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Wonderful words can't save Things of Dry Hours

The trouble with being a playwright who writes like a poet is that, from a theatrical perspective, you're always in danger of taking a long and lovely sounding walk off a short pier. And that's what happens in Things of Dry Hours, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. 

Written by Naomi Wallace, the script offers up many incisive and lyrical phrasings, but the characters ultimately seem to be mere mouthpieces for Wallace's verbal constructs. As a result, the play offers a scattering of beautiful and even amusing moments immersed in a rather tedious — and OK, dry — two-and-a-half hours of pontificating. 

Structured around Tice Hogan, a black steelworker who's unemployed in 1932 Alabama, the play deals with the attraction of the Communist Party for workers struggling to gain rights and respect. Tice lives with his grown widowed daughter Cali. They are surprised by a white visitor, Corbin Teel, who knocks on their door. 

It seems that Corbin struck a foreman at the steel plant, might have killed him, and is on the run. Corbin asks to hide there, and Tice declines until Corbin threatens to make trouble for Tice. If this sounds like a bit of a forced scenario to allow the playwright to indulge in some racial back-and-forth, it is. The trouble is, most of the dialogue between Tice and the supposedly illiterate Corbin is more contrived than real. 

The playwright wants to make a point about the possibility of changing human nature, as Tice tries to acquaint Corbin with two books — the Bible and a pamphlet on Communism. But their palaver is often augmented with quotes from Karl Marx, and this only serves to slow a plodding play down even further. Even though there are some fresh and clever lines (Tice to Corbin: "Your blue eyes look like two assholes holding their breath."), one never has the sense of two men grappling with each other over anything important.

The jousting between Corbin and Cali has a bit more energy, thanks to the smoldering intensity of Andrea Belser, who gives Cali a tough hide that virtually nothing can pierce. But a second-act scene, in which Corbin and Cali change racial and sexual roles, doesn't quite capture the profound resonance Wallace was surely attempting. 

Curtis L. Young is solid in the role of Corbin but could use more depth to prepare for and justify some of the reversals that occur near the end of the piece.  

In the long and demanding role of Tice, Larry Arrington-Bey has the posture of this man right, slouching and refusing to make eye contact when he and Corbin first meet, as blacks were forced to do at that time. But since he continually struggles with his lines, Arrington-Bey pauses and backs up many times, impeding the play's flow even further. 

Director Sarah May tries to shape all this verbiage into a functional drama, but the odds are stacked against her. Wallace fashions dazzling stanzas rather than creating genuine people, and that's slow death for a theatrical production.

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