WHERE Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.
INFO $77-$146; 212-239-6200; eclipsedbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Radiant Nyong’o, simplistic drama.
The excitement was electric last October, when Lupita Nyong’o made her New York stage debut Off-Broadway in the Public Theater’s smallest upstairs space.
What’s more, the gifted Kenya-raised actress, fashion favorite and Oscar-winning star of “12 Years a Slave” was appearing in “Eclipsed,” an intense no-star ensemble-drama by Danai Gurira about captive women who served warlords during the second Liberian civil war. No high-gloss Broadway vehicle for this serious artist.
Indeed, Nyong’o proved as compelling and radiant in person as on screen. But the play, despite other enthusiastic reviews, struck me as an earnest, heavy-handed labor of love — sincere and worthy but a dramatically simplistic look at the oppression of women as a weapon of war. Gurira — who, incidentally, plays Michonne in “The Walking Dead” — wrote this after interviewing women in Liberia. Nyong’o was an understudy in a 2009 Yale Repertory Theatre production while still a student.
Now the Public’s heartfelt, modest, occasionally clunky staging of “Eclipsed“ has come to Broadway, with a haunted photo of Nyong’o in character on the cover of the program and an elegant one of the star in a perfume ad on the back. She plays the newest wife of the unseen soldier who keeps the women in a bullet-ridden shack. They stand at attention while he gestures to his recreational choice of the moment.
Although called “The Girl” in the program, this extraordinary actress is anything but generic, playing a literate, thoughtful, self-possessed child-woman who, faced with powerlessness, discovers the monstrous killing machine she has inside.
The Broadway showcase magnifies both the strengths and the weaknesses of the play, written by the Zimbabwean-American playwright, directed by South-African born Liesl Tommy and performed by women, most of whom have roots in Africa. On the positive side are portrayals that have deepened in complexity and nuance over the months. Saycon Sengbloh is commanding yet touching as Wife #1, while Pascale Armand has the live-wire timing of a virtuoso as the pregnant Wife #3.
Gurira wants us to understand the awful choices available to these women, including the one Zainab Jah) who joins the rebels. But the storytelling gets weighed down in message and metaphor when explaining the women peacemakers who actually did forge the peace accord in 2003 that led to democratic elections.
At the risk of suggesting that Broadway can only have one drama about women in Africa’s civil wars, I can’t help comparing this to Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” the superior, multi-textured 2009 Pulitzer winner about the destruction of women in the Congo. “Ruined” didn’t have a star and never got to Broadway. This one does and did — “Ruined” has been eclipsed.