Charles Fuller’s 1981 drama “A Soldier’s Play” was a revelation in its day, a stage whodunit set in a Louisiana Army base in 1944 where a sharp-tongued African American sergeant is found murdered. The Pulitzer Prize winner spawned a host of soon-to-be-famous stars, including Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Adolph Caesar — who earned an Oscar nomination for Norman Jewison’s 1984 film adaptation that also featured a young actor named David Alan Grier as a private from the rural South.
Grier returns in the first Broadway production of “A Soldier’s Play,” which opened Tuesday at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre — this time as the fearsome, foul-mouthed Sgt. Vernon Waters, who commands his all-black troops as if their every move was a reflection on the future of the race. It’s a searing performance from an actor best known for his work in comedies like “In Living Color” and “The Carmichael Show.”
And he’s well-matched by Blair Underwood as the Howard Law School graduate captain who’s dispatched to investigate the murder — and who soon learns that this wasn’t the work of the locals. And that even the white troops who are none too pleased by the presence of black soldiers — or to get beaten bad by them on the baseball field — may not be the culprits he’s quick to suspect.
The ensemble shows a real camaraderie, with standouts like J. Alphonse Nicholson as a guitar-playing bumpkin who takes Waters’ criticisms to heart, and Nnamdi Asomugha as a private who dares to stand up to his commanding officer. The weakest link is Jerry O’Connell, as a well-meaning but obstructionist white West Point grad who serves as Davenport’s chief foil and never seems fully comfortable in the role.
For the most part, Fuller’s play holds up as a taut, well-written mystery that intercuts between Capt. Davenport’s investigation and flashbacks to Waters’ haranguing of his charges, many of them recently arrived from the Negro Baseball League. But there’s a certain stiltedness to the genre, and some of the novelty of procedurals has worn thin since the onslaught of “Law & Order” and other shows of its ilk.
Kenny Leon confidently directs the action with crisp military precision, though he might have dispensed with having Underwood open the second act by walking on stage while buttoning his shirt. (The sight of the 55-year-old hearthrob flashing his well-toned chest proved too much for one preview audience to avoid whooping and catcalls.)