combs-led revival.

One last thing about this production's upsetting slights: On a show scrim in place when the audience enters is inscribed a poem that begins "What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/Like a raisin on the sun?" It's there for the obvious reason. It's the poem from which Hansberry lifted the title for a play about people harboring dreams that too often don't come true.

It's admittedly prone to mystify theatergoers who don't know the poem. Yet it couldn't be more appropriate in this instance. The poem is "Harlem" by the revered Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Sadly, neither the poem's title nor, more shamefully, Hughes's name is present. Someone with clout--someone like Washington, for instance--should see that the oversight is quickly corrected.

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