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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
By Alan Sillitoe
adapted by Roy Williams
Atlantic Stage 2
330 W. 16th St.
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Alan Sillitoeís classic 1959 story ďThe Loneliness of the Long-Distance RunnerĒ has been many things to many people: a quintessential angry-young-man tale, a protest against class prejudice, a metaphor about writers who resist the corruptions of fame. Now the British playwright Roy Williams has given it yet another spin by updating the action to present-day Britain and using the athletic exertions of the protagonist as a theatrical tour de force. Colin Smith, originally a council-flat Cockney teenager sent to Borstal for a burglary committed out of boredom, has been transformed into a tower-block black kid convicted for an opportunistic burglary committed during the 2011 Tottenham riots. This Smith still takes up running to break up the deadening routine of lockup, as in Sillitoe, and he still sticks it to the man in the end by deliberately losing a race he could have won, depriving the Borstal bosses of the pleasure of preening over his abilities. The difference here is that the drama of Smithís physical education is now front and centerómuch more so than in the rather gauzy film starring Tom Courtney. This Smith is a palpable theatrical creature who learns the contents of his heart through his breath, muscles and sweat.

The actor Sheldon Best almost never stops moving during the 90-minute action: running in place, calisthenics, boxing, chasing after a neighborhood girl Kenisha (Jasmine Cephas Jones). He is a high-strung spectacle of athletic discipline, his lean, taut, glistening body a coiled spring, his voice utterly undaunted even after chattering the whole show in the harsh, barking rhythms of current British street-slang (an idiom Williams captures with dead-on precision.) Best gives intense immediacy to what might otherwise seem like a rather dated tale of adolescent self-destruction (notwithstanding director Leah Gardinerís addition of rather unimpactful video clips of the London riots along with PM David Cameronís reactions). The other nine actors around Best are apt and capable, though some of their accents could use work. Itís he who steals the show: a magnetic, preternatural histrionic thief you canít take your eyes off of.

 

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