Playing Colin Smith in the Atlantic Theater Company’s version of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner must be one of the most calorie-burning roles Off Broadway. As Colin, a 17-year-old prisoner with seemingly no cardiovascular limits, actor Sheldon Best (Sucker Punch) spends much of the show either sprinting or jogging in place. Even when he’s not running, Colin (pronounced ”Colon”) fights, steals, argues, seduces — all with tremendous volume and verve.
Based on the much-adapted short story by Alan Sillitoe, Roy Williams’ stage incarnation sets the action in a youth correctional facility in contemporary Britain. Colin lands there after robbing a store — or, as he puts it, not running fast enough from the police. A social worker named Stevens (Todd Weeks) ropes him into participating in a borough-wide race that pits young offenders like Colin against private school boys. For Stevens, Colin’s success in the race would represent a symbolic triumph; for the facility, a PR boost. But for Colin, as much as he loves running, he fears that becoming the institution’s poster boy would be a betrayal of the mean streets he left behind.
The play sustains a breezy pace for the first half. Under Leah C. Gardiner’s direction, the stage feels like a manifestation of Colin’s mind; instead of scene changes, we get synaptic jumps, seamlessly transporting the narrative from the present day in the prison to Colin’s pre-arrest life. But the play starts getting winded whenever Colin and Stevens wax grandiose about society’s disenfranchised youth. Their essential conflict might have felt fresh when Sillitoe’s short story was first published in 1959, but too many triumphant sports dramas have been thrown at us since then. Williams’ version, while moving and at times inventive as a showcase for Best’s athletic charisma, doesn’t inject enough new energy into the tired tropes. B
(Tickets: atlantictheater.org or 866-811-4111)