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Magic Theatre’s ‘Grandeur’ considers fame and failure

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From left, Carl Lumbly, Safiya Fredericks and Rafael Jordan star in the premiere of Han Ong’s “Grandeur.” (Courtesy Jennifer Riley)

One man sits in the center of a darkened apartment. Another struggles to find his way in, and then out. There is also an angry young woman.

Like the projections that chase the wall during one sequence of the play, the above would suffice — with one character to spare — for a Twitter-friendly synopsis of “Grandeur,” Han Ong’s world premiere at Magic Theatre. There is, of course, more — and in some ways less.

The man in the chair is Gil Scott-Heron. Rather, it is Carl Lumbly, best known for pop-weight television fare Like “Zoo” and “Alias.”

Here he presents another in a series of masterfully-nuanced local stage performances that include the recent “Between Riverside and Crazy” (American Conservatory Theater) and “The MotherF**ker with the Hat” (San Francisco Playhouse).

In a spare and muscular interpretation, Lumbly embodies the aging poet on the cusp of comeback celebrity, but his Scott-Heron craves the rush of a rock of cocaine far more than another jolt of fame.

Bringing the potential for more of both is Rafael Jordan as a woefully inadequate journalist for whom the “get” of the interview becomes far less consequential than vanquishing personal demons that wrestle with fame, failure, guilt and gods with feet of clay.

The two spar and feint in a frequently languid verbal waltz on Hana S. Kim’s wonderfully careworn set, overrun with books, LPs, VHS tapes and broken lamps that protect the darkness.

In Lumbly’s hands, Scott-Heron is weary and frustrated, wanting to score, yet occasionally engaged enough to play intellectual cat-and-mouse or call out the naif writer on some of his more egregious platitudes.

Jordan nicely underplays his effective irritant as the Top-Sider-shod noob, who vacillates between a pouty, unreinforced defensiveness regarding his limited credentials and an oblivious pursuit of his own agenda.

It is a very talky play and Ong’s dialogue — particularly when voiced by Lumbly — is frequently melodic, poetic even, with some pointedly funny bits. It also can become insular, leaving the audience without a way in to whatever point either man is making.

A spark of light in the proceedings is Safiya Fredericks as Scott-Heron’s erstwhile niece. “Miss Julie” he calls her, alluding to the strong-willed Strindberg character. It’s an apt reference, and Fredericks click through several rapier denouncements of both men and of a professor who boots her from a class for challenging his patriarchal onion.

She can also wield a silent slow burn with laserlike accuracy, quelling anyone’s urge to contradict her.

Where: Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, closes June 25
Tickets: $35 to $75
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org

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