“On the Aisle with Larry” — The Passing Show

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Over the course of my many years in New York, I met a lot of cool people, as well as a few oddballs. I have written about some of them in my chapter on Samuel French, but there are many more.

When I was the Editor at Samuel French, I used to get a lot of walk-ins, mostly actors looking for help in finding a scene to work on in class or a new monologue to use for auditions. Sometimes, playwrights would drop by and ask if I would read their work. Several years ago, I was called out to the reception area, and there stood a nattily dressed elderly gentleman who was about the best-looking geezer I had ever seen, with a full head of silvery white hair. He looked rather like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., only shorter. “May I help you,” I said. “Mr. Harbison?” he asked. “Yes.” “My name is Guido Nadzo.” I was flabbergasted. “The Guido Nadzo?” I blurted out. “Yes,” he said. “I see you have heard of me.”

The name “Guido Nadzo” is something of a jokey footnote in Broadway theatre history. As the story goes, when George S. Kaufman was casting The Royal Family, which he co-wrote with Edna Ferber and which he directed, he travelled out of town (to Philadelphia, I think) to see a play featuring a young actor named Guido Nadzo, who had been recommended to him for the “juvenile role,” which is what they called the young man who was not the lead in those days. Supposedly, he sent the following telegram back to New York: “Guido Nadzo was nadzo guido.” When the story got around, young Guido Nadzo found himself such a joke that he had to give up acting. And here before me stood that very same Guido Nadzo.

Mr. Nadzo had written a play and asked if I would read it. I said I would be glad to, of course. Then, I couldn’t resist. I asked him about the story. He chuckled and told me that it was completely untrue. When the story started circulating, Kaufman contacted him and told him that he never sent such a telegram. Furthermore, he told everyone in the business that the story was untrue, even though he did not cast Nadzo in the play. Guido Nadzo continued his acting career until the onset of World War II, when he joined the Office of Strategic Services, serving there until the war’s end, at which time he decided he liked this line of work and remained — in his words – in “government service” until he retired. After the war, the O.S.S. became the Central Intelligence Agency. In other words, Guido Nadzo spent the second half of his working life as a C.I.A. spy.

We had a very pleasant chat. I have forgotten what Mr. Nadzo’s play was about, or even if it was any good; but I’d like to set the record straight about this strange myth.

Sometime in the early 1980s, I was sitting in my office one day when a guy from the Order Dept. came in to tell me that there was a woman who wanted to see me. I went out to the reception area and there she was. She appeared to be in her 50s, heavily made up, elegantly dressed, with curly black hair. “You wanted to see me?” I asked. “Mr. Harbison?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. She stretched out her hand and said in a thick Italian accent, “I am a-Gina Lollobrigida.”

You may be too young to know the name, but not me. Gina Lollobrigida was an Italian film star in the 1950s and 1960s. In those days, foreign film actors were hot in Hollywood. Of particular interest to Hollywood were extraordinarily beautiful women, often referred to as “Sex Goddesses,” and Ms. Lollobrigida was one of the most beautiful. She came over here at pretty much the same time as another Italian Sex Goddess, Sophia Loren, and became just as big a star. She starred in several American films, such as “Solomon and Sheba” with Yul Brynner and “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell.” She was Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo. And there she was, standing before me.

I managed to stammer, “What can I do for you?” She told me that a Broadway producer named Harry Rigby who had recently produced SUGAR BABIES, a huge hit starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, was looking for a play for her. Apparently, he had suggested that she come to see me, as even then I was known in the biz as a guy who knew a lot of plays. I immediately thought of Tennessee Williams’ THE ROSE TATTOO, as the lead character, Serafina, is Italian. Politely, she shot that idea down. The reason? Williams wrote the play for his longtime friend Anna Magnani. Although she got cold feet and didn’t do it on Broadway (the role was played instead by Maureen Stapleton) she starred in the film version, which was one of her most famous roles. No Italian actress would dare go up against La Magnani. It would be like an American actor daring to appear in an iconic Brando role, such as Terry Molloy in “On the Waterfront.” Side note: a stage version of this film was presented on Broadway, with highly regarded young actor Ron Eldard in the Brando role, and this pretty much derailed his career, even though he was quite good.

I suggested a few other plays to her (I have forgotten what they were) and asked a guy in the Order Dept. to pull them. I offered to give them to her, but she insisted on  paying for them. Then, we had a nice chat. She was absolutely charming and very intelligent. I asked her if she was still acting; but she said, no, she was now a highly sought-after photojournalist and a successful sculptor. I asked, was she worried about returning to acting after so many years? “Absolute-a-not!” she replied. She left with her scripts. I never saw her again.

While I was writing this chapter, I found out from Peter Hagan, an old friend and colleague who was an agent before he became the President of Dramatists Play Service, that his client, the great set designer John Lee Beatty, whom he still represents, was actually hired by Harry Rigby to design the set for THE ROSE TATTOO, to star Miss Lollobrigida, to be directed by John (“Joey”) Tillinger — so she must have changed her mind and did decide to do the play. The plan was to open out of town, play a couple of other venues and then open on Broadway. Then, she told the team that she had hired a top Italian fashion designer to design her costumes (which was common in the Italian theatre, apparently). Mr. Beatty told me that these were completely inappropriate for the American South, let alone the character; and, anyway, a costume designer had already been hired. Miss Lollobrigida was adamant that they must use her designer’s costumes. When they told her “no way” she ditched the production. What a shame. I think she would have been brilliant. She’s still alive, and will turn 93 this year (2020).

Shortly thereafter, Harry Rigby died – so that was that.

As I mentioned, when I was at Samuel French, I used to get a lot of people who came in to ask for my help, and I was always glad to drop whatever I was doing, go out to the bookstore and sit down with them. Mostly, these were young women looking for a new scene or a monologue; and I was usually able to come up with something for them.

Sometimes, they had recently arrived in New York and they just wanted my advice about what to do next. Someone had told them, “Go see Larry at Samuel French.” As the years went by, I often got what I came to call “The Look,” which betrayed their suspicion about why I was spending so much time with them. It was like a thought bubble in a cartoon, attached to their head. They were thinking, “Does this geezer think he has a shot with me?” Once, I asked a young actress not to give me “The Look.” She asked, “What look?” “This look,” I replied, imitating it and said, “And I know what you were thinking.” “What was I thinking?” she asked. “You were thinking, does this geezer think he has a shot with me?” She thought about this for a moment and said. “I was thinking that.” “Look,” I said. “I don’t want anything from you; I just want to help you.” Then I saw another thought bubble containing, “That’s a relief!” I expect most of them gave up eventually, it being practically impossible to establish an acting career in New York unless you have an agent, which few of them did.

A few times, though, I had walk-ins who beat the overwhelming odds and became Famous. Ellen Barkin came in once, just in from wherever she came from. I forget what she wanted, but we had a lovely chat. In about 1980, another cute young actress came in, fresh out of Carnegie-Mellon, from whom she had received an M.F.A. She had long, blondish-brownish hair and spoke with a distinctive southern accent, as she grew up in Georgia. We hit it off and I began inviting her to join me at the theatre. One play I remember taking her to was BABY WITH THE BATHWATER, in the old Playwrights Horizons upstairs studio theatre. Chris Durang, the playwright, was there and I introduced her to him. She was amazed that she was meeting such a famous playwright. I have a story about Chris and this play, but I will save it for later. As the play was rather short, afterwards we moseyed over to the Hotel Algonquin for a drink in their cozy lounge. While we were sitting there, Morton Gottlieb came in. Morty was a Broadway producer whose hits included ENTER LAUGHING (which made a star of Alan Arkin), SLEUTH, SAME TIME NEXT YEAR (with Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin) and two other Bernard Slade hit comedies, ROMANTIC COMEDY (which starred Anthony Perkins and Mia Farrow) and TRIBUTE (starring Jack Lemmon). I asked Morty to join us and he readily agreed. I doubt if my young friend had ever heard of him, but she was flabbergasted to find herself having a drink with a Famous Broadway Producer. By this time, I was kinda sweet on her and thought, “This is gonna be my night!” but, alas no.

At the time, I was still trying to get something going as a director, and she did several readings for me. She was the greatest I have even seen at a cold reading. With no rehearsal even, she was always fabulous. Many years later, I was at the Humana Festival and a casting director reminded me that I had recommended her for a role she was having difficulty casting. She was amazing in the play, BATTERY by Daniel Therriault, and this was her first New York acting credit.

Many years later, I happened to sit next to Morty Gottlieb at the theatre one night. He told me he had retired from producing – not because he couldn’t raise money anymore but because of the difficulty of getting a star willing to commit to 6 months on Broadway. I asked him, “Mr. Gottlieb, do you remember coming into the Hotel Algonquin one night after the theatre many years ago and joining me for a drink?” He thought for a moment and replied, “Sure! You were there with some cute young actress. Whatever happened to her?” To which I replied: “That cute young actress, Mr. Gottlieb, was Holly Hunter.”

After she went on to film stardom, I lost track of Holly. More than thirty years later, she acted in a production by the New Group of David Rabe’s STICKS AND BONES. I waited for her afterwards and when she finally came out, I went up to her and said, “Holly, it’s a Blast from the Past!” She didn’t recognize me after all those years so I added, “It’s Larry, from Samuel French.” She lit up. “Oh my God, Larry! I haven’t seen you in years.” Well, Holly,” said I. “You’ve been busy.”

Before Samuel French, I worked for Robert Whitehead and Roger Stevens who, at the time, were producing Preston Jones’ A TEXAS TRILOGY; plus, Katharine Hepburn touring around in A MATTER OF GRAVITY. I was the receptionist and general office factotum. One day, Mr. Whitehead asked me to read a script for him which an old friend named Chester Erskine had sent him. It was called THE KING’S FAVORITE and was about King Edward II of England. It was really well-written but required a very large cast and obviously wasn’t something that could be produced on Broadway. Mr. Whitehead asked me to compose a letter from him to Mr. Erskine; in his words, “a nice note,” which I did. I decided to write him myself to tell him how much I had enjoyed his play. He replied, thanking me, and we began a correspondence. After several months, he wrote to tell me he was going to be in New York and would like to meet me. We set up a date and time, and he invited me over to his digs, where he and his wife were staying.

I arrived for our appointment, to a townhouse in E. 49th Street. I rang the bell. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman with an Irish accent named Nora, the housekeeper. I told her my name and she replied that Mr. Erskine expected me and was upstairs in the parlor. I went upstairs and met Mr. Erskine, an elderly gentleman in a tweed sport coat and tie (it may have been an ascot), who shook my hand, invited me to sit down and asked if I would join him for tea. I said I would, so he asked Nora to bring us tea.

We talked about his play, and he was surprised that I was so knowledgeable about Edward II. I told him that I had been in a production of Brecht’s EDWARD II while I was in grad school and, as is my wont, had read a lot about the King, his notorious relationship with Piers Gaveston and his deposition and horrible murder. Meanwhile, I started to notice that there were a lot of Katharine Hepburn memorabilia in the parlor, such as a photo of her with Laurence Olivier taken during the filming of “Love Among the Ruins” and a Giacometti sculpture of her. I remarked, “You must be a big fan of Katharine Hepburn.” “Oh yes,” he replied. “She’s been one of my dearest friends for many years. As a matter of fact, this is her house.” Imagine the look on my face when he told me that! Miss Hepburn was out on the road with A MATTER OF GRAVITY and had invited Chester and his wife Sally to house-sit.

Well, we hit it off and started to meet every week for lunch, during which he told me stories about himself. In the 1920’s and 30s, he had been a Broadway producer and director. He produced and directed the first play in the Golden Theatre, rehearsing it in the downstairs lounge. In 1930, he directed THE LAST MILE, a prison drama by John Wexler, produced by Herman Shumlin, which made a star of Spencer Tracy. In 1934, he decided he wanted to make a film, which was problematic because there were no indie films at the time as the Hollywood studios owned all the movie theatres, so there was nowhere to show them. The only one in New York they didn’t own was Radio City Music Hall. Chester bought the film rights to a thriller called MIDNIGHT which didn’t succeed on Broadway but which he thought would make a good film. Chester asked an actor friend of his, who at the time was playing juvenile roles (you know, the kind of character who walks through the French doors in whites and asks, “Tennis, anyone?”) to play the “heavy,” a gangster, to which he replied, “Are you crazy, Chester? Nobody would believe me as a heavy, I’m a juvenile.” Chester said, “You’re a good actor, and a good actor can play anything.” The guy accepted the challenge and they made the film (In case you’re interested, you can watch the film on You Tube). which played a week or two at Radio City, and he so impressed people in the theatre that he was cast as the heavy, an escaped criminal named Duke Mantee, in a new play by Maxwell Anderson called THE PETRIFIED FOREST. The play was a hit in 1935, at the Broadhurst Theatre, and he was a sensation. Hollywood put him under contract and he never did another play. The film version of the play made him a movie star. His name was Humphrey Bogart.

I went to the Library of the Performing Arts and looked all this up. It was all true.

In the 1950s, Chester went into television production; but by the time I met him in 1976, he was retired.

Chester was close friends not only with Kate but with Gar and Ruth (Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon) and Spence (as in Tracy). He told me that Kate and Gar had had a huge falling out when Kanin published Tracy and Hepburn, in which he revealed for the first time that the relationship between Kate and Spence was not exactly merely a professional one. They lived together for years, but Tracy couldn’t get a divorce because he was a Catholic. They were together when he died. Hepburn never spoke to Kanin again.

One afternoon, we were sitting in the parlor when I noticed a copy of Ruth Gordon’s latest autobiography, My Life, on the table next to Chester’s chair. I asked him if he had read it yet. He had, and offered to lend it to me. I asked him if he was mentioned in the book. He was, several times. Then he thought for a moment and said, “You know, I think I am the only man mentioned in the book that Ruthie never slept with.”

Shortly thereafter, Miss Hepburn’s tour finished up and Chester and Sally returned to their home in Santa Monica. We corresponded for a while but then he passed away and I never saw him again.

I met several more cool people when we were at the “old place,” in 45th St, such as Paul Green, who stopped by several times. He had been a successful Broadway playwright in the 1930s, winning the Pulitzer Prize for IN ABRAHAM’S BOSOM, before he started writing outdoor historical pageants such as THE LOST COLONY and THE STEPHEN FOSTER STORY, both of which are still performed every year. Mr. Green was an elderly, soft-spoken Southern gentleman, surprised that I knew who he was.

The Dramatists Guild used to hold an annual party in May for every member who had had a play produced that season, and they invited a few industry people such as myself as well as old-time playwrights. I met the aforementioned Gar and Ruth, Robert Anderson and his wife, the actress Theresa Wright and several others. One year, I saw an elderly man sitting by himself, off to the side. Since nobody seemed to be paying any attention to him, I went over to him and introduced myself. His name was Marc Connelly, and he was surprised that I knew who he was. Mr. Connelly was George S. Kaufman’s first collaborator, and together they wrote DULCY, MERTON OF THE MOVIES and BEGGAR ON HORSEBACK. In 1930, he won the Pulitzer Prize for THE GREEN PASTURES, which was set in Heaven and featured an all-black cast. It toured for years and made Richard B. Harrison, who played God (called in the play “De Lawd”) famous. He was also a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table. He told me some stories about Kaufman and the other Round Table members, all of which I have forgotten. I asked him if he was still writing plays; but no, he hadn’t written anything in years. He still saw every Broadway show, though, missioning in from New Jersey where he lived, but he told me he always left at the intermission because he just didn’t enjoy them, the theatre having changed so much since his day. He was a charming fellow; but I thought to myself, “This guy’s an Old Fart. I hope to God I never become one of those.” Later in this book I’m going to have a chapter on Old Fart-ism.

While Samuel French was still at the Old Place a strange little man, a playwright named Bruce Millholland. used to drop by from time to time, usually to see if we had any money for him. He was a legendary moocher, notorious for crashing parties to get free food. He probably had a room in a flophouse. He had long white hair and the way he dressed was very eccentric. One day, he showed up all in emerald green, wearing green plastic shoes and large, thick glasses with green frames which made him look somewhat bug-eyed. He looked like a giant frog. I always enjoyed talking to Bruce, because he was very witty in a catty sort of way. In the 1920s and 30s, there was a guy at Samuel French who used to function as an agent, representing Bruce’s plays, none of which ever went anywhere except for one called NAPOLEON OF BROADWAY, which he managed to get optioned by George Abbott and Philip Dunning, who hired Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who had written THE FRONT PAGE) to rewrite it. This became TWENTIETH CENTURY, a Broadway hit at the Broadhurst Theatre during the 1932-1933 season, which Mr. Abbott directed, running for 152 performances. In those days, a play which ran 152 performances was a hit. It would run five or six months, until late spring, then close because there was no air conditioning then, and go out on tour. I guess audiences on the road didn’t mind sweltering. The play was made into a very successful film which starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Since Bruce wrote the original play, he received a tiny percentage of the royalties which, somehow, he lived on for the rest of his life. The play was revived in 1952, at the ANTA Theatre (which is now the August Wilson), and near the end of his life (which is when I first met him), he hit the jackpot when the musical version, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, opened on Broadway in 1978 at the St. James Theatre and became a hit, running for over a year. Bruce died in 1991, aged 88.

After Samuel French moved to the New Place, the young actresses kept coming in. There were several acting schools and studios in the area. A woman had a studio nearby, where she worked with models who wanted to get into acting, and she would lead a group of them in from time to time and ask me to help them find scenes and monologues. For some reason they were all tall, very beautiful blondes, Jorge Ibbott, who worked in the Order Dept. for many years, called them the “Swedish Bikini Team.” He would come into my office, salute, and announce, “Sir, the Swedish Bikini Team has arrived!”

As I said, most of the young people who came in to see me were women; but. Occasionally, I got a guy. One was a muscular, very Italian fellow who had a thick Brooklyn accent. I gave him a couple of monologues which I used to call “monologues for Vinnies.” “Lemme show you something,” he said, and he rolled up his sleeve. He had “Vinnie” tattooed on his arm. Another was a very cute blonde man. I spent several minutes with him, and noticed that Lurch was lurking in the Order Dept., observing me. When I finished up, Lurch said, “He was attractive.” “Oh, come on, Peter,” I said. He asked, “Do you think he was a Club Member?” I told this story to my sister, who is a lesbian, and she said, “We call them family.”

Sometimes, Famous People came in to talk to me. I had a couple of sessions with Ron Howard. Ron is a very friendly, unassuming man, and we always had a delightful chat. The second time he came in, he was looking for monologues for his daughter, who was auditioning for college theatre programs. She later became a pretty successful film actress – Dallas Bryce Howard. Robert Uhrich came in once, looking for the script of THE MUSIC MAN, a revival of which was running on Broadway, because he had been asked to go into the show when the star, Craig Bierko, left. I had to tell him that the show was handled by Tams-Witmark, which didn’t sell their libretti but rented them, so we didn’t have a copy. We had a nice chat about “Lonesome Dove,” in which he played the horse thief Jake Spoon. He never did THE MUSIC MAN.

I met Twiggy once. She had been a super model (before that term was coined) in the 1960s, epitomizing the term “mod.” She was appearing in a musical revue of songs by Noël Coward called IF LOVE WERE ALL at the time and she wanted some plays to read. She bought them using her credit card which had her real name on it: Lesley Hornby. She’s now Dame Lesley Hornby and is 70 years old. Hard to believe.

The British actor and director Roger Rees came in often. He had shot to fame in the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s NICHOLAS NICKLEBY; and at the time I met him, he was the Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He was always looking for scripts to consider for production there. Roger was quite the wag, very funny. The Festival had recently opened a small theatre named after its late founder, Nikos Psacharapoulos, called the Nikos. Roger cracked, “Maybe when I die, they’ll name a theatre after me. They could call it the ‘Roger’.” To “Roger” is a British sex slang verb, as in, “I rogered her.” One time, he regaled me with stories about “corpsing” in the British theatre, a term for the common practice of an actor trying to make a fellow actor lose it and break character. He was pretty knowledgeable about plays, but he often asked my opinion of some of them which interested him. After he left Williamstown he co-wrote and co-directed PETER AND THE STARCATCHER and starred in the musicals A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE and Kander and Ebb’s musical version of the Dürrenmatt play THE VISIT, alongside Chita Rivera. During the run, he developed cancer and died very quickly. I’m still waiting for Williamstown to honor him; if not with a theatre then perhaps with a lobby or rehearsal hall, called the “Roger.”

John Davidson stopped by once to talk with me. He brought his bike up to our bookstore. You may not remember him, but in the 1960s he was a TV star, a tall, handsome man with a beautiful singing voice. He was appearing on Broadway in the stage version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein film musical, “State Fair.” He looked exactly like John Davidson, but with gray-flecked hair. He wanted to do a one-man play about Thoreau, so he wanted to read other monodramas. I talked to him for quite a while, recommending several and told him my opinions about what makes a good one-man play. He looked down and asked, “How come you know all this?” I knew that he was a Denison alum. Denison was my alma mater Kenyon’s arch revival. They always beat us in football; we always trounced them in swimming. Denison was in a dry county, so the students had no access to liquor. Mr. Hayes, who ran our local grocery store, had no problem selling alcohol to underage Kenyon students, so our frat parties were well-lubricated. The problem was, Kenyon was all-male, so we needed women. Guys would get in their cars and drive over to nearby Denison, pull up in front of the sororities, and yell to the girls coming and going, “Hey girls, party at Kenyon tonight. Anyone wanna go?” In two shakes, they had a full car. The Denison guys hated us. My reply to Davidson’s question when he asked me how I knew so much was, “’Cause I went to Kenyon.” He replied, matter of factly, “I went to Denison.” “I know,” I said. He thought about this, realized I was kidding him, and then gave me a “that’s a good one” big smile. I have never heard that he actually did a one-man Thoreau play, but he had his own theatre in Branson, Missouri, where he was probably making too much money entertaining all the geezers who trekked to Branson.

Sometimes, instead of people stopping by, they would call me up. I would answer the phone, “Lawrence Harbison.” One time, the voice on the other end said, “Mr. Harbison, this is Jon Voight. I’m an actor?” Me: “I know who you are, Mr. Voight. What can I do for you?” He said, “Well, my daughter is a student at N.Y.U. and she’s playing Nina in THE SEA GULL. I was wondering if you could recommend some research materials for her.” Konstantin Stanislavski directed the original production and later he published a journal he kept during rehearsals entitled, “The Sea Gull Log.” I told Voight about that and recommended that she read a good biography of the playwright, because I was pretty sure that Chekhov based Nina on a real girl. Voight thanked me profusely and then we hung up. I found out the name of his daughter a few years later. She was Angelina Jolie.

Another time, I answered a call in my usual way and heard a shakey, geezer voice on the other end: “Mr. Harbison, this is Buddy Ebsen.” Holy moly, it was Jed Clampett! We talked a bit about “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Adventures of Davy Crockett,” in which he had played Davy’s sidekick, Georgie Russell, who said things like, “Give ‘em what fer, Davy!” He had written a play and asked if I would read it. “Of course I would,” I told him, so a few days later his play arrived. The author’s name was Christian Ebsen, which was Buddy’s given name. It was a beautifully written play about an army camp during the Civil War, but it had a gazillion characters, all male, so there was nothing we could do with it. I had to return it to him. A short while later, he died.

One time, I got a call from a woman who identified herself as “Goldie Hawn.” I almost said, “Who is this really?” because her voice was that of a middle-aged Jewish matron, nothing like Goldie Hawn. She wanted recommendations for plays with strong dramatic scenes for a young man, because her son was auditioning for the Actor’s Studio and they expected wannabes to come in with a scene. One time, a woman called me needing help to find a scene for the same reason. In order to better assist her, I asked who her scene partner was. “Stephen Lang,” She said. Again, holy moly! In my humble opinion, Stephen Lang is one of our greatest actors, both in film and on stage. Although he has had a pretty successful career, playing major roles in the films “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” “Gettysburg” and “Avatar,” he never became the star he should have been. Anyway, I hope she got in. Back to “Goldie:” She was being driven around Manhattan, and I asked her to give me a half hour to pull some plays for her. Then, I asked her if I could have an autographed picture for a fraternity brother, Randy Giarraputo, who was nuts about her back in the day. I chose ten or so plays, and a half hour later her driver came to the counter to purchase them. He handed our clerk an 8 x10 glossy, signed, “To Randy. Thanks for being such a great fan. Goldie Hawn.” I sent this to Randy. Imagine the look on his face when he opened the mailing envelope.

I wrote about Jerry Sterner, Don Nigro and Ken Ludwig in my chapter on Samuel French, but there were many more playwrights with whom I became friendly, such as Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Michael Weller and John Patrick Shanley. I was Donald Margulies’ first agent; Richard Dresser’s and Mark St. Germaine’s as well. I tried for a couple of years to place their plays before hooking them up with real agents who had the time to promote their work; and the rest is history.

I want to reminisce a bit about two lesser-known playwrights, Leonard Melfi and John Ford Noonan. Leonard was a cheerful bear of a man with long, curly, dark brown hair who spoke with a minor stutter. In his youth, in the early 1960s, he had been at the epicenter of the Off Off Broadway movement, along with Lanford Wilson, Jean-Claude Van Italie, John Guare, Sam Shepard, Terrence McNally, Tom Eyen, Doric Wilson, H.M. Koutoukas, Paul Foster and Robert Patrick. Note: all men. There were a few female playwrights then, but it wasn’t until later that they started getting much attention. Several playwrights in the above list managed to move beyond their OOB roots. Leonard never really did, I think largely because his plays were whimsical almost-fairy tales which seemed rather silly to critics, although Theodore Mann of Circle in the Square did commission him, McNally and Van Italie to write three one-acts, which he produced as MORNING, NOON AND NIGHT. Leonard started out mostly with one-acts, the kind which could be produced simply at places like Café La Mama and the Café Cino, his best-known being BIRDBATH. He did have a couple of full-length plays produced under mini-contracts later, FANTASIES AT THE FRICK and PORNO STARS AT HOME, but these came and went and are now pretty much forgotten. I lost track of Leonard, then was saddened to learn of his death in 2001 in a S.R.O flophouse. His body went unclaimed for several days and then was misplaced by the hospital staff and wound up being buried in Potter’s Field. When his brother learned of his death, he had Leonard exhumed and buried in Binghamton, his old home town. His was a sad and ignominious end for a man who never lost his child-like wonderment and optimism, even when he was struggling with alcoholism.

John Ford Noonan started out as an actor, appearing in several films such as “Last Stop, Greenwich Village.”  Then Joseph Papp “discovered” him as a playwright, and Papp produced his early play, THE YEAR BOSTON WON THE PENNANT (which featured a then-unknown actor named Roy Schieder in the lead) during his brief tenure at the helm of Lincoln Center Theatre. Subsequently, Papp took a lease on the Booth Theatre and announced a subscription season of 5 new plays, one of which was by Noonan. Also in this season were to be plays by Michael Weller, Thomas Babe, David Rabe and Dennis Reardon. Papp opened with Reardon’s THE LEAF PEOPLE, which was such a critical bomb that he cancelled the rest of the season and refunded the subscribers’ money. In 1979, Noonan had a huge hit Off Broadway WITH A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS SITTING AROUND TALKING at the Astor Place Theatre (where those Blue Men seem to be permanently ensconced), starring Susan Sarandon and Maureen Brennan. In his heyday, he was a large hirsute fellow; but when I got to know him, he had slimmed down considerably. This was around the time he had a modest Off Broadway success with SOME MEN NEED HELP, which starred Treat Williams and Philip Bosco. John often used to call me just to talk. I would answer the phone and I would hear, “Who’s-your- favorite-playwright?” “You, John,” I would reply. “How are you?” “Still sober,” he would reply. John had had a huge problem with alcohol and cocaine. He had received $500,000 for the film rights to A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS SITTING AROUND TALKING and in 6 months it was gone – up his nose. After I left Samuel French, I lost track of John, though I tried to contact him a few years ago on behalf of a Greek friend who wanted to direct a production of A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS in Athens. Even Noonan’s agent, Buddy Thomas at ICM, had lost track of him. I told the Buddy to contact Noonan’s brother, the actor Tom Noonan, who told him that he had Power of Attorney, as John was in the Actor’s Home in New Jersey and was non compos mentis. John passed away there in 2018 at the age of 77.

When we are young and just starting out, we are convinced that Fame and Fortune are just around the corner. The ends of Melfi and Noonan are cautionary tales.

 

 

 

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 16 July 2020

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, ordinarily brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but since the  New York Theatre is closed down for the foreseeable future, in this column Larry reports on plays you can stream on your computer or other preferred gizmo. 

The Mint has long been one of my favorite theatre companies. Ours is a throwaway culture of “Here today, gone tomorrow,” but Jonathan Bank, the theatre’s Artistic Director, always tries to counteract this by producing long-forgotten gems which didn’t deserve to be resigned to the dustbin of theatre history. You can stream three plays, produced in the past two or three years, and all are worthwhile.

The Fatal Weakness by George Kelly (Grace’s uncle) was a modest success on Broadway in 1947, with one of the great stars of the 30s and 40s, Ina Claire. It’s a beautifully-constructed play about Modern Marriage. Ollie Espenshade, a middle-aged matron, learns to her dismay that her husband, Paul, is having an affair and plans to divorce her. At the same time her daughter, Penny, a pro-feminist, seems totally uninterested in her marriage and is keen on self-fulfillment. Ollie is hurt and shocked at first; but, gradually, she comes to see that being divorced is her path to freedom; whereas Penny decides to try to save her marriage. This is the one flaw in Kelly’s otherwise flawless dramaturgy, because she makes that decision offstage.

All the actors, under Jesse Marchese’s fine-tuned direction, are pitch perfect. Kristin Griffith, long one of our finest actresses, slides from helplessness to empowerment with effortless ease and Victoria Mack is perfect in her inane self-involvement. Sean Patrick Hopkins turns in a touching performance, as her husband, an archetypal Nice Guy who is bewildered by his wife’s behavior, and Cliff Bemis manages to make Ollie’s errant husband, Paul, almost likeable.

Jonathan Bank seems to makes a speciality of unjustly forgotten plays by women; particularly, Irish women. He’s unearthed the complete works of Teresa Deevy, once a leading light of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre before fading into obscurity, and his productions of her plays have more than made the case for her inclusion in the permanent dramatic repertory. His final streamed play, Hazel Ellis’ Women Without Men, deserves to join Ms. Deevy’s august company. It takes place in the teachers’ lounge at an all-girl boarding school, and the teachers are all, to varying degrees, practically basket-cases, constantly bickering with each other. Into their midst comes a young woman named Miss Wade, a new hire on her first job. She starts out with enthusiasm and idealism but quickly finds herself sucked into the constant catfights. Her particular nemesis is the contentious Miss Connor, a middle-aged sourpuss who has spent 20 years working on her magnum opus, a book about ideas of beauty throughout history. Miss Wade has way out of the morass she finds herself in, a quasi-fiance she could marry, but all of the other women are stuck. A crisis is precipitated when someone shreds Miss Connor’s book. Finally, the culprit is revealed. 

Jenn Thompson’s subtle direction is just right, and her cast couldn’t be better. When a director has actresses in her cast of the calibre of Kellie Overbey (Miss Connor) and Mary Bacon (as Miss Strong, who copes with her dead-end life with cynicism), both of whom are perfect, how can she go wrong?

Vicki R. Davis’ lounge set, a room which looks like it hasn’t changed in decades, and Martha Hally’s perfect, doughty costumes are a feast for the eyes.

The third offering from the Mint, Harold Chapin’s The New Morality, is less satisfying than the first two. Like The Fatal Weakness it, too, is about modern marriage; but it seldom says anything trenchant about its subject.

It’s set on a houseboat in the Thames. A wife has made catty comments about a woman her husband has been lavishing attention on, which have been overheard and which spiral out of control, causing repercussions which threaten to alienate all the characters from each other. That’s about it. Jonathan Banks’ production is his usual first-rate job, but he has failed to make a case for the play as worthy of revival.

Finally, I saw a one-woman “play” presented via Zoom called “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies,” written and performed by Jessica Sher. This is a real rarity: a Bette Davis impersonation by a woman. I have never been much of a Bette Davis fan. I find her acting to be rather mannered – as is Ms. Sher’s performance, which is delivered straight into the Zoom lens. Mostly, her stories are about Davis’ fights with the studio system.

If you’re a Bette Davis aficionado you might enjoy this; but as for me, I found it a bumpy ride.

 

Mint Theatre’s Summer Stock Streaming Festival: https://minttheater.org/current-production/production-summer-stock-streaming-festival/. To receive a password, send an email to streaming@minttheater.org with Mint in the subject line.

To view Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies go to www.BetteDavisAintForSissiesTix.com

 

 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 2 July 2020

“On the Aisle with Larry” 2 July 2020

Lawrence Harbison,The Playfixer, usually brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but in this column, Larry shares his thoughts on the Strange New World of streaming theatre.

“I can deal with this. This is a temporary situation.” Ken Jenkins, CHUG

And now, For Something Completely New and Different, I recently had my first experience with Streamed Theatre, a production of Molière’s TARTUFFE, presented online by Molière in the Park in association with Alliance Française. Maybe I will get used to this as I watch more streamed productions as this dreadful pandemic wears on; but I have to say, watching a play on my computer screen just ain’t the same as real theatre.

That said, this production of Molière’s classic about flim-flammery in the name of religion was a good choice in the Era of Trump as evangelical so-called Christians have drunk the Kool-Aid; so much so that a large chunk of them are under the delusion that this repugnant non-Christian is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Lord, have mercy …

Back to this production: before it begins, we get not one but three introductions, one by the director, one by the Artistic Director and one by “Molière.” The first two make now-obligatory statements about how Black lives matter and how racial injustice has to end, etc., and finally “Molière” appears in a period costume, heavily made up and wearing a bright pink wig. My first thought was that he was Randy Rainbow, but I was disabused of this notion quickly as the actor (not credited in the program) was Not Funny, just annoying. When all three speeches were finished, the production began.

What I saw was a handsome interior set, up on my screen for a rather long time as I waited for the actors to enter. They didn’t. Instead, they started popping up in their own separate boxes. It took me a while to get used to this; but, finally, I did and sat back to enjoy the acting by the African American cast (except for Jennifer Mudge as Dorine, the saucy maid, and Raúl Esparza in the title role), which was actually pretty good given the limitations of Zoom. I’m not a fan of cross-gender casting, but I have to admit Samira Wiley was delightful as the deluded father, Orgon. Esparza was more than pretty good – he was terrific. All of the actors handled translator Richard Wilbur’s rhymed couplet verse extremely well.

While the actors do their thing in their boxes, a running chat board is at the right side of my screen, and many viewers use this to post commentary, most of it rather inane. After a while, I ignored this and just focused on the acting.

The whole experience made me more than a little sad, though. As Sir exclaims in THE DRESSER, “What have I been reduced to?”

This just in: TARTUFFE has been extended through 12 July, streaming on https://www.youtube.com/moliereinthepark

 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 29 November 2019

“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, the Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on MACBETH, THE LIGHTNING THIEF, SEARED, DR. RIDE’S AMERICAN BEACH HOUSE, EVERYTHING IS SUPER GREAT and ALL IS TRUE.

Macbeth, at CSC, is not Macbeth – it’s an adaptation of the play by director John Doyle, though this is not explained in the program which, by the way, you have to download from CSC’s website (are paper programs going to become a thing of the past?). The assumption, when directors do this, is that everyone in the audience knows Shakespeare’s original, whereas I’ll wager to say that a lot of people who attend Doyle’s production think they are seeing Macbeth as Shakespeare wrote it. I have no problem with Shakespeare adaptations – as long as the program makes it clear that that’s what they are (although how would a CSC theatregoer know that without a program?). Here, CSC would not have been able to afford to produce Macbeth. Too many actors. This production employs eight. My position is that if you can’t afford to do the text of the play as the playwright intended, don’t do it. This is a constant problem for CSC, an acronym for Classic Stage Company, as almost all classic plays require casts that are far larger than an Off Broadway company can manage. So, we often end up with hybrids like this Macbeth.

As anyone who knows the play knows, it begins with the three Witches (“Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble …”). In Doyle’s production, though, the witches are portrayed by the entire cast, except for Macbeth – including Lady M. This makes no sense, and undercuts the creepiness of Macbeth’s encounter with the Weird Sisters. The Porter has been cut (“Who’s there, i’ the name of Beelzebub?”). King Duncan and Ross are portrayed by women. Fleance is portrayed by what appears to be a transgender actor (although, who knows?). The list of Doyle’s liberties goes on and on …

All of the above said, the two leads acquit themselves well. Corey Still is appropriately weenie as Macbeth and Nadia Bowers appropriately creepy as Lady M.

The Lightning Thief, at the Longacre Theatre, a musical based on a young adult novel by Rick Riordan, the first installment in the “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” series, tells the story of Percy, a troubled teen being raised by his mother, his father having ditched them years ago. Percy keeps getting expelled from schools. Finally, he winds up at Camp Half-Blood, which he learns is for children one of whose parents is a Greek God. Percy finally learns that his father is Poseidon, and that someone has stolen Zeus’ lightning bolt. He goes on a quest with two other kids to discover the culprit, who they think is Hades, so they go by bus to Los Angeles, where the entrance to Hell is (perfect!). Along the way, they meet Ares. Did he steal the lightning? Eventually, they discover the real thief, and get the lightning bolt back – and Percy meets his father. It’s sorta Dear Evan Hansen meets Hadestown, which I assume won over investors, as both those shows won the Tony Award.

The kids are played by adults, unfortunately, though some of the performances are mighty fine, particularly that of Chris McCarell as Percy. The songs by Rob Rokicki are mostly unremarkable. The scenic design, by Lee Savage, consists of scaffolding, some permanent, some rolling in and out. It’s one of the ugliest sets I have ever seen on a Broadway stage.

If you are a fan of the Percy Jackson novels, I think you would enjoy The Lightning Thief. Everyone else, be prepared to sit there and roll your eyes.

Seared, Theresa Rebeck’s searing new play at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space/Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater, at MCC Theatre’s new complex of two splendid theatres (which I had the pleasure of visiting for the first time), is about a genius chef named Harry and his investor, Mike, who also serves as a waiter, this being a very small operation. The chef is difficult, to say the least. The restaurant has just received a glowing review in New York Magazine, with particular praise for the scallops so, naturally, the chef refuses to cook them the following day, much to the chagrin of his partner. Although they now start to do capacity business, they are barely breaking even. A rent increase could put them out of business. The partner brings in a brilliant woman named Emily who specializes in helping restaurants reach their maximum financial potential, and what ensues is a war of the wills between Harry, who resists any change because he doesn’t care about money and Emily, backed by Mike, who do.

Raúl Esparza is astounding as Harry, but David Mason (Mine) and Krysta Rodriguez (Emily) are almost as good, and W. Tré Davis has a nice turn as a waiter, Rodney. Moritz von Stuepfnagel’s taut timing in the direction is amazing, as is Tim MacKabee’s hyper-realistic kitchen set.

Seared is one of the gifted and prolific Rebeck’s best plays, and rockets to the list of my must-see list.

I sat though Lisa Birkenmeier’s intermission-less Dr. Ride’s American Beach House, an Ars Nova production at the Greenwich House Theatre, wondering when the play was going to finally get going; but I think that must have been a guy thing. We’re big on dramatic action and conflict, short on plays in which a coupla white chicks basically do nothing but sit around, talking. They are on a roof, there for a meeting of the Serious Ladies Book Club, in which no books are discussed but a lot of venting is done. They are two BFF’s with college degrees in poetry who are working as waitresses, living in St. Louis. One of them, Harriet, played with touching simplicity by Kristen Dieh, has recently returned from Florida to visit her mother, who is dying, where she learns that NASA has a beach house near Cape Canaveral, where astronauts stay before they are shot into space, one of whom at this juncture in time is Sally Ride, the first female astronaut. Harriet’s BFF, Matilda (a stellar Erin Markey), has a husband and a baby, but there are hints that their relationship is more than “just friends.” Also in the mix is a very butch lesbian named Meg, who arrives thinking she has come to an actual book club, who provides a lot of the wit which ultimately sustains the play.

While I myself wasn’t wild about the play, I must report that it moved a female playwright friend of mine to tears.

Stephen Brown’s Everything is Super Great, at 59E59, is a wonderful comedy about a teenaged guy who works at Walmart, along with his mother. He is very angst-ridden, so the mom hires a psychologist to work with him who is highly unqualified, to say the least.

The acting is super-great, as is Sarah Norris’ superb direction.

This one, too, makes my must-see list.

Finally, I don’t usually comment on movies but I want theatre-lovers to know about All is True, produced and directed by Kenneth Branagh, who stars as William Shakespeare. Will has retired to Stratford shortly after his beloved Globe Theatre has burned down, leaving the world of the theatre behind with no regrets. He soon learns that many of the assumptions he had about his family are, well, not true.

Since little is known of Shakespeare’s final years, screenwriter Ben Elton includes much conjecture; though he makes this highly credible. His screenplay is, in a word, brilliant, as is Branagh’s performance. There are many great scenes in this film, such as one in which the Earl of Southampton (a wonderful Ian McKellen), to whom Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets long ago, arrives in Stratford to urge Will not to give up writing plays, during which it is subtly but yet abundantly clear that Southampton was the great love of Will’s life. I also loved a scene in which Shakespeare tells off a snide Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, who has accused him of having engaged in trivial pursuits while he, Lucy, has been doing something that matters — running an estate. Will lays into him with a brilliant tirade describing everything it takes to run a theatre, which leaves Lucy, and us, speechless.

This film is a don’t miss, particularly if you know something about Shakespeare’s life.

MACBETH.  CSC, 136 E. 13th St.

TICKETS: www.ovationtix.com or 212-677-4210

THE LIGHTNING THIEF. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400

SEARED. The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space/Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater,

511 W. 52nd St.

DR. RIDE’S AMERICAN BEACH HOUSE. Ars Nova at the Greenwich House

Theatre. Alas, closed

EVERYTHING IS SUPER GREAT. 59E59, 59 E. 59th St.

TICKETS: 646-892-7999 

ALL IS TRUE. Available on DVD from Netflix.

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 22 November 2019

“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on SLAVE PLAY, EINSTEIN’S DREAMS, FEAR, BRANDOCAPOTE and THE GREAT SOCIETY. 

Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, at the Golden Theatre, is one of those plays where you think it’s one thing but then it turns out to be something quite different. In the first third of this two hour and 20 minute intermission-less drama, we are in the Old South, at a plantation. It starts off with a female slave and her sadistic overseer who, of course, rapes her. Next, we go inside the plantation house, with the randy plantation owner’s wife and a very handsome male house slave. She makes him strip butt-naked and get down in all fours, then takes out an enormous black dildo and sodomizes him with it. The third scene involves two men – one black, one white. The white guy plays the slave and the black guy plays his master. The master makes the slave lick his boot until he orgasms, which surprised the heck out of me as the black guy didn’t appear to even have a woody.

After these carryings-on, we go to the present. It turns out, what we have seen were fantasies of the contemporary mixed-race couples, participating in a sex-therapy workshop conducted by two women. What ensues is a lot of psychobabble, much of it incomprehensible.

The actors are fine, the direction’s fine; but the play is who-cares.

Einstein’s Dreams, at 59E59, is a musical about young Albert Einstein, a humble patent clerk, who falls asleep at his desk and dreams up the Theory of Relativity, inspired by a muse named Josette. The book by Joanne Sydney Lessner is sort of a Cliff Notes. Some of the songs by Joshua Rosenblum are pleasant, although one or two are not so. In “Now Backwards Moving in Time,” for instance, all the lyrics are sung backwards, to demonstrate how Time will eventually turn around and head back the other way.

Of the performers, Alexandra Silber is a standout as the Muse.

Fear, a new drama by Matt Williams at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is a gripping cat and mouse game. At the start, a man (a plumber) drags a teenaged boy into a disused tool shed near a lake. An 8 year-old girl has gone missing, and he thinks the kid’s responsible. Another man, part of the search party for the girl, hears the ruckus and barges in to find the kid tied up and being choked. Turns out, he’s a college professor and the next door neighbor of both the kid and the guy choking him. He can’t call for help because he has no bars on his cell phone. Who’s telling the truth? Is the kid the culprit or, maybe, is it the plumber’s own son? And, what’s with the visits by the plumber to the professor’s house? Into this melodramatic framework, Williams grafts a brilliant examination of the all-consuming fear in which we all live in these dark times. 

Director Tea Alagić’s direction is taut, and there are terrific performances by Enrico Colantoni as the plumber, Obu Abili as the professor and Alexander Garfin as the scared-out-of-his mind kid. You won’t find better acting right now on a New York stage.

Don’t miss Fear.

As for BrandoCapote, by Reid and Sara Farrington, you could skip it unless you really like “experimental theatre” which here, as it usually is, is mostly imitation-Dada/surrealism. Inspired by an interview Truman Capote conducted with Marlon Brando in Tokyo during the filming of “Sayonara” the play, such as it is, uses the text of this interview to examine the similar troubled childhoods of both Brando and Capote. For some reason, most of Brando’s dialogue is heard as voice over done by the actor playing Brando, who makes no effort to sound like him, whereas much of Capote’s words are done live by Akiro Kumatsu, who does a killer Capote impression. All the actors are dressed in kimonos, and they spend a lot of time rolling up and then unrolling lengths of cloth, which they stretch across the stage.Why? Nobody knows. Sometimes, they pick up red mops and mop the floor furiously. Go figure.

BrandoCapote is only 60 minutes long, which I found blessedly brief.

Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, is a follow-up to his All the Way, which featured a towering performance by Bryan Cranston as LBJ. Here, Brian Cox assays the role. While he’s pretty good he’s hardly towering. 

The play focuses on Johnson’s attempts to pass the Voting Rights bill even as he is trying to get Congress to pass his Great Society agenda. The usual culprits, such as Governor Wallace and the Republicans stand in his way. Of course, the Vietnam quagmire eventually brings him down. Like All the Way, it’s a fascinating portrait of a brilliant politician pulling out all the stops. Bill Rauch’s direction is superb, as are all the actors – Richard Thomas as Hubert Humphrey, Bryce Pinkham as Bobby Kennedy and Grantham Coleman as Martin Luther King are particular stand-outs.

While The Great Society is not as great as All the Way, it’s still worth seeing even if you didn’t live through the events it dramatizes, as I did. 

 

SLAVE PLAY. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6210 or 800-543-4835

EINSTEIN’S DREAMS. 59E59, 59 E. 59TH St.

TICKETS: 646-892-7999

FEAR. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121.Christopher St.

TICKETS: https://www.ticketoffices.com/venues/lucille-lortel-theatre-tickets?discount-tickets&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI9vjCw9r75QIVhJ-zCh0xjwXBEAAYASABEgJ32fD_BwE or 844-379-0370

BRANDOCAPOTE. The Tank, 312 W. 36th St.

TICKETS: www.thetanknyc.org

THE GREAT SOCIETY. Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6210 or 800-543-4835 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 30 October 2019

“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, the Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on MOULIN ROUGE, THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM, and THE WIVES and Sam Bobrick.

I am reporting to you belatedly on the above, which I saw last month. My computer went belly-up but I am finally up and running with a new one. After many years of its running on www.smithandkraus.com, I am moving my column over to www.applausebooks.com,

the new website of Applause Theatre & Cinema books, which be operational this week. Applause is a much larger operation than was Smith & Kraus, with significantly more web traffic.

Moulin Rouge, at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, is a spectacular version of the Baz Luhrman film about a dying chanteuse named Satine in Belle Epoque Paris and the two men who love her. Karen Olivo is phenomenal as Satine (though I have to say, she’s not as consumptive as the book calls for – well, what do you expect, this is musical comedy and who wants to see the leading lady coughing all night?). I thought she had left the business after her last Broadway outing in West Side Story, but if that’s true, I’m glad she changed her mind.

As in the Luhrman film, the score consists of over 80 contemporary pop songs, many of them mere snippets, all sung energetically by a wonderful cast, which includes Aaron Tveit as an impoverished songwriter, Tam Mutu as a wealthy British aristocrat and Danny Burstein as the owner of the eponymous nightclub, which is going under. If Satine chooses the villainous Baron, she can save the club; but she’s really in love with the songwriter. The Baron agrees to produce a musical written by the songwriter, which could save the club – but only if Satine agrees to become his mistress.

All three male leads are terrific, but I think the Main Events are the fabulous direction by Justin Timbers, the sumptuous costumes by Catherine Zuber, the sets by Derek McLane, the lighting by Justin Townsend and the wonderful choreography by Sonya Taveh. The show is a visual feast from start to finish. I expect it will be honored with several awards at season’s end.

As for Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm, translated by Christopher Hampton, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway venue), well, I just didn’t get it, nor did many of my fellow theatregoers. It’s a family drama. In the present, the patriarch and matriarch are deceased, but both are major characters because we flit back and forth between the present and the past. Ordinarily, this would have been clarified with lighting changes but here, director Jonathan Kent employs none, perhaps because none are indicated in the script, and the effect on the audience is frustrating confusion although as you would expect, the terrific performances by Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins almost make this rather tedious play watchable.

Jaclyn Backhaus’ The Wives at Playwrights Horizons, which has closed, was a time-travelling comedy about the wives and mistresses of various historical figures such as the French King Henry IV and Ernest Hemingway. It was very inventively staged by Margot Bordelon.

Backhaus is a real comer – like many young female playwrights hugely influenced by the work of Caryl Churchill without being in any way derivative. This was the first play of hers I have seen, but I look forward to seeing many more.

Playwright Sam Bobrick has passed away at the age of 87. Sam, an old friend, was a very successful TV writer in the 1960s though the 1980s, whose credits include numerous episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show, “The “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and “Saved by the Bell,” which he created. In the 1970’s he turned to writing Broadway comedies, partnering with fellow TV writer Ron Clark, such as “Norman, Is That You,” “Wally’s Café” and “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s.” Though none of these succeeded on Broadway, they have proved popular with amateur groups, always on the lookout for plays which are just plain fun – for their actors and for their audiences.

Used to be, comedies (along with thrillers) were ubiquitous in every Broadway season; but then, the Broadway critics decided that these kinds of plays belonged on television, and began deriding them as “sit-coms.” About the worst thing a critic could call a play became “television.” Fortunately, Neil Simon came along before this attitude became prevalent; but by the time Bobrick and Clarke hit Broadway they were outta luck, at least on Broadway; but fortunately comedies were (and still are) very popular with the above mentioned amateur groups.

After parting with Clark, Bobrick continued to write plays, many of which have received numerous productions, licensed by Samuel French, and was writing right up until the end.

Sam was a wonderfully cranky old coot, and I miss him.

 

MOULIN ROUGE. Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St.

Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000

THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM. Robert J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400.

THE WIVES. Playwrights Horizons. Alas, closed. 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” October 2019

Lawrence Harbison, the Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on Betrayal, Only Yesterday, Caesar and Cleopatra, American Moor, Sea Wall/A Life, Get on Your Knees and L.O.V.E.R.

I was unfamiliar with the work of British director Jamie Lloyd, whose production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre I saw last week. Based on this production, I have to say that Lloyd has vaulted to the very top of the list of innovative  directors. Although the acting is realistic, his production is not. All three principal actors are onstage throughout. There is no set – just 3 chairs – and she employs a slow-moving turntable for much of the play. The effect is to focus on the story in a way I have never seen before.

For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s the tale of an adulterous affair between a man named Jerry and Emma, the wife of his best friend, Robert. When it begins, the affair has been over for two years and the couple has not seen each other since. It goes back in time, and the final scene is when the affair begins.

All three actors are splendid. The chemistry between Charlie Cox, as Jerry, and Zawe Ashton, as Emma, is intense. Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Robert is very poignant, particularly so as he has known about the affair for a long time but continues to consider Jerry his best friend.

This is a magnificent tour do force production, and not to be missed.

I wish you could have seen Bob Stevens’ Only Yesterday at 59E59 but, alas, it has closed. The main characters were none other than John Lennon and Paul McCartney who, while the Beatles are on tour, have to wait out a hurricane in Key West. With little to do, they discuss songs they might write, play some covers, such as “Roll Over, Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music,” and talk about their lives, as hordes of teenaged girls have gathered outside the motel they’re stuck in to scream. One of them, a bird named Shirley, has managed to crawl into the air duck, where she’s stuck, so the lads banter with Shirley and actually play a couple of songs for her. One of these, “How Do You Do It,” was not released by the Beatles in 1964, when this play takes place but by Gerry and the Pacemakers, so I thought it an odd choice. I also thought it odd that they changed a lyric in “Roll Over, Beethoven.” Other than these minor quibbles, this was a wonderful production, with superb performances by Christopher Sears as John and Tommy Crawford as Paul, as well as a nice turn by Olivia Swayze as the teen in the air duct.

Although I have read it, I have never seen a production of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, so I booked the Gingold Theatrical Group’s production at the Theatre Row Theatre. I still haven’t seen Shaw’s play. What I saw was a pared-down adaptation by director David Staller, though this is not stated in the program, which identifies the play as Caesar & Cleopatra (sic), reducing Shaw’s large cast to 7 actors, all of whom are costumed in white, so there is no visual differentiation between the Romans and the Egyptians. The play is supposed to take place in Cleopatra’s palace, which is represented by what appears to be wooden construction scaffolding. I won’t mention the names of the actors. It’s not their fault.

There are inventive directors like the aforementioned Jamie Lloyd, and then there are inept ones like David Staller. Great that he digs Shaw, but if you can’t do his plays without mauling the text – don’t do them.

The premise of American Moor at the Cherry Lane Theatre (now closed), written by and starring Keith Hamilton Cobb, was that an African American actor is auditioning for the role of Othello, for a white director who sits in the audience. His audition goes on for an hour and a half, during which he exhibits various kinds of hostile behavior, mostly having to do with being a black man in a white’s man’s world. Had Cobb dropped the audition premise and done just the rant he might have been annoying but at least he might have been credible; but no, he insists this is an audition. Nobody would hire an actor with a chip on his shoulder the size of the iceberg which sank the Titanic.

Sea Wall/A Life, at the Hudson Theatre, which has also closed, was two lengthy narrative monologues. In the first, Sea Wall by Simon Stephens, Tom Sturridge tells the tale of his daughter’s death. In A Life by Nick Payne, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn to tell us a story, this one about the birth of his daughter simultaneous with the death of his father. As both characters were pretty much hapless wimps, I got more and more annoyed by them. These are portraits of contemporary masculinity? Puh-lease …

I caught one of the final performances of comedienne Jacqueline Novak’s stand-up act, Get on Your Knees, which was mostly about blowjobs. Really. I swear to God. The women sitting around me were yukking it up. Most of the men (myself included) sat there stone-faced. Novak spends most of the show pacing back and forth with a rather nervous energy, which I guess gives it some visual variety, but which I found rather trying.

L.O.V.E.R. at the Signature Center, written by and starring Lois Robbins, is also an autobiographical one-woman show about sexual awakening, though it deals with a lot more than just sex. Robbins deals with her on again-off again relationships with various men before finally finding the Right One. She is delightful, funny and sometime poignant. Most of the audience at the performance I attended were middle-aged women and they seemed to identify with Robbins’ trials and tribulations; but I don’t think L.O.V.E.R. is only for men, because I enjoyed it, too.

In my next column, I’ll give you my thoughts on Moulin Rouge, and The Height of the Storm, all of which are still running.

Betrayal. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 800-447-7400

Only Yesterday. 59E59. Alas, closed.

Caesar and Cleopatra. Theatre Row Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

Tickets: fuhgeddaboudit

American Moor. Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St. Closed

Sea Wall/A Life. Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St. Closed

Get on Your Knees. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.

L.O.V.E.R. Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

Tickets: www.ticketcentral.com

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 5 May 2019

 

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on AIN’T TOO PROUD, KISS ME, KATE, BE MORE CHILL, BEETLEJUICE, HADESTOWN, NANTUCKET SLEIGH RIDE, HILLARY AND CLINTON, INK, THE PAIN OF MY BELLIGERENCE and GARY: A SEQUEL TO TITUS ANDRONICUS. 

For theatregoers my age (old) the music of the Motown group The Temptations was part of our youth, but I think younger audience will flock along with the geezers to the Imperial Theatre, where Ain’t Too Proud is in residence for what will probably be a long run. Like Jersey Boys and The Cher Show, this is a bio-musical, working in the group’s greatest hits as it tells their story. Dominque Morissseau was the perfect choice to write the book. She’s a wonderful playwright, the recipient of a MacArthur grant and she’s from Detroit! She has done a terrific job of seamlessly weaving those great 60s songs into what becomes a rather dark story. More on that later. 

The story is narrated by Otis Williams, the last surviving original member of the Temps, as we used to call them, played by Derrick Baskin, and he’s terrific – but so are the other members of the group; particularly, Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin, a great soul singer but a troubled man. Sykes’ rendition of Ruffin’s signature song, “My Girl,” took me back to my boyhood and made me long for my own girl. 

As you might expect, the choreography by Sergio Trujillo, who seems to specialize in what are often derided, unfairly in my opinion, as “jukebox musicals,” captures perfectly the Temps’ slick moves, and the whole thing has been put together perfectly by Des McAnuff who, you might remember, also directed Jersey Boys and The Who’s Tommy. 

The only problem with the show is the second act as, one by one, the Temps die off, Ruffin in a drug overdose when he was only 28. It’s bummer after bummer but, fortunately there are a lot of great songs to get us through the tragedies. 

Director Scott Ellis has come up some new ideas to stage Kiss Me, Kate, the Cole Porter and Sam & Bella Spewack musical at Studio 54. For one thing, he’s had orchestrator Larry Hochman add music to some songs, like “Too Darn Hot,”  to enable choreographer Warren Carlyle to turn them into big dance numbers. He’s also “fixed” the ending, which is right out of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, adding new lyrics to “I Am Ashamed that Women Are So Simple,” in which star Kelli O’Hara is ashamed that people are so simple. There are other PC touches, some of which work, some of which don’t, but essentially this is a first-rate production. O’Hara is sensational, as she always is, but she’s matched by her co-star Will Chase, who has great fun with the role of Fred. 

Be More Chill, at the Lyceum Theatre, is a transfer from Off Broadway last season, It got great reviews then, less than great in this incarnation. It’s a teen angst story about a kid who takes a mind-altering pill to cure his awkwardness and, of course runs into trouble. I liked this show – a lot. I liked Joe Iconis’ songs, Joe Tracz’ book. I liked all the performances. I liked Chase Brock’s choreography. I am at a loss to understand why it’s been slammed. 

I also liked Beetlejuice at the Winter Garden Theatre, based on the Tim Burton film about a jolly ghoul who longs to be brought back to life – if he can only get a living person to say his name three times. Alex Brightman is hilarious in the title role, and Sophia Ann Caruso is touching as a troubled goth teen who misses her recently deceased mother, as she sings in the show’s first song, “Dead Mom.” Eddie Perfect’s music & lyrics capture the tone of the film perfectly, as does Alex Timbers’ direction. P:raise must also go to David Korins’ shape-shifting set. 

Although this has been nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical, it’s a long shot to win, as all the momentum is with Hadestown, but I have to say I had the best time at Beetlejuice than at any musical this season since The Prom. 

Shows which lose in the Tony Roulette tend to close quickly thereafter. I hope this will not be the case with Beetlejuice. 

Hadestown, at the Walter Kerr Theatre is, like Be More Chill, a transfer from Off Broadway, but it’s the show which everyone seems to love, and it has the most Tony nominations. It’s a retelling of the Orpheus myth. The whole shebang – book, music and lyrics – are by Anais Mitchell, and it’s directed by hot young director Rachel Chafkin, whose direction of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 wowed the critics but was not enough to entice audiences to buy tickets after star Josh Groban left. 

The reviews are, as I said across-the-board raves, and everybody I have talked to, with the exception of my companion the night I attended, thinks it’s the bee’s knees. Not me. I just don’t get it. I liked some of the performances, notably Amber Gray’s as Persephone and Eva Noblezada’s as Eurydice, but Patrick Page as Hades growled through most of his role, and his songs, few and far between, were for me the least interesting, musically. 

Ah well – who cares what I think? I just hope I am not becoming what I promised I would never be – an Old Fart. 

At the Mitzi Newhouse theatre, John Guare’s Nantucket Sleigh Ride, his first play in several years, is being given a fun, whimsical production by Jerry Zaks, starring John Larroquette as a one-hit wonder playwright, now a businessman, who goes back to 1975, in Nantucket to relive many painfully hilarious memories. 

It’s true, Nantucket Sleigh Ride is often confusing, but I for one appreciate an absurdist farce once in a while. 

Hillary and Clinton, at the Golden Theatre, is sort of about the Clintons and sort of not. It’s another whimsical play by hot hot hot playwright Lucas Hnath, whose A Doll’s House, Part Two was a hit last season. Laurie Metcalfe and John Lithgow make no effort to impersonate the Clintons and, in fact, Metcalfe is giving pretty much the same performance she gave as Nora in A Doll’s House Part Two. 

The play takes place on the eve of the 2008 New Hampshire primary. Hillary is behind in all the polls and it looks like she will lose to Sen. Obama, which will effectively be the end of her candidacy, particularly as she is out of money – which is why she summons her husband, who has stayed away from her campaign, up to New Hampshire in hopes he can come up with the cash to keep her in the race (which, of course, he does – he being Bill Clinton after all). Obama shows up to offer her the nomination as Vice President if she will agree to drop out in the interest of party unity. Will she take him up on it or won’t she? 

Hillary and Clinton seems rather lightweight, certainly compared to A Doll’s House II. Still, it’s a more or less enjoyable 90 minutes. 

James Graham’s Ink, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, was a huge London last season and has been brought over with it’s two leads intact, again directed brilliantly by Rupert Goold.  The play takes place in the 1960’s. Australian newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch is determined to make a ton of money in London by buying a failing newspaper, the Sun, and hiring a brilliant editor named Larry Lamb, who’s been excluded from the top executive level because he’s an outsider to a club which consists mostly of old fuddy-duddies. Together, Larry and Rupert change newspaper publishing forever, turning the boring Sun into the first tabloid, proving that sleaze always trumps honest reporting. Fittingly, Larry overtakes the best selling newspaper in the country, like David bringing down Goliath, putting the Sun over the top by, fittingly, publishing a picture of a naked woman (well, a semi-naked woman but you can see which way the wind blows) on page three. 

Bertie Carvel and Jonny Lee Miller are sensational as Murdoch and Lamb, and there is strong supporting work from the Americans in the cast. 

I liked Halley Feiffer’s latest, The Pain of My Belligerence, wherein Feiffer plays a journalist who falls for the husband of a woman she has interviewed, even though he is obviously a bad boy and possibly a serial adulterer. Why would a woman fall for such a man? Who knows? I have to say that the fine actor, Hamish Linklater, almost makes this credible with his raffish charm, and I think Feiffer is giving a very courageous performance. 

The play has been given a fine production by Trip Cullman, whose work I have always loved, and is well worth seeing. 

Finally, I have arrived at Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andonicus by downtown performance artist Taylor Mac, which takes place in the aftermath of the carnage in Shakespeare’s play but multiplies it to the nth degree. Nathan Lane plays the title role, a failed clown who is hired as a maid to help clean up the mess, something at which head maid Janice is most adept. Also in the play is Carol, a midwife, played by Julie White, who wanders in and out appearing to be bewildered that she’s in such a weird play. Lane is sometimes funny, sometimes not, as Gary, and Kristine Neilson goes even more over the top than usual as Janice. I usually like all her mugging, but here she’s more than too much. 

If you’re a fan of Taylor Mac and his peculiar sensibility I think you will enjoy this. Everyone else, be prepared to be appalled.

 

AIN’T TOO PROUD. Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St.

Tickets: 212 -239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com

KISS ME, KATE. Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.

Tickets: www.roundabouttheatre.org

BE MORE CHILL. Lyceum Theatre. 149 W. 45th ST

Tickets: 212 -239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com

BEETLEJUICE. Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway

Tickets: 212 -239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com

HADESTOWN. Walter Kerr Theatre. 219 W. 48th St.

Tickets: 212 -239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com

NANTUCKET SLEIGH RIDE. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center

Tickets: 212 -239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com

HILLARY AND CLINTON. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St

Tickets: 212 -239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com

INK. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

Tickets: 212 -239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com

THE PAIN OF MY BELLIGERENCE. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd ST

Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com  

GARY: A SEQUEL TO TITUS ANDRONICUS. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.

Tickets: 212 -239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com

 

 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

 

                                                                                      — George F. Will

 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

 

 

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 1 January 2019

 

Lawrence Harbison, the Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on Network, American Son, Clueless, The Lifespan of a Fact and King Kong.

Happy New Year!

If you think our country is going to hell in a handbasket and you’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore then Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of the Paddy Chayefski screenplay from 1977 which garnered several awards, including one for Best Original Screenplay for Chayefski, you don’t want to miss the stage version at the Belasco Theatre. Directed by Ivo Van Hove and featuring a phenomenal performance by Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale, the deranged anchorman on a nightly news show who becomes a Jeremiah-like prophet, Network is one of the best things you’ll see this season.

Van Hove and his designers, most notably Jan Versweyveld (set and lighting) and Tal Yarden (video), have come up with a concept that almost makes the audience feel as if they are on the newsroom set, a perfect realization of Chayefski’s cogent demonstration of how people come to see what’s on TV as reality. Eager beaver and totally unscrupulous producer Diana Christensen sees that allowing Howard to rant on camera is a ratings gold mine – until, that is, Howard goes completely off the rails. Tatiana Maslany is terrific as Diana, though not as terrific as Faye Dunaway (who won an Oscar) was in the film. Tony Goldwyn is just OK as Max Schumacher, a jaded producer, which, if memory serves, was William Holden’s last appearance on film.

But the stars of the show are Cranston and Van Hove.

American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown, at the Booth Theatre is a powerful, gut-churning parable about the thorny, insolvable dilemma regarding race. It begins with a  black woman, Kendra, waiting late at night at a police station, to which she came when her son Jamal, didn’t come home. She is stymied by a young white police officer who is unable to provide her with information as to Jamal’s whereabouts. She has called her estranged husband, and when he arrives we are surprised, along with the policeman, that he is white. Eventually, the police are able to ascertain what has happened to Jamal, and it’s a tragic ending to this brilliant, strident new play.

Kerry Washington and Stephen Pasquale are very strong as Jamal’s parents, as are Jeremy Jordan as the police officer, and Eugene Lee as an older policeman, and Kenny Leon has directed the play with a steady, unobtrusive hand.

Like Network, American Son is a don’t-miss. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins this year’s Pulitzer Prize.

Clueless, at the Signature Center, is a musical-ization by Amy Heckerling of her cult film of the 90s about a group of Beverly Hills teenagers. Heckerling has chosen popular songs of the era but given them new lyrics, a device which I found very clever. Kristin Hanggi has done a fine job of staging the show and Kelly Devine’s choreography is sprightly and witty, and Dove Cameron is charming as the  central character, Cher. Yes, folks, this is another Cher show.

The reviews for Clueless have not been all that hot. Several critics took it to task for Not Being The Movie. Well, I never saw the movie, so I responded to this musical version with fresh eyes and ears, which may be why I enjoyed it so much.

The Lifespan of a Fact, at Studio 54, is a fine new play by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Ferrell. Cherry Jones plays the editor of a prestigious literary magazine who has contracted to publish an essay by a prominent writer about the suicide of a young man. She gives an intern the job of fact-checking the essay, and little did she know the ramifications of this decision, as he turns out to be an obsessive-compulsive young fellow who takes the job very seriously, to the point of coming up with 137 pages of notes which put into question the veracity of just about everything in the essay.

Daniel Radcliffe as Jim the fact-checker here adds another wonderful performance to his stage resume and Cherry Jones is also terrific as the editor, Emily, who has to decide whether to go with Jim’s version Truth or the essayist John’s defense of bending the facts in the name of poetic justice. As for Bobby Cannavalle as John, I am a big fan of this terrific actor who was sensational in The Motherfucker with the Hat, but I had difficulty buying him as a brilliant writer. Director Leigh Silverman has done a fine job with the other two actors, but couldn’t make Cannavalle credible.

Still, this is a very entertaining cerebral comedy and well worth seeing.

Finally, we come to the musical version of King Kong, at the Broadway Theatre. You know the story so there is no use summarizing the preposterous plot, because this show is all about the special effects, mainly the enormous puppet that is Kong, who makes Joey, the horse from Warhorse, look like a sock puppet.

Make no mistake Kong, manipulated by several people, is the star of the show. One of the things that amazed me the most was how his designer, Sonny Tilderss has made his face able to show emotion, from tenderness to rage.

The score by Marius de Vries is unmemorable, as are the performances. But Kong is amazing. 

NETWORK. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400

AMERICAN SON. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400

CLUELESS. Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

Tickets: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200

THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT. Studio 54. 254 W. 54th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400

KING KONG. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

Tickets: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 18 December 2018

“On the Aisle with Larry”

 

Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on The Hard Problem, The Waverly Gallery, The Prom, Downstairs, and The Cher Show.

The Hard Problem, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, British playwright Tom Stoppard deals with the science of how the brain works and asks a lot of Big Questions – what is altruism, is coincidence really just coincidence and, ultimately, what exactly is meant by “consciousness?” It’s a lot to follow, as the ideas come at you fast and furious. Fortunately, Stoppard also manages to create compelling characters, whose stories are the hooks which grab us, even as we struggle to digest all the complex science. Chief among these characters is Hilary, a grad student who gets a dream job working at a brain science founded by a hedge fund gazillionaire named Jerry, beating out another student, Amal, a mathematics whiz who’s hired at the hedge fund to predict market fluctuations. It soon becomes clear that Hilary is a most unusual scientist, in that she actually believes in God. Hilary had a baby when she a teenager, a daughter who gave up for adoption. Jerry has a daughter at just the right age. Is this Hilary’s child? Are there such things as coincidences?

Australian actress Adelaide Clemens is terrific as Hilary, under Jack O’Brien’s slick, unobtrusive direction. The Hard Problem asks more questions than it answers, but I found it fascinating. Yes, it’s not primo Stoppard, but when you compare it to the trivial American plays our playwrights produce so often pen, it stands out and is well worth seeing.

As is The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan at the Golden Theatre, which features a brilliant performance by Elaine May, playing a wealthy elderly woman named Gladys who keeps busy by running an art gallery in the West Village. Gladys is gradually losing her marbles, much to the consternation of her grandson, who is the play’s narrator and who is touchingly played by Lucas Hedges, her daughter and the daughter’s husband, played beautifully by Joan Allen and David Cromer, and May’s depiction of this is heartbreaking, one of the greatest performances I have seen in many a moon. Also touching is Michael Cera as an artist who gets Gladys to exhibit his work, who lives in the back room because he has nowhere else to go. Gladys has a show for him, to which nobody comes.

The Waverly Gallery is not a new play, as it was originally produced off Broadway several years ago, but I expect it to be a contender for the Tony Award for Best Revival.

After seeing two weighty dramas, it was a relief to see something just plain silly and fun. Such a show is The Prom, at the Longacre Theatre, a musical comedy about a group of narcissistic actors and who decide to counteract the career-threatening bad publicity dumped on them for a flop musical about Eleanor Roosevelt which closed on opening night. They decide they need a cause to champion. They find one in a teenaged Midwestern girl whose prom has been cancelled because she wanted to bring her girlfriend.

The book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguuelin is hilariuous, and Beguelin’s lyrics the same, and Matthew Sklar’s music is delightful. The show has been wonderfully directed and choreographed by A-list director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw. As for the performers, Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashmanskas steal the show as a Broadway diva and her gay gay gay leading man. Caitlin Kinnunen is touching as the girl who just wants to go to the prom with her squeeze. Also good is Christopher Sieber as a waiter/struggling actor who went to Juilliard years ago and wants everyone to know it.

I loved loved loved The Prom. Unless you are a sourpuss, I think you will too.

Theresa Rebeck in on quite a roll this season. First there was the Roundabout of her Bernhardt/Hamlet on Broadway, featuring a wonderful performance by Janet McTeer in the titular roles. Currently running is Downstairs, produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, featuring brother and sister Tim and Tyne Daly as, well, a brother and sister. Tyne, heretofore known for playing strong women, plays a timid housewife named Irene who takes in her brother when he loses his job. Soon it becomes clear that Teddy, the brother, is not well, mentally. He is able to access an old computer though, and what he finds on it is very disturbing. When Irene’s husband Jerry comes down to the basement, we learn why she is so timid – he’s one scary guy. We never learn what is on the computer, but is it enough to get Jerry out of Irene’s life?

All three actors are superb under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s subtle direction, making Downstairs well worth seeing.

As for The Cher Show, it’s a bio-musical about the flamboyant diva, taking her from obscurity to stardom, to the bottom and then back on top again. Cher is played by three actresses and all three are sensational, though I particularly enjoyed Stephanie J. Block as the mature Cher. Jarrod Specter is perfect as Sonny Bono, and Emily Skinner very strong as Cher’s mother (she also has a nice turn as a practically calcified Lucille Ball. The costumes by Cher’s designer Bob Mackie (who also is a character in the show) are spectacular. I thought, Cher was Lady Gaga before Lady Gaga was even born.  Fans of Cher will not be disappointed.

That’s it for now. In my next column, I’ll tell you about King Kong, American Son, Network, The Lifespan of a Fact and Clueless. Then I’m taking a break for a while.

THE HARD PROBLEM. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center

Tickets: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400.

THE WAVERLY GALLERY. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400.

THE PROM. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St

Tickets: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400.

DOWNSTAIRS. Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.

Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/99682 or 212-352-3101

THE CHER SHOW. Neil Simon Theatre, 350 W. 52nd St.

Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-653-8000 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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