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Strangers in a Strange Land: A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick and In the Heat of the Night

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Strangers in a Strange Land: <em>A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick</em> and <em>In the Heat of the Night</em>

At first, it seems as if Abebe (William Jackson Harper), the Ethiopian hero of Kia Corthron’s A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick (try saying that five times fast), may never fully merge his ideas about God, the impoverished, and the world’s water supply into a palatable presentation to his grieving, uprooted American caretakers (Myra Lucretia Taylor and Kianne Muschett). But then you realize that Corthron (Breath, Boom) will never pull off the same feat either, as her supremely unfocused, recklessly overstuffed new work makes quite clear pretty early on. Those three subjects could each make their own neat little play, but this one also crams in Hurricane Katrina, corporate commerce, foster kids, hallucinations, droughts, rekindled romance, and a peculiar pair of talking kitchen cabinets, resulting in a hodgepodge of styles, intents, and tones—a runaway train of a play that just keeps on jumping off track after track.

If Corthron, clearly a passionate writer with something to say, wasn’t so immersed in Too Many Big Ideas and stuck to maybe two or three of the aforementioned topics, she might have really had something. But lumbering along at two-and-a-half numbing hours, quite repetitively, with a cast that—save for Harper’s warm, endearing leading turn—feels woefully under-rehearsed when not just plain amateurish, it ends up rather indubitably, as Abebe likes to say throughout, all washed up.

John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, the newest reinvented classic from the crafty Godlight Theatre Company, happens to be the very definition of structure, and the Oscar-winning 1967 film, as well as the eight-season TV series, proved there’s no end to what you can do with Virgil Tibbs, a black detective who gets caught up in a murder mystery in the Deep South, opposite sturdy but rednecky police chief Gillespie. The grandaddy of the salt-and-pepper procedural, In the Heat of the Night amazingly still holds up as a movie, not really because the racial tensions between the homespun Gillespie and well-educated Tibbs still has an unsettling frisson, but because it’s such a good three-act yarn, a nicely lugubrious stew that goes down like a frosty brew in summertime.

Playing Tibbs and Gillespie respectively here, Sean Phillips and Gregory Konow won’t exactly make you forget Sidney Poitier or Rod Steiger (or the humor they managed to inject into the heady tale), but they don’t ever impersonate them either, and though their portrayals are still on the rough side, one suspects they will improve with time. Better here are some of the supporting players, especially Bryce Hodgson, wonderfully wormy as a series of Southern-fried agitators, and Nick Paglino, who is quite captivating as Deputy Wood, Gillespie’s right-hand man, and who sometimes, by default, seems to be as much a main player as Tibbs and Gillespie in this production.

The uneven acting is typical of Godlight’s ensembles, but just as typical is their greatest selling point: the stirring light and soundscapes they effortlessly create. As in their last outing, an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, the staging is a large square with four-sided seating, with sound and light cues used to create ambience most companies would use sets for (a divided frame of white light stirringly suggests a jail cell, as an example). Maruti Evans’s spectacular lighting design creates an entire world of marshy humidity with nary a lick of scenery, and director Joe Tantalo very wisely uses movement to substitute for talky exposition in some scenes; Tibbs’s brutal beatdown by some local KKK members gets a vivid, balletic motion sequence that is highly effective. And thankfully, unlike most works transferred to stage based on notable movies or TV shows, it doesn’t droolingly linger on the recognizable button moments, namely In the Heat of the Night’s famous Tibbs backslap or AFI-approved Great Line (“They call me…Mister Tibbs!”). A smart troupe, these Godlighters, and if they can eventually align their performance level to their already envied visual know-how, they could wind up becoming the next can’t-miss NYC institution.

A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick is now playing at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street, 4th Floor) in New York City and continues until April 11. Schedule: Tue - Sat at 7:30pm, Sat at 2pm, Sun at 2pm and 7pm. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, one intermission. And John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night is now playing at 59E59 Theatres (59 E 59th St bet. Madison and Park Aves) in New York City and continues until April 25. Schedule: Tue - Wed at 7:30pm, Thu - Sat at 8:30pm, Sat at 2:30pm, Sun at 3:30pm. Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, no intermission.