NEW YORK — One of the eventualities of a storied life is that by virtue of perseverance and sacrifice, the great person winds up — on Broadway. The latest such case of sanctified Tony eligibility belongs to none other than the leader and conscience of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., portrayed on his last night on Earth by Samuel L. Jackson in “The Mountaintop.”
For theatrical and historical justice to be fully served, King requires a vehicle that reveals both his ineffable magnetism as well as his flaws. It’s too bad the young playwright Katori Hall, making her Broadway debut, addresses neither adequately. Resorting instead to shopworn plot devices and superficial tics of personality, the cloying “Mountaintop,” which formally opened Thursday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, is a disappointingly hokey historical homage.
The conceit of the play, staged with a garish obviousness by director Kenny Leon, is that on the stormy night of April 3, 1968 — the eve of his assassination — King receives a visitor in his Memphis motel room, in the person of Camae, a maid spraying sass around as if it were Pledge. That Camae is played by Angela Bassett is perforce an asset, though the actress is egged on here in a comic broadness that at times threatens to turn Camae into a joke.