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The Rep’s Radio Golf lucks out with truthiness

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Truth might still be neck-and-neck with its old foe beauty, but in its other contest with fiction, it's enjoying a bit of an October surprise. Who would have thought that, just three years after the great playwright August Wilson's death, the local premiere of his final play would excite this city not so much for its quality or its historical sweep but for its timeliness? Radio Golf, the capstone of Wilson's monumental 10-drama "Pittsburgh Cycle," is a show about a young, charismatic, break-with-the-past, black mayoral candidate, which has the good fortune to debut at what I hope to God is the beginning of an Age of Obama.

It's not Wilson's fault that the pressures faced by his black candidate — questions of tokenism and selling out, of trading upon individual blackness while doing nothing for African-Americans in general — are pressures Obama has largely escaped. Obama is a break-with-the-past candidate who has broken with it more easily than even an artist such as Wilson could have anticipated: A black man from Kansas/Hawaii/Kenya/Harvard/Chicago is neither blessed nor burdened with neighborhood history (Bill Ayers notwithstanding).

Neighborhood history weighs mightily on Harmond Wilks, Wilson's well-to-do real-estate developer with mayoral aspirations. Wilks feels the drag and draw of The Hill, a Pittsburgh neighborhood at the center of Wilson's plays. References to his earlier plays abound, but Wilson works them in with enough elegance that audiences don't need prior knowledge to enjoy this work. As the play opens, Wilks is about to realize two grand ambitions: becoming Pittsburgh's first black mayor and redeveloping the most run-down blocks of the city's most boarded-up neighborhood. Because creation necessitates destruction, Wilks is soon second-guessing the project, especially after a visit to the abandoned home of Aunt Esther, a building familiar from earlier plays that is here slated for demolition. At issue: Does progress demand the end of what was?

Stacked against the rest of the Pittsburgh Cycle, which documents African-American life decade by decade across the 20th century, Radio Golf is both overstuffed and somewhat thin. In two and a half hours, Wilson considers gentrification, the rise of black political power, the corporatization of local radio stations, golf as a symbol of freedom, and heaps of other ideas — ideas that too often come before character and too often are discussed rather than dramatized. Wilson relies on old-fashioned plot points: son versus father, the race to save the old house, the surprise relation, the little man standing up to entrenched power. The result is well-intentioned and solidly built but rarely unpredictable and sometimes even a little dull.

Aspects strain credulity: Would the first gentrification project on a blighted street really be a mixed-use apartment and retail complex anchored by a Whole Foods and a Barnes & Noble? There's something satirically white about such a development. Worse, key characters are sketchily drawn, and the many monologues don't bubble up naturally from the lively talk. Instead, they feel like speeches.

That makes sense for candidate Wilks, but as conceived by Wilson (and played by Kevyn Morrow), Wilks is a cagey pro who does more listening than speaking. He seems to spend much of the first act absorbing the speeches of anyone who happens to wander into his office, including a garrulous construction worker (Stanley Wayne Mathis) five times more self-aggrandizing in his common-man shtick than Joe the Plumber, and a wizened old man (the excellent Abdul Salaam El Razzac) who is equal parts naif, gadfly and local conscience. It's unclear at first whether Wilks is listening out of earnest interest or political calculation. Morrow's face hints at irritation with these rambling constituents, but his tough-to-figure Wilks passively allows them to carry on and on. Perhaps this is meant to establish a wealthy man's lack of connection with the people he grew up with — still, it's rarely dramatic.

As Roosevelt, Wilks' status-obsessed business manager, Wiley Moore is as expressive as Morrow is restrained. Lanky and strutting and blessed with the sharpest dialogue, Moore makes Roosevelt the play's lively heart, a likable sellout whose compromises are more interesting than Wilks' earnest struggles. By the end, when Wilks' and Roosevelt's differences erupt at last into shouting-match fireworks, Morrow and Moore both dazzle and move. Suddenly, it's character versus character, and we forget those earlier dull patches and overdetermined thematics.

Director Lou Bellamy succeeds in making much of the play feel more like life than we're used to in the theater. The characters wander about the set before the show starts, living their lives, and the show eases into its first scene, creating the feeling that we're eavesdropping rather than watching a performance. And the set by Vicki M. Smith is a stunner. With its tin roof and shoddy wiring, Wilks' construction office looks like the Rep somehow hauled the first floor of a 100-year-old Hyde Park building right onto its stage.

Like the play, that office feels a little classic, a little contemporary and a little uncertain. Like the times themselves.

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