Fetch Clay, Make Man, Women or Nothing and Philip Goes Forth

Muhammad Ali spars with Stepin Fetchit, lesbians contemplate parenthood, and a play from a master is rediscovered!

Fetch Clay, Make Man   (3 stars)
Women or Nothing   (2 ½ stars)
Philip Goes Forth   (3 ½ stars)

Will Power’s dramatization of the real-life friendship between a black boxer and a black actor is a fascinating look at race and religion, but it struggles as a play despite providing a showcase for some remarkable actors.  Set in May of 1965 on the eve of his second fight with Sonny Liston, the boxer is the young Cassius Clay who’s recently changed his name to Muhammad Ali and aligned himself with the Nation of Islam.  The actor is Lincoln Perry, better known as the first black film star ‘Stepin Fetchit,’ searching for redemption and relevance as an actor and a person.  Slickly directed by Des McAnuff, there’s not enough dramatic action to keep Fetch Clay, Make Man spinning, but the actors are terrific, particularly K. Todd Freeman as Fetchit, Ray Fisher as Ali, John Earl Jelks as Brother Rashid and a sassy Nikki M. James as Ali’s first wife Sonji.

You have to admire Oscar-winner Ethan Coen’s tenacity to be taken seriously as a playwright despite the limited results his work has provided to date.  To be fair, Women or Nothing, smoothly directed by David Cromer, is better than his one-acts but it’s filled with stupid contrivances, too.  Good thing the acting is wonderful, particularly the dazzling Susan Pourfar as a lesbian trying to commit to the idea of seducing a man to impregnate her, the adorable Robert Beitzel as her unwitting prey and the delicious Deborah Rush (in her best Madeline Kahn mode) as her overbearing and over-sharing mother.  Don’t think about Coen’s silly play, but do enjoy the ride on Michele Spadara’s impressive set.

The Mint has unearthed another delightful offering in George Kelly’s poignant, 1931 drama Philip Goes Forth, the story of a young man longing to be taken seriously by his businessman father that proves a ‘coming of age’ tale ahead of its time.  Set amidst the allure of theatrical footlights, director Jerry Ruiz’s pacing is problematic and a few roles are slightly miscast, but Kelly’s rich writing is smart and unexpected.  Bernardo Cubria is winning as Philip, as is Cliff Bemis as his father and Natalie Kuhn as his love-interest.  But it’s Kathryn Kates, a last-minute addition to the cast as Philip’s landlady, who mixes steely authority with maternal warmth as that rare voice of reason in life’s harsh reality.  Don’t miss this rare chance to see one of Kelly’s forgotten works.

Fetch Clay, Make Man plays through October 13 at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E 4th St, NYTW.org).  Women or Nothing plays through October 13 at the Atlantic Theater Co. (336 W 20th St, AtlanticTheater.org).   Philip Goes Forth plays through October 20 at The Mint (311 W 43rd St, MintTheater.org).