Originally presented Feb. 25-27 in Sheafer Theater by the Duke University Institute of the Arts and repeated March 10-14 as part of Manbites Dog Theater’s Other Voices Series, The Rotimi Foundation production of Holding Talks is a short Absurdist drama written by Nigerian playwright Ola Rotimi (1938-2000) and directed by his protégé, Dr. Niyi Coker Jr. The play is set in a poor barbershop, somewhere in Africa. The reed-thin Barber (Sundiata Rush) is painfully undernourished and obviously ill; but his roly-poly Apprentice (Antuan D. Hawkins), who shells and eats peanuts throughout the show, seems utterly indifferent to his employer’s plight.

Into the shop walks a Man (Rotimi Foundation executive director Kole Heyward-Rotimi) who has to be the most Ultra-High-Maintenance Customer on the entire continent. Before he will let the Barber go to work, the Man has questions lots of questions. The famished and ailing Barber ultimately collapses and dies under relentless interrogation by the Man about anything and everything, not just questions having to do with cutting hair. The Man literally talks the Barber to death.

In this way, Holding Talks acidly satirizes the endless jawboning and frequent pointless digressions that characterize important ongoing negotiations in geopolitical circles. (Just look at your daily newspaper for the latest examples.) Tempest-in-a-teapot talks go on and on, but nothing is ever decided. Meanwhile, vital matters are shamefully neglected. Simmering violence erupts more and more frequently worldwide and the body count increases exponentially while the world’s leaders dither and talk on and on and on.

Back in the shabby barbershop in an unnamed African country, the Man has just begun the meandering monologue that will monopolize most of the rest of the conversation in the play. Other people a Blind Beggar (Winema Jackson), a Reporter (Shawn Paullin), and a Police Woman (Mo Chamble) come and go, but the Barber still lies where he collapsed, with the Man endlessly pontificating over his remains and the Barber’s Apprentice numbly serving as his captive audience.

In his role as The Man Who Wouldn’t Shut Up, Kole Heyward-Rotimi is alternately amusing and aggravating. The rest of the cast merely serve as foils to this self-absorbed Man, who was apparently vaccinated with a phonograph needle.

Director Niyi Coker could have heightened the hilarity by getting more sharply etched characterizations from his supporting cast. But, in Coker’s defense, playwright Ola Rotimi gives his supporting players few character traits and little dialogue with which to interrupt the Man’s seemingly interminable monologue.

Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/. Rotimi Foundation: http://www.rotimifoundation.org/rotimi.php [inactive 5/04].