Denzel Washington’s powerful ‘Fences’ feels too fenced in

If you missed the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences,” you’re in luck.

Not only does the movie, opening Sunday, reunite almost the entire cast — including Denzel Washington as bitter former baseball player turned garbage man Troy Maxson and Viola Davis as his long-suffering wife, Rose — Washington’s static directing style makes “Fences” feel like a play. Aside from a few brief scenes in the streets and in a bar, the entirety of “Fences” takes place in and around the Maxson’s modest Pittsburgh home in the 1950s.

Only Babe Ruth and Negro League star Josh Gibson hit more home runs than Troy, his best friend and co-worker Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) reminds him during one of their Friday night drinking/bull-slinging sessions.

“And what’d it ever get me?” Troy responds. “I ain’t got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.”

“Times have changed, Troy,” Bono reminds him. “You just came along too early.” Instead of calming him, it only further riles Troy. “There ought not never have been no time called ‘too early.’ ”

Those disappointments with sports, and the white men who run them, cause Troy to do everything he can to keep his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) from playing football, preferring Cory get an education so he doesn’t end up hauling trash for a living. But his actions only drive more of a wedge between the two.

Troy resents every visit from Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his son from a previous relationship, because they almost always end with Lyons asking to borrow money.

Aside from his beloved Rose, the only soft spot Troy seems to have is for his brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who’s been rambling about the time he spent with Saint Peter and screaming “better get right for the judgment” since getting a steel plate put in his head during the war.

Troy is a complicated, deeply flawed man made right by his woman, and the times he spends with Rose, talking up a storm, are some of the best “Fences” has to offer. Both Washington and Davis won Tonys for the play and have been nominated for Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards for the movie. They know each other, and their characters, well, and they act their faces off in virtually every scene.

There’s a tenderness to their relationship that Troy can’t achieve with either of his sons. Drinking with Bono, Troy tells one tall tale after another, from his having fought Death himself in a hospital room to having bought his furniture, when no one else would give him a loan, from the Devil. “Rose’ll tell ya,” he swears. “Troy lyin’,” she playfully retorts.

By opting against further opening up Troy’s world, though, Washington’s direction leaves “Fences” feeling powerful yet inert.

If anything, “Fences” is too fenced in.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch.

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