The Theatreguide.London Review
Tricycle Theatre Autumn 2008
Hypothesis: The B-level work of an A-level writer is usually more interesting than the A-level work of a B-level writer.
While a mediocre writer is not likely to rise above the level of solid competence, a major writer will show at least flashes of brilliance even when not operating at full steam.
Radio Golf is not in the very top rank of August Wilson's plays - it lacks the exhilarating poetry and overpowering theatrical symbols that mark such masterworks as Fences and The Piano Lesson - but as the final work of one of the finest dramatists America has produced, it demands and rewards seeing.
You may know that the African-American Wilson devoted his career to a cycle of ten plays, each encapsulating some aspect of the black American experience in a different decade of the Twentieth Century.
Radio Golf, set in 1997, rounded out the cycle, with its first production just months before Wilson's death in 2005.
The central characters of Radio Golf are middle class and successful, property developers about to begin a major urban renewal project. One plans to run for mayor, his wife is about to join the Governor's staff, and their partner plays golf with the city's white millionaires and is joining them in business deals.
And then an old man wanders into their office claiming to own a house right in the middle of the development site, and everything begins to crumble - not just the development plan, but values, loyalties, and even their faith in a system and society that seemed finally to be including black Americans.
In this solid revival directed by Wilson veteran Paulette Randall, the play has touches - but unfortunately just touches - of Wilson's signature ability to raise ordinary speech to poetry and to ambush you with resonant symbols.
The garrulous old man (played here with his usual easy expertise by Joseph Marcell) is likely to go on and on so that you are only half-listening when he begins a reminiscence about carrying the flag in a Second World War battle until the power of the memory and description hit you.
The American flag itself, visible in all the candidate's campaign posters, is an unforced symbol that morphs from celebration of inclusiveness to ironic reminder of exclusion.
And a scene between the candidate (Danny Sapani) and his wife (Julie Saunders), in which they come right up to the edge of saying too much and breaking, and then remember their love just in time, recalls a similarly heart-stopping moment in Wilson's Jitney.
What keeps Radio Golf from complete success is that such moments are too few, and too much of the rest of the play is pedestrian or forced.
The partner played by Roger Griffiths is never really developed beyond his plot functions, and a fifth character, an uneducated working man with a remarkable insight into personalities and situations, never quite rings true, despite the efforts of Ray Shell.
And the two themes running through the play - of Danny Sapani's character finding his own path when forced out of his comfortable security, and of the Griffiths and Shell characters' suspicions that white America will still close ranks against them if they get too successful - aren't fully integrated.
August Wilson famously took most of his plays on a multi-year journey of workshops, interim productions and rewritings on their way to their final form. He might well have made Radio Golf an even richer and more polished play had he had the opportunity.
As it stands, its importance lies more in the accomplishment of his achieving his ten-play cycle than in its own merits, but that in itself is good reason for anyone who admired the other plays or anyone interested in American drama to see it.
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