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Off-Broadway Review

Summer in Sanctuary

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Summer in Sanctuary
Photo Source: Kim T. Sharp
"Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can't you see?/Sometimes your words just hypnotize me," croons Pamela Long on the hook of Notorious B.I.G.'s 1997 single "Hypnotize," which plays at the end of Al Letson's one-man show "Summer in Sanctuary." A self-admitted fan of the hip-hop pioneer, Letson also has something in common with him: the ability to make words spellbinding. In the late '90s, Letson made a name for himself by competing on the poetry-slam circuit. More recently, he has employed his prodigious skills as a wordsmith in his playwriting and as host of the public radio show "State of the Re:Union."

"Summer in Sanctuary" refers to the months Letson spent in Jacksonville, Fla., nominally working as a creative writing teacher at a summer camp for inner-city youth. But when the kids firmly displayed their resistance to writing during summer vacation, Letson's roles at the camp expanded to include mentor, coach, storyteller, videographer, chauffeur, and therapist. The performer is the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, and his family background is evident in his ability to bring out the music in his words: playing with their tempo, building to a crescendo, driving a point home in an explosive cadence. But it's also apparent in the tone of "Summer in Sanctuary," which walks a fine line between being compassionate and moralizing.

Although a video projector displays images and clips of the kids, they're largely redundant and overly saccharine; the characters are never more real than when Letson voices them. He adopts the rhythms and jives of the different students, moving between personalities with the ease of a great character actor. Although he spends most of the play with the boys of the camp, his brief forays into the girls' territory are both enlightening and hilarious; the back-and-forth between Letson and the queen bee, Danita, is particularly remarkable.

But unlike one of his acknowledged influences, the inimitable monologuist Spalding Gray, Letson never fully connects with the audience, remaining puzzlingly distant despite his very conversational script. In a theater as intimate as Abingdon's, it's hard not to have a rapport with the patrons, and "Summer in Sanctuary" particularly begs for that relationship between player and viewer, with its repeated moments of winking at and acknowledgment of the audience. After a poem, Letson pauses for applause, soaking it up. "See, you're normal," he says, contrasting the effusive reaction in the theater with the Jacksonville kids' blank stares. "You like me." But Letson never fully emerges from the rehearsed, performative world of the poem, and his delivery of off-the-cuff banter is too stiff to ring true.

Paradoxically, Letson is most connected to the audience when he is performing his poems or shooting offhand remarks to the DJ for the night, Willie Evans Jr., who bops with the beat on the sidelines, nodding along to the action and offering the occasional comment or high-five. It's the music—both Evans' beats and Letson's poems—that makes "Summer in Sanctuary" come alive. That's a testament to Letson's abilities as a slam poet, but it's also an obstacle to his more varied goals in this production.

Presented by and at Abingdon Theatre Company, 312 W. 36th St., NYC. April 3–17. Wed. and Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri. and Sat, 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m. (212) 868-2055 or www.abingdontheatre.org.   

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