When it comes to dealing with the biblical question of who is his brother's keeper, politicians blame the other party, theologians kowtow to the well-heeled while reminding them to help the less fortunate, and self-help enthusiasts consider the question confounding and untenable. Enter actor Laurence Fishburne, whose three-character Riff Raff examines issues of social responsibility in a bare-fisted manner that makes such theoretical droning sound like wholesale plea-copping. And as the Shadow Theatre Company's production suggests, the play's searing dialogue isn't just a more direct way of addressing an age-old problem. The tough talk has life-or-death consequences for anyone forced to decide whether trust and brotherly love are affordable luxuries or deadly forms of fool's gold.
That's a difficult choice for Mike Leon (Jeffrey W. Nickelson) and Bill "Torch" Murphy (Kurt Soderstrom), a couple of small-time hoods -- and half-brothers -- who retreat to a Lower East Side shooting gallery when a routine drug deal turns into a large-scale robbery. Seems that when the buy went bad, Torch grabbed the drug-filled briefcase and shot one of gang leader Manny Rivera's teenage sellers. Acutely aware that a few gangbangers are hanging out at a phone booth on the corner, the two men keep a nervous vigil while holed up in their rat-infested hideout. Certain that they will be killed within the next 24 hours, the two argue, insult, cajole and blame each other -- until one of Mike's former partners in crime, Tony "The Tiger" Lee (Cajardo R. Lindsey), shows up.
Vowing that he's no longer an outlaw but an upstanding, if struggling, father and husband, Tony suggests ways in which Mike and Torch might extricate themselves from their predicament, ways that imply that "Mr. Frosted Flakes" (as Torch calls him) might not be all that he's cracked up to be. Along the way, we discover that Mike, who is black, and Torch, who is white, have the same father, who abused his sons in different ways but to the same crushing effect: Mike had to live with the philandering and violent dad Torch never knew, but both sons continue to suffer equally from their father's lack of affection and guidance. As one character quips, "Home is where the hatred is."
Riff Raff, presented by the Shadow Theatre Company through October 16 at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street, 303-837-9355
The two-hour work is performed on a spare setting of overturned wooden chairs and assorted crack-den refuse; a prison-bar pattern occasionally illuminates a simulated brick wall at the back of the stage. Despite a shaky first scene and slackening of tension elsewhere, director Hugo Jon Sayles fosters an atmosphere that's conducive to the play's bizarre combination of abject terror, rambling narrative and bathroom humor. However, it's sometimes hard to believe that any of these characters are as street-hardened or under the gun as they should be, especially when they internalize their emotions and quietly ruminate as though the only thing in danger of being riddled by bullets is their breezy conversation. (And a crucial episode near play's end is diluted by a recorded sound effect, when a more immediate one would have had a much greater impact.)
When it comes to delivering their characters' more blistering exchanges, though, the talented trio is thoroughly convincing. Whether he's sputtering about regaining his character's (in)famous sense of "20/20," pleading with Torch to clean up his life or spewing venom at Tony for deceiving him, Nickelson conveys Mike's pathetic bravado and sneering contempt. And when Mike discovers that his brother is even more of a weakling that he suspected, Nickelson straddles a chair and snarls at Torch, "I hope that shit kills you." It's a riveting episode that, like the rest of the duo's scenes, is tinged with both racial and familial overtones. Lindsey delivers a mature, confident portrayal of Tony that plumbs the human lightning rod's nature to attract conflict and then enflame it. His recitation of a ten-minute poem at the top of Act Two, while sickeningly graphic, is superbly realized. Soderstrom's portrait of Torch could use a tad more variety, but he communicates his palpable anger and withering rage, often to the point that one wonders whether he's on the verge of tears, laughter or both. And all three actors demonstrate a remarkable ability to navigate emotional twists and turns without careening into maudlin overdrive. When Nickelson cries, "I ain't ready to die today, Tony!" Lindsey sinks an imaginary dagger into his -- and our -- hearts when he quietly says, "I ain't ready to die for you."
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As the play marches to its conclusion, each of the men is compelled to choose which path to follow. It becomes naggingly clear that the debate between personal responsibility and social uplift has resulted in nothing more than debilitating strife and pointless bickering -- and that dreams, marches and programs notwithstanding, all children are not born equal. As a single votive candle burns in the darkness, a hymn-like ballad's lyrics -- "Just to believe in ourselves will guide us to victory" -- suggest that the answer to most of society's problems lies, as it always has, hauntingly close to home. -- Lillie