Gimme Swelter: The Rep tempts fate with The Fall of Heaven

For Tempest Landry, life in Harlem is made up of momentary pleasures: a wife, a mistress, enough cash in his pocket to pay for creature comforts. If there's one thing Tempest dislikes, it's to waste time standing in lines. So when he is mistaken for an armed robber and gunned down by police, the seemingly unending line (we're talking years here) at the Judgment Gate puts him in a foul mood. And when, after having finally endured that long and winding wait, he's summarily dispatched to Hell, Tempest is in a contentious mood. No way is he going to Hell. Instead he's returned to earth in order to be reminded of what a bad dude he actually is. So begins the odyssey that unfolds in Walter Mosley's The Fall of Heaven, which debuted last year in Cincinnati and is receiving its second staging at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Mosley has adapted The Fall of Heaven, his first play, from his 2008 novel The Tempest Tales. That novel might seem an ideal candidate for adaption, for its very spine is a series of conversations between Tempest returned-to-earth and Joshua Angel, one of St. Peter's bookkeepers. Joshua has been given human form so that he can be available to persuade Tempest to accept his inevitable fate. In the novel these two engage in "meandering debates over good and evil." Some of those debates — for instance, the interlude when Tempest asks, "If America was a man, would he make it past Peter's threshold?" — are provocative. But as a novice playwright, Mosley does not yet appreciate the distinction between dialogue and action. It's not enough to merely eliminate meandering talk; you also have to dramatize.

We learn that when Tempest was returned to earth, he had to steal money in order to live — but we don't see that happen. We're told he saved the life of a woman who needed urgent medical care — but we don't see it. We don't even see Tempest gunned down by the police. Despite the humor and energy that Bryan Terrell Clark brings to his role, Tempest remains a largely passive character. Joshua (Corey Allen) is another matter. Much like his predecessor Dudley, the angel portrayed by Cary Grant in the 1947 film The Bishop's Wife, we see Joshua being tempted by the odd stirrings of physical love that inform humanity. During the course of the evening, we watch Joshua evolve; we share his journey.

Jeffrey C. Hawkins, Corey Allen and Bryan Terrell Clark in The Fall of Heaven.
Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Jeffrey C. Hawkins, Corey Allen and Bryan Terrell Clark in The Fall of Heaven.

Location Info

Map

Loretto-Hilton Center

130 Edgar Road
Webster Groves, MO 63119

Category: Performing Arts Venues

Region: Webster Groves

Details

The Fall of Heaven
Performed through January 30 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves.
Tickets are $18.50 to $70.
Call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.

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The plot becomes more nuanced when Tempest returns from a visit to New Orleans accompanied by his new best friend, the Devil (an appropriately cool — and very white — Jeffrey C. Hawkins). Although that friendship is short-lived, it is not helpful when playwright Mosley inserts the "N" word into Satan's denunciations of Tempest. The novel reads quite effectively without that word; here its inclusion seems gratuitous, a cheap stunt that boomerangs. At the opening-night performance, each time the word was uttered you could feel a cold shiver pass through the auditorium, as if viewers instinctively knew how unnecessary it was.

Here's another change between page and stage: The novel addresses "the battlefield of black America" that Tempest inhabits, but the play does not. Much of his anger has been defused, perhaps to make him more likable. The singular voice Mosley brings to his novel is muted onstage.

The Rep production, which has been directed by Seth Gordon, is amiable enough. Yet certain odd choices have been made, beginning with the stolid set design of a Harlem street that tells us almost nothing about Tempest's world. The occasional extras who pass across this street are used to little effect. Then there is the curiously uncommanding voice of St. Peter. When he pronounces to Tempest, "This is your final judgment," he sounds like Don Pardo announcing prizes on The Price Is Right. Anybody could bluff this guy; no surprise that Tempest took him on.

 
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Scott Miller
Scott Miller

Brown seems not to understand that Tempest is not the hero of the story; Joshua Angel is. He's the one who goes on a journey, learns, changes. Tempest is the device that brings this jounrey and these changes about. Brown can complain about Tempest being too passive a protagonist, but maybe that's because he's not the protagonist. C'mon, Dennis stop trying to impress us that you read the novel and say something intelligent about the show and production! Brown compalins that there's too much dialogue instead of action. But if he were paying attention, he'd know the action of the play is largely interior and it happens INSIDE the dialouge, just like anything written by Miller, Albee, Stoppard, Williams, et al. And again, if he were tuned in at all to what Mosley was saying, Brown would understand that the use of the N-word is DESIGNED to send a chill through the audience, for all the right reasons. It's not a stunt; it's REAL. And that's why it's chilling.

Guest
Guest

I find it disappointing that Mr. Brown does not yet appreciate the distinction between writing a critique of a stage play and the comparative analysis of a play and its source material.

If you do not like the play, that is certainly your prerogative. But in writing work of dramatic criticism meant to inform your readers, I would expect more insight beyond "I liked the book better".

With regard to the audience reaction to the use of the "N" word. Having seen the production at the Rep and experiencing a similar cold shiver, I can assure you it has nothing to do with your contention that its inclusion was gratuitous. Rather, it is the chill that occurs as if viewers knew how venomous its usage was within the context of the drama.

And perhaps that was Mr. Mosley's intent all along.

 
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