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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Lift — Crossroads Theatre

Lift -- interior As in many of Walter Mosley’s works, “Lift,” his world premiere play at New Brunswick’s Crossroads Theatre, has a lot going on at once.

Most immediate is the fate of two people caught in an elevator that is held precariously stationary by what’s left of a cable that can snap at any minute and hurl its occupants 30 stories into the abyss of a Manhattan skyscraper that was attacked by terrorist missiles, its upper floors continuing to burn out of control.

As Theodore and Tina, unacquainted employees from different departments of the same financial firm, ride passively upbound to their destinations, the elevator’s floor literally lurches out from under them while its framework lists forward and to the left.  The car eventually stabilizes, but the pair is naturally stunned. And  relieved to be alive and unhurt.  For what may only be the time being.

Although they haven’t been introduced, Theodore and Tina know a little about each other before they are thrust into mutual peril  that makes one the other’s sole human refuge. Waiting to board the elevator, Theodore commented on something he overheard Tina’s friend, Noni, say and received a cold “And who exactly are you?” stare from both women. When the financial company’s CEO enters the elevator, Tina hides behind Theodore and arranges a scarf to hide her face.  She also lies to the CEO about her name. Theodore’s curiosity about her behavior increases when it’s clear she isn’t aware the man who whose presence unnerves her is the firm’s boss. Why then, the panic?

See, even before the elevator goes off kilter, Mosley has you thinking and wondering more about this couple, both black, Tina being from Africa, Theodore being an African-American who, when not at work, cares for his mother who has increasingly severe dementia.

Once the elevator, designed to crumple by Andrei Onegin, takes its tumble, Theodore and Tina, already wary of or perplexed by the other, must rely on one another to stay calm and survive. There’s no one else who can help them. Mosley uses the British word for elevator, “lift,” as the title of his play because, in addition to it denoting a literal carriage that transports you vertically from one platform to another,  it implies the boost one gives to another in times of danger or panic (as well as the boost Tina gives Theodore so he can see things from the top of the elevator car),  the physical and emotional support one may be called upon to provide, the cooperation involved in maneuvers that require two people, and the frisson that comes when two people come to know each other and become attracted.

Mosley knows his business. He builds curiosity and suspense on many levels. At the most literal, any unwise shift of weight, any more give on the cable, any further attack from the terrorists, and any effect of the natural property of gravity can cause the elevator car to fall to oblivion. On a more subtle and engaging level, Tina and Theodore are two young, eligible people who can opt for quiet stoicism, or even cautious skepticism, but have conversation and experiences that mirror a relationship, one that blooms as they are captive in a calamitous situation that could turn catastrophic.

Mosley’s elevator becomes a world in microcosm, an isolated world in which the only sounds are ominous blasts and screeches, scored well by Toussaint Hunt, discouraging updates from firefighters, and calls, some desperate, from other people in other cars suspended in limbo from the attack. For Theodore and Tina, Manhattan has become a city of two who can exist peacefully and cordially or be in constant, sneering conflict.

“Lift” chronicles about nine hours Theodore and Tina will spend in the elevator. As that time lapses, all stages of acquaintance, courtship, and romance are played. Mosley sets his characters through an entire life cycle of relationship — encounter, introduction, resistance, repulsion, attraction, chat, revelation, vulnerability, upheaval, conflict, sex, and the possibility of love in the short span allotted. We come to know Tina and Theodore quite well and empathize with their lives outside of the elevator as much as we do with their plight inside it. Their reactions and responses to each other at times take on more interest than whether they will be rescued.

The ground Mosley has his characters cover in this claustrophobic space is amazing. Theodore and Tina touch on a series of universal topics and mores. Yet as “Lift” proceeds, Theodore and Tina become more individual rather than serving as symbols for all humankind. The business of a wide world may be discussed, but Mosley’s point becomes that no matter what else is happening or is at issue, all boils down to two people who are in one place, one life-threatening place, and developing strong feelings for one another.

The play remains interesting because of all that Theodore and Tina reveal about their lives, past and present. We are curious to hear more about these two people who have a lot more going on in their minds than meets the eye, not to mention that their lives hang, literally, in tenuous balance.

The challenge for “Lift’s” director, Marshall Jones, III, is to contain all that Mosley crams into Theodore and Tina’s time together in a taut production that takes advantage of several kinds of tension and keeps you on edge as you concentrate equally on the twin developments of a teetering elevator car and the intense personal encounter between two strong but flawed people. “Lift” should be a nail-biter that gives you that pleasant discomfort that comes from fearing what you might see or learn but needing to look to find out what happens next.

Theatrically, this does not happen in Jones’s production for Crossroads. While Mosley constantly adds twists and angles, and Hunt’s sound design comes through with another creak or bump, no dramatic tension radiates from the Crossroads stage. You care about Theodore and Tina, and are engaged by their separate personalities and mutual appreciation for one another but remain emotionally inert. Interest and curiosity, literary qualities, take the place of worry, terror, tenuousness, and fear for what might happen to Theodore and Tina. “Lift” becomes a play to hear, not one to watch. It is the dialogue that counts, the byplay between two intelligent people. This engages us, but it does not excite passion. We take in what happens intellectually, as if we’re following a juicy conversation, instead of viscerally, as if human life is in grim jeopardy.

The situation puzzles me a bit because I was always interested in what was going on between Tina and Theodore. Their unfolding romance was fun, if not moving to watch. You truly want to know their stories and anticipate their futures, assuming they survive. Perhaps the intensifying relationship between the characters obscured my concern for their safety. I found myself to be much more excited about T&T getting together as a couple than I did about whether they would be saved.

You learn a lot about the characters, and MaameYaa Boafo and Biko Eisen-Martin make Tina and Theodore quite likeable, even as they reveal their seamier sides. As “Lift” progresses, these characters emerge as individuals with complex lives. They are not the male executive in the handsome suit nor the snappy clerk in the lovely summer dress we take them for as they enter the elevator. It is not so much T&T’s hopes and dreams that capture our attention. It’s the things they’ve done to survive long before they found themselves in the throes of mortal danger. Theodore has made a questionable move to help him cope with holding a demanding full-time job and watching his mother deteriorate mentally. Tina, who comes across as high-minded and uninterested in ways of the street, found a less than orthodox way to pay for her education and a way to a better life than might be expected from an African refugee with few prospects. Each discusses standards but speaks openly of life’s realities and how they led to where they are, working in different capacities for an old and respected financial firm.

We enjoy hearing about Theodore and Tina, but their revelations take our mind off their rather critical dilemma.

Of course, Mosley brings us back to it by scripting calls from other stalled cars and assigning Theodore in particular moments when he tries to improve their lot. He also adds concern and comedy as Theodore has a bout of illness that must be dealt with where no medical help can reach him, and Tina has to answer a call of nature that Theodore, for some reason, claims to be too bashful to witness.

I think you can tell how much I enjoyed spending time with Boafo and Eisen-Martin as they developed their characters. I only wish I felt more emotionally tied to them.  Perhaps Mosley’s script is too episodic. New information comes out of the blue at times. Ah, his stomach pains are not caused by nerves or stress. I see, Tina is not a pure as her classiness makes her seem.  Drama is inherent in every aspect of “Lift,” yet it plays like a story instead of a play.

Jones is limited in the theatrical effects he can use. Rocco DiSanti’s lighting, for instance, is pretty much ordained to be the stark brightness of the elevator’s emergency lamps. It can’t be adapted much to create mood or enhance the sense of danger. Onegin’s tilted elevator floor is about six-feet square. Jones finds positions in which his actors can be closely confrontational, but he can’t incorporate strong crosses or other techniques that increase stage tension while action is confined to such a rigidly compact space. I think the loss of flexibility took away more opportunities for dramatic tension than the confined setting of the elevator provided.

MaameYaa Boafo is a fine actress who makes you respect Tina and root for both her survival and her success in improving her general station in life.

Boafo’s Tina is smart and sophisticated. She matches the taste and class of the sharp dress Anne E. Grosz designs for her to wear. Tina’s style, and a bit of snobbery, make her unhappy to be stuck with the rawer, more obviously striving Theodore for company. Her impression changes some when she realizes how resourceful Theodore is in their emergency and how well he knows the skyscraper’s system from the days he spent in the company’s maintenance department before working his way up to the suit and tie he dons when we meet him.

Theodore is willing to sacrifice that suit for his and Tina’s survival. He tears at his shirt, and then his undershirt, to make masks that will prevent them from breathing in years of dust when he breaks through the elevator car’s roof to assess the seriousness of his and Tina’s condition.

Boafo is clever in the way she introduces new information and in the way she responds as she learns more about Eisen-Martin’s Theodore.

Biko Eisen-Martin is less formal and more casually everyday as Theodore. He enjoys wearing a $180 shirt and an even more expensive suit because he knows all it took for him to attain a position that allows him to afford such clothing and gives him an occasion, and perhaps even a responsibility, to wear them, but he is more aware of his ordinary background and less pretentious about his status than Tina is at first.

Theodore looks to be attracted to Tina from seeing her in line before they board the elevator. Eisen-Martin plays him as flirtatious and willing to take his chances, even with this woman who seems so resistant and even a tad mysterious at first.

Shavonna Banks made a strong impression in her brief appearance as Tina’s colleague, Noni. Martin Kushner had a neat comic turn as the CEO, Mr. Resterly, who sparks a discussion from his classification of different ethnic groups. In spite of being questioned by Tina, he is tactful enough to leave blacks out of his litany.

There is a lot to “Lift.” I have even debated going to see it again to see if watching it from a different angle — I could not always see what was happening atop the elevator — would make a difference or to satisfy my wonder if I fell into the critic’s curse of paying so much attention to a play’s mechanics, I missed the drama. As much as it troubles to me to admit that happens, I have to confess it sometimes does, especially at world premieres.

“Lift” runs through Friday, April 25 at Crossroads Theatre, 7 Livingston Avenue, in New Brunswick, N.J. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $65 to $10 and can be obtained by calling 732-545-8100 or going online to www.crossroadstheatre.org.

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