Or it could be because of the mediocre playwriting, limp direction, and mismatched performances in The Mountaintop, the starry, high-profile imagining of King’s final night that opened Thursday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
The Mountaintop dramatizes an invented interaction between King and a young chambermaid in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, on the balcony outside of which, as we well know, he’ll be assassinated the next evening. A hit in London with different actors and a different director, it was written by a buzzed-about young playwright, Katori Hall; it features the movie stars Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett as the maid, Camae; it won the Olivier award for best new play. It is intriguingly determined to show us King as a flesh-and-bones man—he relieves himself, not visibly but quite audibly, soon after entering the motel room—while also placing him in a near-deified pantheon.
It doesn’t succeed, primarily because it doesn’t actually have anything new to say about the civil-rights hero. The first few moments of the play seem promising—it’s great fun watching King putter about the room, writing and rehearsing bits of oratory. But after Camae enters, their flirtatious conversation is a bore: We’re told lots of things we already know about the reverend, including the fact that he had an eye for women who were not his wife.
Mr. Jackson gives a relaxed, subtly electric performance as King, lending to the role his natural presence and magnetism. But director Kenny Leon, who drew a gorgeously matched set of performances from Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in his searing revival of August Wilson’s Fences two seasons ago, is unable to rein in the grandstanding Ms. Bassett, who seems poised to chew up Mr. Jackson along with the meticulously replicated scenery. Her performance becomes less jarring once The Mountaintop makes a surprise turn for the surreal and metaphysical near the two-thirds mark, but even then, it, and the play, remain unconvincing.
Of course, the material doesn’t help Ms. Bassett control herself. Her character ends the play bellowing a litany of civil-rights names and milestones reached after King’s death. It’s a Black History Month version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and there’s no subtle way to play that.