The Mountaintop

Katori Hall’s historical drama about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s last night on earth won the Olivier Award in England.

Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

New York

(212) 239-6200

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“An ominous electricity” charges the opening moments of Katori Hall’s ambitious historical drama, said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. The setting has much to do with this: Hall’s play, which is making a celebrity-powered New York premiere following an Olivier Award–winning run in London’s West End, unfolds in a “generic, dirt-toned” motel room that the program tells us is No. 306 at Memphis’s Lorraine Motel; we’re looking in on the night before its occupant, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., will be assassinated. Yet while our first look at King as he toys with the phrases of a new speech heightens our interest and apprehension, “during the next 85 intermissionless minutes,” the tension “steadily” seeps out.

“Part of the problem is casting,” said Peter Marks in The Washington Post. At 62, Samuel L. Jackson is more than 20 years older than King was in 1968, and he creates a portrait that’s not just subdued but “drained of life force.” Angela Bassett, meanwhile, plays a young maid who is called to the room and is soon “spraying sass around as if it were Pledge.” The performance is a bit much, especially because it underlines that the hotel staffer is “the more dynamic character” in this story about King’s last night on earth.

That might be because she harbors a secret that elevates this play beyond mere bio-drama, said David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter. Suffice it to say that the maid is a far more powerful figure than her uniform suggests, and her climactic speech transforms this story into a rumination on life and death “that connects King’s legacy to every person in the audience.” A play about King that goes over the top is perhaps preferable to “bland realism,” said David Cote in Time Out New York. Still, Hall’s decision to close on an otherworldly plane turns The Mountaintop into an “awkward blend of docudrama, surreal whimsy, and pandering black-history triumphalism.”

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