Ian Bruce's Groundswell begins daringly. Perhaps too much so. Starting a play in total darkness with a man speaking in a strange foreign language jars the audience into the play. After the lights have come up, to reveal scenic director Derek McLane's detail-rich rendering of a lobby/dining area in a small seaside guest lodge, it takes theatergoers a while to acclimate to the action, its location, and two of the play's three characters. Patience is key in Groundswell, which ultimately proves to be an intelligently rewarding and surprising play.
Groundswell centers on Johan (David Lansbury), an ex-cop who's now working as a diamond diver in the small South African port town where the lodge is located. In addition to diving for diamonds, he works as a part-time gardener and handy man at the lodge, supervised by Thami (Souléymane Sy Savané), a black man from an impoverished village outside of Cape Town, where he's left his wife and children. The prospect of riches that can be found in the abandoned diamond mines surrounding the town has captured not only Thami's imagination, but also Johan's and the two men are hoping that they might be able to make a bid on one of the mining concessions being offered by the government. There's only one problem – neither man has the sort of capital that's necessary to start a mining company.
The solution to this dilemma seems to have arrived at the lodge in the person of Smith (Larry Bryggman), a businessman on holiday in the off-season. Johan thinks that he might be able to convince Smith to invest in the mining venture as a partner. Thami's in complete agreement, but he's concerned about Johan's drinking and erratic behavior, which is in evidence even when the man is sober. Theatergoers might have other concerns about the chances of Johan's plan succeeding, particularly given the gleaming diving knife that Johan proudly sports from the outset, and the intimations of impropriety that surrounded Johan's dismissal from the police force.
These details may lead theatergoers to anticipate an eruption of violence in Groundswell, but they do not point to the intriguing and satisfying crux of the play: how these men's lives were shaped by Apartheid and the impact that the dismantling of that governmentally sanctioned segregation has had on them. And though Johan's knife and past may hint at his predatory nature, each of the characters reveals himself to be capable of being cutthroat as he maneuvers through a world in which nothing seems either familiar or has turned out as he might have expected.
On both political and dramatic levels, Groundswell proves to be riveting in Scott Elliot's staging, which is consistently taut. And though Elliott never solves some of the script's more awkward and ungainly structural problems, he has, nevertheless, elicited three grandly eloquent and passionate performances from his company. As Johan, Lansbury finds surprising variety in his character's antic and on-the-edge behavior, and reveals, almost heartbreakingly, the man's desperation. Savané's Thami is a portrait of restrained dignity and innate intelligence that's infused with a street-smart shrewdness that hints of menace. Perhaps most impressive is Bryggman's turn as the plainspoken and besieged – by his hosts - Smith. Audiences empathize not only with Smith's plight at the lodge, but also thanks to Bryggman's carefully calibrated performance, with some of the man's most questionable beliefs and statements about what has happened in South Africa in the post-Apartheid era.
It's unfortunate that the play's early moments do not more adequately prepare theatergoers for the rich human drama that unfolds in Groundswell. Bruce's intent may very well be to instill in the audience the same sort of bewilderment that the characters themselves feel. If this is the case, he certainly succeeds, making it incumbent upon theatergoers to have patience with the playwright and his process. For those who are, the rewards, intellectually and emotionally, are plentiful.
---- Andy Propst
Groundswell plays at Theatre Row, The Acorn Theatre (410 West 42nd Street). Performances are Monday at8pm; Tuesday at 7pm; Wednesday through Friday at 8pm; and Saturday at 2 and 8pm. Tickets are $49.00 and can be purchased by calling 212-279-4200 or by visiting www.ticketcentral.com. Further information is available online at www.TheNewGroup.com.