Before his death in 2005 of liver cancer at 60, August Wilson had written 10 plays, each concerning one decade in 20th-century black America not a comedy among them. But you’d never know it by the laughter coming from Broadway’s Cort Theatre, where Denzel Washington is giving a grand, sell-it-to-the-balcony, crowd-thrilling performance as Negro League ballplayer–turned–trash collector Troy Maxson in Fences.
Granted, Wilson provided plenty of lively material. While sizing up a thick-legged gal named Alberta with his faithful pal/coworker Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Troy notes: ''Legs don’t mean nothing. You don’t do nothing but push them out of the way. But them hips cushion the ride!'' Playing up the quips makes some sense, since Troy is a genuine SOB. He forces his 17-year-old football-prodigy son Cory (Chris Chalk) to hang up his spikes. He proclaims voracious lust for his wife, Rose (Viola Davis, a tower of unassailable strength), then goes off to ''be a different man'' with Alberta. And while recounting his hard-knock life to his son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), he says: ''Met your mama and had you. What I do that for?'' Cue inappropriate audience guffaws. Under Kenny Leon’s broader-is-better direction, most of Troy’s lines become punchlines.
Leon who helmed Wilson’s final two works, Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf has built a sturdy, buffed-to-a-sheen Fences, buoyed by a top-shelf supporting cast (Henderson is the quintessential Wilson interpreter) and Branford Marsalis’ beautiful bluesy between-scenes music. Pity that he’s glossed over the play’s doleful, poetic soul. B
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)