Grier is unable to achieve that grandeur here. Though he appeared in smaller roles in the original production and in the movie, and clearly understands the character, he is naturally too likable — or his years in sketch comedy have made him seem so — to convey a threat that is larger than Waters himself.
You get a sense of that threat more vividly from the men in his command, who have no way to defend themselves against the machinations of a maniac. As punishment for a minor offense, Waters strips one of them, Wilkie, of the stripes it took him 10 years to earn. Another, Peterson, gets badly beaten in an unfair fight that Waters provokes. A third, Memphis, is framed by Waters (in a separate incident) for a murder everyone knows he didn’t commit.
The three actors who play these men — Billy Eugene Jones, Nnamdi Asomugha and J. Alphonse Nicholson — are excellent, but the production doesn’t capitalize on their performances to build the show into a riveting ride. Transitions between scenes are especially awkward on Derek McLane’s abstract barracks set and are sometimes further saddled with florid dance elements it might have been better to have a choreographer stage. (None is credited.) The deployment of music, mostly traditional songs and blues, is likewise erratic.
But if the power of “A Soldier’s Play” is sometimes attenuated, it is at other times enhanced. Leon draws smart connections between Fuller’s portrait of black men trapped in a system with no viable choices and the prison-industrial context of our time. When Wilkie suggests to Davenport that Waters’s assailants were probably not Klansmen because his uniform was not defiled — “They usually take the stripes and stuff off, before they lynch us” — it now comes across as a double-barreled insight, both a clue in the case and a tiny poem of fatalistic despair.
Fuller could not have been thinking, in 1981, of the daily roll-call of dead black youth that horrifies us today, or the estimated one in three black American men likely to be incarcerated during their lifetimes. But he definitely had the fate of his race in mind. Though Davenport (it’s no spoiler to say) eventually gets his man, wrapping the investigation up neatly and gaining the respect of at least one white officer (Jerry O’Connell) in the process, he also delivers, in a single tossed-off line — a line cut from the movie — Fuller’s frightful kicker.
Here, Leon could not be clearer, and as Nipsey Hussle’s “Perfect Timing” brings us into the present, that abstract barracks begins to look a lot like a jail, or a morgue.
A Soldier’s Play
Tickets Through March 15 at American Airlines Theater, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.