In Mud, River, Stone, Lynn Nottage has come up with a promising situation. In a wilderness hotel somewhere in Africa, a mysterious British businessman, a young African-American tourist couple, a female African welfare worker, and a crazed, half-naked Belgian gone native are taken hostage by the bellhop Joaquim, an ex-soldier reverting to his civil-war past. Bloated with sudden power, Joaquim threatens to shoot any or all of the hostages, meanwhile playing mind games with them. Unfortunately, the dramatic potential drowns in arbitrariness and manipulation.
One man with a pistol cannot keep six others at bay for days on end. What happens when he sleeps? As the only staff member left at the hotel, does Joaquim fetch the needed food? Or who else delivers it? And when a U.N. official, Simone Frick, arrives to arbitrate, why does her plane promptly take off without her, leaving her a hostage as well? Nonsense piles on nonsense as the author, totally neglectful of logic and logistics, indulges herself in a battle of wits rather too short on wit. When the play begins as a pleasantly zany farce, we go along; but with the onset of forced seriousness comes loss of credibility and interest, and we opt out.
Too bad, because under Roger Rees’s lively direction, the work is given a conscientious production. Neil Patel’s set makes the most of the small Playwrights Horizons stage, Kaye Voyce’s costumes look suitably lived in, and Frances Aronson’s lighting is on the beam. The cast is solid, with Paula Newsome, Maduka Steady, and Brian Murray outstanding, and Michael Potts, Oni Faida Lampley, John McAdams not far behind. The good Yugoslav actress Mirjana Jokovic, as Simone, is made to deliver her lines word by word, if not syllable by syllable, presumably to mock the U.N.’s patronizing ways, but it is carried too far.
Even better plays of ideas have no license to kill off the basics. Mud, River, Stone makes light of reality without transporting us to realms of poetry, philosophy, or absurdism where this would no longer matter. The awkward shift from comedy to melodrama is also damaging, but worst of all is that in the sphere of ideas it is so eager to inhabit, the play has nothing much to say. That black Africans, white Africans, and visiting African-Americans are not a ménage à trois made in heaven we suspected all along. The revelations we waited for must have lost their way to the hotel in the surrounding jungle.