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Good but tough act to follow

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TWENTY-THREE years haven't diminished the impact of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Soldier's Play," now being given a fine revival by the Second Stage. A canny blend of whodunit murder mystery and examination of racism in the U.S. Army during World War II, the play remains both relevant and compelling.

If director Jo Bonney's production doesn't quite live up to memories of the first, that's understandable - considering that the original starred Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington. And the late Adolph Caesar, as the hard-edged and bullying Sergeant Waters, gave an indelible performance that garnered an Oscar nomination when it was transferred to film.

Set on an all-black Louisiana Army base in 1944, the play concerns the shooting death of Waters (James McDaniel) by unknown assailants, with the Klan the chief suspects. Assigned to investigate the case is the cool and confident Capt. Richard Davenport (Taye Diggs), a black lawyer whose arrival ruffles the feathers of Captain Taylor (Steven Pasquale), the white officer in charge.

A series of flashbacks reveals Waters' abusive treatment of his men. It soon becomes apparent that the murder has greater significance than was originally presumed.

The talented ensemble, which also includes Anthony Mackie as a hot-headed young soldier, delivers mostly terrific performances. The slight exceptions are Diggs, who conveys Davenport's arrogance with a too contemporary edge, and McDaniel, whose fine work suffers only by comparison to his predecessor's unforgettable portrayal.

A SOLDIER'S PLAYSecond Stage Theatre, 307 W. 43rd St. (212) 246-4422. Through Nov. 13.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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