The prospect of a Broadway play about Martin Luther King threatens to be as earnest as an after-school special or as nobly stone-faced as the new MLK monument in Washington.
So it's a relief, not to mention a thrill, to report that Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop" -- which arrives with powerful fistfuls of sparky chemistry between Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett -- crackles with theatricality and a humanity more moving than sainthood.
People close to the man and the brand may take issue with the young African-American playwright's imagined portrait of a flawed but inspiring civil-rights leader on the night before his assassination. As a 95-minute, two-character work of myth-based fiction, however, Hall's play (which won the Olivier in London) strikes me as less irreverent than the "He's a man, he's just a man" lyrics in "Jesus Christ, Superstar."
It is a dark and stormy night, April 3, 1968, hours before King will be shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He blows through the door exhausted from a speech and preparing the next one, fighting a cold and jumpy about death threats. We hear him urinate. He phones wife Coretta, preens a bit in the mirror, smells his shoes. Then he orders coffee, which is delivered by a wowed but saucy and oddly confident housekeeper on her first night on the job.
It gives nothing away to mention that the woman, named Camae, is more mysterious than she appears and that, along with the flirting and the foreshadowing, both political and spiritual revelations occur.
There is an up-close-and-personal intimacy in director Kenny Leon's sure-handed production. It is framed as a wide, squat box of a motel room (by David Gallo), which makes the characters -- and the actors -- seem exceptionally exposed.
And the actors thrive on a stage with no place to hide while maneuvering Hall's sharp Southern-inflected dialogue. For all his formidable presence, Jackson delicately weaves the strands of masculine surety and a seeker's vulnerability, peeling contradictory layers off the man and legend. And Bassett is amazing as Camae, a bravura role that lets her shape-shift into so many different kinds of women -- playful and wild, worshipful and scary-wise.
If we don't quite believe King enjoyed a good pillow fight before he died, well, it is almost inspirational to imagine.
WHAT "The Mountaintop"
WHERE Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.
INFO $76.50-$131.50; 212-239-6200; themountaintopplay.com