01/21/2014 10:14 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

First Nighter: Loneliness of Long Distance Runner a Bracing Race

It's a good bet many movie lovers would say the two best films to come from England during the New Wave 1960s are Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Alan Sillitoe wrote the novels on which both are based--the former published in 1958 and the latter in 1959, as if they were a one-two punch leading to a literary knockout.

Looked at today, they're as powerful as they were then -- Albert Finney the wired protagonist of the first, Tom Courtenay the wiry protagonist of the second. The two black-and-white movies still exhibit a drained country reeling from post-industrial and post-war despair.

But perhaps they're not so wedded to their time as memory might suggest. The contemporary English playwright Roy Williams--whose Fallout and Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads are as outstanding as any British plays of the last couple decades--obviously doesn't think so.

He's adapted Sillitoe's novel for the stage in order to demonstrate that aimlessly drifting young men of any period may have difficulty knowing how to harness their agitated feelings. He's constructed a play, now at the Atlantic's Stage 2, about young black men in England every bit as lost and furious at the world as young middle-class and lower-class young men were 50 years ago -- and remember Sillitoe was writing as one of John Osborne's earliest Look Back in Anger disciples.

Why wouldn't today's young men be enraged? Has enough changed in five or six decades that they shouldn't be?

Williams hasn't veered far from the original story in which Colin (Sheldon Best), insisting his name be pronounced "Coh-lin" and not "Cah-lin, is imprisoned for nine months after bungling a burglary at a local bakery. When he begins his sentence, he quickly realizes that, since he feels as if he's been running his entire life, he not only is interested in long-distance running but also that he's extremely good at it.

First seen running alone and unchallenged across the wooded countryside where the prison is located (projections by Pauline Lu and Paul Piekarz), Colin is thinking about his life to date. He recalls scenes with his tough Mum (Zainab Jah), ailing Dad (Malik Yoba), likable and concerned girlfriend Kenisha (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and friends and inmate trouble-makers (Joshua E. Nelson, Eshan Bay and Patrick Murney). He interacts with them in a high degree of volatility.

Also railing at him mercilessly and yet with admiration and hope is prison counselor Stevens (Todd Weeks). Understanding Colin's potential perhaps better than Colin himself, Stevens keeps after him relentlessly. He wants Colin to reach a point where he can complete his jail time and go on to make a name for himself in sports.

Indeed, the best sequence in the play is a Colin-Stevens confrontation. Stevens has joined Colin on one of his daily runs but has more on his mind than a bracing jog. The event devolves into a verbal battle that threatens to become physical. It's focused on Colin's reluctance to commit himself fully to regarding himself as a winner.

Here's where Sillitoe -- and Williams in adapting the novel -- hit on the pitfall in Colin's coming to terms with how he views his prospects. The race he's been running since the drama began is one where athletes from a nearby posh boys school are the competitors. It's revealed that Colin and the visiting school's best runner are leading the pack.

What occurs as Colin easily takes the lead and keeps it won't be revealed for the benefit of those who don't know the novel or the movie, but it's a stunner involving a near-finishing-line decision Colin makes. His final action is born of his uncertainty about whom he's actually running for--himself or Stevens and other prison authorities who hope to claim any victory as their own.

Depending on how the individual observer assesses Colin's choice, he can be considered either as declaring his independence or as self-destructively tossing it aside. Either way, Sillitoe's and Williams's (and movie director Tony Richardson's) final image is devastating, haunting, a truly indelible fade-out.

Although Leah C. Gardner has either requested that the players raise their voices more than necessary or hasn't put a stop to some of the declaiming, the acting by all concerned is strong. Special praise goes to Best, however. Though I didn't clock the amount of time during the 90-minuter he spent running in place, it might have been as much as half. So long-distance running of the sort not required of the flick's Courtenay (who had the benefits of many takes and no eight performances weekly) goes on.

Has anyone connected with the production clocked the mileage covered? Does the well-named Best suck oxygen the few times he leaves the stage? It would be interesting to know. Until answers to those questions are offered, send congratulations Best's way for his stamina. He may be amused to know that on leaving the auditorium not a few patrons are huffing and puffing on his behalf.