Javon Johnson's play, "Cryin' Shame," at Stage 52 has a promising first act, but the weight of multiple tragedies heaped on the characters in the second act squelches all dramatic tension.
In a small South Carolina town in the summer of 1985, Tucker (Bill Lee Brown) runs numbers out of his grocery store with the help of Calhoun (Dick Anthony Williams) and Sherman (Malcolm Jamal Warner, best known for his role in the television series "Cosby"). A young neighborhood boy, Pee Wee (Christopher Richardson), is their lookout who befriends the indigent druggie, Beanie Man (Art Evans).
Although the acting is uneven, under the direction of Adleane Hunter, the slow rhythms of small-town life and long-held grudges build. Yet in the second act, Johnson substitutes character development with emotionally overwrought events. The pivotal relationship between Calhoun's daughter, Sky (Tamara LaSeon Bass), and Sherman takes place off-stage as does the growing friendship between Beanie Man and Pee Wee.
Brown's Tucker has a dignity and sense of integrity that is challenged by Beanie Man, but the fullness of their relationship isn't fully explored, and Beanie Man's sudden conversion isn't convincing, although Johnson gives Evans little to work with. Warner and Bass lack chemistry, but their relationship is also severely underwritten.
The second half lays waste to the possibilities built up in the first half and that truly is a shame.
* "Cryin' Shame," Stage 52, 5299 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Ends July 22. $20. (323) 655-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.