“On the Aisle with Larry” 5 November, 2018

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 Bernhardt/Hamlet, What the Constitution Means to Me, Apologia and The True.

It looks very much like 2018 is going to turn out to be the Year of the Woman. More women than ever before are running for office across the nation, and many political pundits are forecasting that if the Blue Wave happens, it will be in large part because of women who are appalled by the behavior of the President and his lackeys in Congress. We’ll see.

In the theatre, more plays by women are turning up on the boards than ever before. On Broadway, you can see Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet (at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre), Alexi Kayer Campbell’s Apologia (at Roundabout’s Off Broadway space, the Laura Pels Theatre) and What the Constitution Means to Me, written by and starring Heidi Schreck (at NY Theatre Workshop).

“Historical plays” are rare these days. Playwrights Horizons has come out and said they don’t produce them, and many other theatres have the same attitude, which is a shame. Rebeck’s play is, I think, her first play not set in the present. It’s about the great 19th Century French actress Sarah Bernhardt as she prepares to take on the greatest role in the classical repertoire, Hamlet. Her last venture, L’Aiglon by Edmond Rostand, which she financed with her own money, lost it all and now The Divine Sarah desperately needs a hit to replenish her coffers. Great artist that she is, she has decided to take on Hamlet, much to the consternation of the critics of her time (all, of them male of course). Max Beerbohm went to far as to write, “Creative power, the power to conceive ideas and execute them, is an attribute of virility; women are denied it, in so far as they practice art at all, they are aping virility, exceeding their natural sphere. Never does one understand so well the failure of women in art as when one sees them deliberately impersonating men upon the stage.”

Daunted by Shakespeare’s poetry, Bernhardt commissions a French prose adaptation by Edmond Rostand, her lover and the author of Cyrano de Bergerac. Still she has set herself a daunting task, and over the course of the play we watch her build her performance in rehearsal. We also are treated to a great performance by English actress Janet McTeer, although she eschews the melodramatic acting style typical of the 19th Century, playing Bernhardt playing Hamlet as if she herself were playing Hamlet today. This was probably the right choice by McTeer and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, as a Bernhardt performance today would look awfully hammy.

The supporting players are first rate. Dylan Baker is amusing as Bernhardt’s leading man, Constant Coquelin (who would go on to triumph as Cyrano), and Jason Butler Horner is also terrific as Rostand. That fine young actor Nick Westrate has a wonderful one-scene turn as Bernhardt’s son, Maurice.

Rebeck has been bedeviled all her career by male critics who just don’t “get” her. Frank Rich called her first play to be done in New York, Spike Heels, mere “pillow talk,” for instance. She has been quite outspoken about the sexism women playwrights face, which has pissed ‘em off even more. Here, in her play about a courageous actress willing to take a risk in service of her art, damn the critics and full speed ahead, she has fought back in the best way an artist can – with her art.

When she was a teenager, Heidi Schreck went around the country competing in speech contests sponsored by the American Legion, winning enough money to finance her college education. In What the Constitution Means to Me, she recreates the sort of speech she used to give, though she makes no effort to impersonate the teenager she was when she gave it, occasionally interjecting stories about her life. The set, by Rachel Hauck, appears to be the stage of an American Legion hall, replete with photographs of many legionnaires – all of them, of course, men. When she was a kid, Schreck didn’t much consider the Constitution as a document created by men, but now she does, and is both amusing and enlightening  as to how it has pertained to women since it was signed and went into effect.

A highlight for me was when Schreck engages in a debate with a contemporary teenager, on a specific topic of constitutional law, and then the audience gets to vote on who won. At the performance I attended, this student was portrayed brilliantly by Thursday Williams.

At the end, each audience member is given a copy of the U.S. Constitution. I mailed mine to President Tweet, as obviously he has never read it.

This just in: What the Constitution Means to Me is moving to the Greenwich House Theatre later this month for a much-deserved extended run.

Meanwhile, Roundabout has another strong showing, Apologia at its Laura Pels Theatre, starring one of our greatest stage actresses, Stockard Channing, as a radical ex-pat American art historian named Kristin. Her adult children converge on her country house for her birthday, which far from being a celebration of Mom is a litany of recrimination and resentment. Son Peter is a banker who despoils third world countries, much to Krsitin’s horror. Also to her horror, Peter has recently married a Midwestern girl who is a serious Christian. Kristin is, of course, just as serious an atheist. She has recently published a memoir called “Apologia,” in which she goes on and on about Giotto but doesn’t mention her sons. Her refusal to accept what her fierce political determination has done to her family forms the core of the play.

Channing is witty, supercilious and ferocious as Kristin, and there is strong supporting work from Hugh Dancy, who plays both sons and from John Tillinger as an elderly gay friend always ready with a bon mot.

I also enjoyed Sharr White’s The True, produced by the New Group at the Signature Center, another play with a terrific central female role. She is Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, a behind the scenes manipulator in Albany politics fighting for the re-election of the Governor even as other political operatives want to replace him and think it’s time for her to go. Edie Falco was phenomenal in this great role, and although the play has now closed reportedly it’s moving to Broadway, so look for it to resurface there, if not this season then next.

BERNHARDT/HAMLET. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org/tickets or 212-719-1300

WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME. NY Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.

TICKETS: 212-460-5475

APOLOGIA. Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.

TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org/tickets or 212-719-1300

THE TRUE. 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” 30 October 2018

 

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 The Ferryman, Girl from the North Country, The Nap, Summer and Black Light. 

Three imports from London, all hits last season, have opened in New York, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman (at the Jacobs Theatre), Richard Bean’s The Nap (at the Friedman) and Conor MacPherson’s Girl from the North Country (at the Public Theater). Butterworth, an Englishman, has spun a tale about the Northern Irish troubles; MacPherson, an Irishman, has set his play in Depression-era Duluth Minnesota. The Nap I can only describe as a dark farce, which sounds like an oxymoron but it isn’t. The Ferryman features the London cast, whereas the actros in Girl from the North Country are Americans. The cast of The Nap is mix-and-match., though mostly American.

The Ferryman takes place in 1981, during the hunger strike led by Bobby Sands, and focuses on a farmer and former IRA soldier named Quinn Carney whose brother Seamus disappeared 10 years ago but whose body has just been discovered in a bog – with a bullet hole to the head. Quinn has a large family, which includes a depressed wife, an aunt who goes in and out of  dementia, another aunt who’s an anti-English radical whose brother was murdered by the English, several children and Seamus’ wife Caitlin, who for 10 years has held out the hope that her husband will return and to whom Quinn is strongly attracted (the feeling is mutual), and Caitlin’s son Oisin. A leader of the Irish Republican Army, the sinister Mr. Muldoon, wants Quinn to shut up about who might have murdered Seamus. If he doesn’t, he’ll wind up just like his brother. 

The Ferryman clocks in at over 3 hours, but it never drags as so much is going on. There are 22 actors, one baby, one live goose and one live rabbit. Beautifully-directed by Sam Mendes, it features a uniformly outstanding cast headed by Paddy Considine as Quinn and Laura Donnelly as Caitlin.

The Ferryman is one of the greatest plays of this century, and not to be missed.

I also enjoyed Girl from the North Country, though not as much as I did The Ferryman. It’s set in a boarding house, and is about the denizens therein. Songs by Bob Dylan are incorporated throughout. They are beautifully orchestrated by Simon Hale; but they seem rather arbitrary. Play stops, insert song, play resumes. It’s been wonderfully directed by the playwright, though, and there are terrific performances by the likes of Stephen Bogardus, Mare Willingham and David Pittu, though I didn’t get Willingham’s character. She’s the wife of the guy who runs the boarding house (Bogardus), who alternates between lucidity and catatonia.

You might enjoy this if you love Bob Dylan’s songs; but for me the play itself seemed rather flat.

You can’t describe The Nap as “flat.” It’s about a champion snooker player (snooker is a variant on pool, very popular in Britain) named Dylan Spokes who gets, well, snookered by a one-armed con artist named Waxy Bush, a formerly male gangster who’s had a sex change operation and is now a woman. Waxy has accomplices, include two bogus cops, Dylan’s own mother and a slick con man who poses as Mom’s Irish boyfriend. The con involves a bet Wazy has made for Dylan to lose in the fourth frame of the championship match. Dylan takes snooker very seriously and refuses – until Waxy threatens his mom. We see Dylan on a screen in the fourth frame, against a guy who, it turns out, is an actual snooker champion.

Alexandra Billings, an actual transgender performer, is sensational as Waxy and Ben Schnetzer is wonderful as Dylan. There is also strong supporting work from Thomas Jay Ryan (one of Waxy’s accomplices) John Ellison Conleee (as Dylan’s ne’er-do-well Dad, Johanna Day (as his mum) and the beauteous Heather Lind, heretofore best known for playing Shakespeare in Central Park, as part of the con who poses as a female detective who used to be a pole dancer.

The costumes by Kaye Voyce are amusingly spot-on, and the direction by Daniel Sullivan is absolutely delightful.

I promise you a very good time at The Nap.

I finally caught up with Summer, the bio-musical about disco diva Donna Summer, conceived and directed by Des McAnuff  at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, a holdover from last season which lost out in the Tony Roulette but which has managed to hold on anyway. This is an amazing achievement, but I’m not surprised as the show shines with disco glitz without ever being tacky and is wonderfully performed by three actresses, Storm Lever, Ariana DeBose and LaChanze, who portray Summer at various stages of her life.

I wasn’t much of a disco fan in its era, but I have to admit the music is infectious and all of Summer’s hits are here, such as “Heaven Knows,” “On the Radio,”  “Bad Girls,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” and “Bad Girls.”

The direction is first-rate, as is the choreography by Sergio Trujillo.

Even if you are not a disco fan, I think you will enjoy Summer.

Speaking of divas, there’s another one lighting up the stage at the Greenwich House Theatre in Black Light, featuring a transvestite performer named Jomana Jones, book and songs by Daniel Alexander Jones who, it turns out, is the one and only Jomana Jones. Jones’ telling of “Jomana’s” story is very compelling, as is his performance, backed up by two wonderful singers, Trevor Bachman and Vuyo Sotashe, who are just about the gayest gay boys you’ll ever see.

I expected the audience to be mostly gay men, but on the night I attended there were a lot of straight people, couples mostly, who seemed to really enjoy themselves. Black Light is not for everyone, but if you are in the mood for Something Completely Different, you couldn’t do better than to hie yourself down to the Greenwich House Theatre.

THE FERRYMAN. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY.  Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: www.publictheater.org/tickets

THE NAP. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St,

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

SUMMER. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.

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

BLACK LIGHT. Greenwich House Theatre, 27 Barrow St.

Tickets: www.ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 

“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 September 2018

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 STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, GETTIN’ THE BAND BACK TOGETHER, HEAD OVER HEELS, PRETTY WOMAN, SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ, DAYS TO COME, LESS THAN 50% and DESPERATE MEASURES.

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about Young Jean Lee, whose Straight White Men has opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre, but this is the first play of hers I have seen; so I was curious to see if she lived up to all the hype. I would say, no.

Full disclosure: I am a straight white man, so maybe I was uncomfortable with the fact that Lee makes my tribe look rather silly. Basically, this is a sitcom-style play about a family consisting of three brothers, who get together with their father every Christmas. What little plot there is consists of the attempts by two of the brothers to figure out why the third, who lives with Dear Old Dad, isn’t making much of his life.

As you enter the theatre, you are blasted by ear-splitting noise-with-a-beat. Two women, bizarrely-costumed, are going around passing out ear plugs, which work pretty well in preventing serious damage to your ears. The women then go up onstage and do an intro wherein we learn that, in fact, they are transgender, and one of them is a Native American, thus touching two important bases in our ever more politically correct theatre. They then appear throughout during scene changes. I guess they are meant to provide ironic detachment from the proceedings, as well as to make this seem as if it is not really a realistic play (which it is), realism being so out of fashion these days, at least in the not for profit theatre, where Straight White Men originated (4 years ago, at the Public Theater), but this comes across as merely silly.

While I applaud that fact that a play by an Asian American woman has made it to Broadway, I would say this one is eminently-missable.

As is Gettin’ the Band Back Together, at the Belasco Theatre for another 9 days. This is a rather vapid musical about a guy named Mitch who loses his job on Wall Street and moves back to Jersey with his mom, who is about to lose her house to foreclosure. Years ago, Mitch had a rock group which won a local battle of the Bands contest. The band which came in second was led by a slimy character who has since become very successful in real estate and, in fact, is foreclosing on Mom’s house. His one failure in life was losing out to Mitch’s group, so he challenges Mitch to, in effect, a duel. Both guys will get their bands back together. If Mitch’s group triumphs at the battle of the bands once again, the bad guy will cancel the foreclosure.

 

It was difficult for me to ascertain just who the producers felt was this show’s audience. It tries to both celebrate and poke fun at Jersey Culture, but they can’t have it both ways. That said, this is expertly directed by John Rando and features several fine performances. Most notably by Brandon Williams as the villainous Tygen Billows, a slimy character whom he plays to the hilt.

Head Over Heels, at the Hudson Theatre is an odd hybrid, a combination of a pastoral poem by Elizabethan poet Sir Phillip Sydney and songs by the 80’s rock group the Go-Go’s. The plot, involving the attempt by a poor shepherd to court a princess, is pretty inane. The shepherd poses as an Amazon, in a costume which makes him look like Wonder Woman, in order to be near her, while her older sister falls in love with a woman. There’s even a transgender goddess in the mix! Again: who’s the audience for this sort of thing? That said, like Gettin’ the Band Back Together, this show is very well done, and features fine performances throughout, but even with the Go-Gos’ fine songs, Head Over Heels comes across as pretty lame.

Lest you think I am just a dyspeptic old fart, I did see some musicals I quite enjoyed. At the head of the list is Pretty Woman, at the Nederlander Theatre, a musical-ization of the film which made Julia Roberts a star. This could have come across as tacky, but the book by the late Garry Marshall (who wrote the screenplay) and JF Lawton is superbly crafted and the direction by Jerry Mitchell (also the choreographer) is first-rate. Andy Karl imbues Edward (Richard Gere in the movie) with loads of charm and charisma, making a rather creepy character sympathetic, and Samantha Barks turns in a star-is-born performance as Vivian, the prostitute played by Julia Roberts. The songs, by Bryan Adams and Jim Valliance, are terrific, particularly as sung by performers of the caliber of Karl and Barks. Eric Anderson has a fine dual turn as Happy Man, sort of a narrator, and the concierge of the Beverly Hills hotel where much of the action takes place, and Orfeh is equally fine as the prostitute who is Vivian’s best friend.

I had a great time at Pretty Woman.

As I did at the revival of the Lieber and Stoller revue Smokey Joe’s Café at Stage 42, formerly the much under-booked Little Shubert, which features a wonderful ensemble of singer/dancers who stop the show several times with hits that just keep on comin’, such as “Dance with Me,” “Kansas City,” “Poison Ivy,” “On Broadway” and “Spanish Harlem,” staged with much aplomb by director/choreographer Joshua Bergasse.

I couldn’t help but reflect, though, on the stark contrast between pop songs then and now. Maybe I am indeed an Old Fart now, but I wonder if there will be similar revues 50 years from now of contemporary pop music, which I consider to be mostly junk.

I am surprised that in general critical comments on Days to Come, Mint Theatre’s revival of a Lillian Hellman play from the 1930s which flopped on Broadway haven’t been more positive. I found the play a fascinating artifact from a time when people were starting to realize that the game is rigged against the little guy (sound familiar?). It’s about a strike against a brush factory owed by a well-meaning but naïve man who hires replacement workers, only to find out that they are actually thugs employed by a notorious strike-breaker. There is a subplot involving the businessman’s unhappy wife and an “outside agitator” brought in by the union to help organize the strike. I think maybe that the original audience (as well as the critics) for Days to Come expected more of a Waiting for Lefty-style left-wing polemic, whereas Hellman gave credence to both sides of the labor/business divide.

Former Pearl Theatre Co., Artistic Director JT Sullivan has done a fine job of directing, and his cast is uniformly excellent. I particularly enjoyed Roderick Hill as the labor organizer, Janie Brookshire as the unhappy wife who just may be falling for him and Pearl Theatre stalwart Dan Daily, one of our finest classical actors in the Philip Bosco mold, who licks his chops with the role of the slick but slimy strike-breaker.

I enjoyed Days to Come, as did the playwright who was my companion. This is Yet Another unjustly-forgotten play unearthed by Jonathan Bank, the Mint’s Artistic Director, by a great playwright.

I caught one of the last performances at 59E59 of Gianmarco Soresi’s Less than 50%, which has now closed. Soresi, who also acted in it, crafted an unconventional almost meta-theatrical romantic comedy about a guy creating a play for himself and his girlfriend, set within the context of a stand-up comedy schtick.

Although overall I enjoyed this play and the performances by Soresi and Hannah Hale as the girlfriend and partner in comedy, ultimately it began to wear thin for me.

By contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed Desperate Measures, a wild west musical romp based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which started at the York Theatre Co. last season and has transferred to New World Stages for a (hopefully) extended run. Ne’er-do-well Johnny has been sentenced to hang for killing a man. His sister Susanna, a novice nun names Sister Mary-Jo can save hi, but only if she sleeps with Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (holy moly, whatta mouthful!). Director/choreographer Bill Castellano’s production is wonderfully witty, and the cast is first rate. New York theatre stalwart Nick Wyman is a particular delight as the lust-filled Governor.

Reportedly, this delightful show is struggling to hold on. See below as to where you can get discount tickets, then spread the word! 

Finally, we mourn the passing of three greats of the American Theatre, playwright Neil Simon, actress Carole Shelley and actor Brian Murray.

The obits for Mr. Simon mention his many Broadway successes, until the Broadway critics decided that comedy belongs on television, not the stage. What they all failed to mention was how popular Mr. Simon’s plays still are in the amateur theatre. Most community theatres have done just about all his plays over the years, and high schools often do plays of his which did not succeed on Broadway, such as THE GOOD DOCTOR, GOD’S FAVORITE and FOOLS. Although I worked for Samuel French, his publisher/licensor for many years, he never came in so I never met him. I did run into him at a performance of the most recent Broadway production of  WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? But he was pretty decrepit by then. To his credit. Mr. Simon attended the theatre regularly. In his words, he wanted to see what the competition was.

Carole Shelley had a wonderfully eccentric quality in her acting, much like that of her contemporaries Maggie Smith and Rosemary Harris. In fact, when Ms. Smith left the cast of Peter Shaffer’s LETTICE AND LOVAGE, it was Ms. Shelley who was tapped to replace her. She had a distinguished career in the classical theatre but she rarely did film or television. That’s her as one of the Pigeon sisters in the film of “The Odd Couple.” She was a true Grande Dame of the theatre, and will be sorely missed.

As will Mr. Murray, a South African actor who came over here with the RSC production of ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD and stayed, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. He started out as a leading man whose many memorable performances included Charlie Now in Hugh Leonard’s DA, but as he got older he morphed into a much in demand character actor, with memorable turns as Dogberry in TWELFTH NIGHT and the title role in the Irish Rep revival of DA. He was also a fine director, and I have fond memories of a production of Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT he directed on Broadway, with Richard Chamberlain, Judith Ivey and Geraldine Page as Madame Arcati.

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-543-4835

GETTIN’ THE BAND BACK TOGETHER. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-543-4835

HEAD OVER HEELS. Hudson Theatre, 139-141 W. 44th St.

Tickets: http://www.thehudsonbroadway.com/whatson/head-over-heels/

PRETTY WOMAN. Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-543-4835

SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ. Stage 42, 422 W.42nd St.

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-543-4835

DAYS TO COME. Beckett Theatre, 410 W.St

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-543-4835

LESS THAN 50% 59E59, 59 E. 59th St. Alas, closed.

DESPERATE MEASURES. New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St.

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-543-4835. For discount tickets, call 212 947-8844    or go to www.telechargeoffers.com. Use discount code DPLSP1

 

“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” 11 May 2018

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 MEAN GIRLS, HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD, CAROUSEL, THREE TALL WOMEN, TRAVESTIES, SAINT JOAN, MLIMA’S TALE and A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Mean Girls, the new musical at the August Wilson Theatre, as I have not seen the film. Turns out, it’s about social pressures in a high school and focuses on a new girl who’s been living in Africa with her biologist parents, who decide to move back to the U.S., enrolling their daughter Cady in what I take to be a typical high school these days, full of back-stabbing cliques, the most powerful of which is led by a ruthless girl named Regina There are, however, two kids who stand aside from it all, Damian and Janis, who befriend Cady when everyone else has ostracized her, and they hatch a plot to bring Regina down by having Cady infiltrate her clique. She does, but begins to morph into another Regina.

Tina Fey’s adaptation of her film is really delightful, and is the best part of the show. The songs (music by Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin) are not as good, but there are a couple of them that stand out. Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography are mighty fine, and the performers are terrific – most notably, Erika Henningsen as Cady and Taylor Louderman as Regina, who is horrifyingly good. I also enjoyed Ashley Park and Kate Rockwell as Regina’s acolytes and, particularly, Grey Henson and Barrett Wilbert Weed as Damian and Janis, the two kids who befriend Cady. Damian is a jolly gay guy, Janis an artsy type, and Henson and Weed are great fun.

Mean Girls is not exactly for sentient adults, but if it achieves a long run it will be huge in high schools, right up there with Grease and Bye, Bye, Birdie.

I somehow missed the Harry Potter phenomenon (haven’t read the books, didn’t see the movies), so I went to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, at the Lyric Theatre, as a total neophyte. I was bowled over.

Harry, who has married the sister of his Hogwarts chum Ron Weasley, is employed at the Ministry of Magic, run by Hermione, who has married Ron, now a shopkeeper who sells jokes, ermioneHand as this two-part play begins Harry, now 38, is sending his son Albus, after Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts’ headmaster when Harry was a student there (Albus’ middle name is Severus, after Snape) off to Hogwarts. Albus is a surly, rebellious teenager, deeply resentful of having to live up to his famous father. Fortunately, he makes a friend at Hogwarts, who helps him cope. This is Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Harry’s nemesis at Hogwarts, Draco Malfoy. The two of them hatch a plan to make their own reputations, by traveling back in time, using an illicit device they steal from the Ministry of Magic, to prevent the evil Lord Voldemort from inadvertently killing a boy when he was trying to kill Harry. Although they are unsuccessful in their efforts, they screw up the time continuum, and when they arrive back to the present, they find that the present is now a totalitarian state ruled by Voldemort. Will Albus and Scorpius somehow be able to

undo the damage they have done?

 

Jack Thorne’s script, based on a scenario by J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany, is enthralling, though extremely convoluted. With the epic scope of myth. I was helped to follow it enormously by the extensive program notes detailing the plot of all the Harry Potter books.

As for the production, directed by Tiffany, it’s absolutely astonishing, with one amazing special effect after another. All the actors are outstanding, but special kudos most go to Anthony Boyle, whose Scorpius Malfoy practically steals the show.

Reportedly, the show is sold out for months. I’m not surprised. Yes, tickets are expensive; but this one is really worth it.

This just in: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has won the Outer Critics Circle’s Best New Broadway Play Award. It will almost certainly win the Tony Award in several categories, including Best New Play. Meanwhile, it was not even nominated by the Drama Desk for Best New Play. I understand that the DD honors both Broadway and Off Broadway in the same categories, but traditionally they have six nominees per category. In the Best Play category, they have five. Which flabbergasts me.

The new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, at the Imperial Theatre, directed by Jack O’Brien, is splendid. A black actor, Joshua Henry, has been cast as the ne’er-do-well carnival barker Billy Bigelow, which makes perfect sense as Billy is a social outsider, and Henry is outstanding, with a beautiful bass voice and an enormous amount of charisma. Jessie Mueller is a perfect Julie Jordan, and opera diva Renée Fleming is wonderful as Nettie. Her rendition of “You’ll Never Walk alone” will lift up your soul. Lindsay Mendez is delightful as Julie’s saucy friend Carrie, as is Alexander Geminiani as Mr, Snow, and Amar Ramasar, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, turns out to be a fine actor as well as the evil Jigger.

But the real star of the show is Justin Peck, the Resident Choreographer of the New York City Ballet, whose dances are wonderful. Jonathan Tunick’s new orchestrations enhance the choreography, making this Carousel for more dance-heavy than other productions have been.

This is a beautiful production, well-worth seeing.

When Three Tall Women premiered, it won the Pulitzer Prize, marking Edward Albee’s recovery from years of critical disfavor. Now, we have a chance to see the play again, in an exquisite production by Joe Mantello at the Golden Theatre. The play has an unusual structure. In the first half, it’s about three different women – an old lady, her middle aged caregiver and a young woman trying to sort out the old lady’s finances. In the second half, the characters are the same woman at three stages of her life. This seems to me more of a clever gimmick than effective drama, in that the entire play is more or less comprised of exposition.

So, while I am not a fan of the play, I have to say that the cast is superb. Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalfe and Allison Pill – it doesn’t get much better that this.

The revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, at the American Airlines Theatre is, like the revival of Three Tall Women, a highly cerebral play; but it’s a lot more fun than Albee’s. It’s central character and narrator, Henry Carr, played brilliantly by Tom Hollander, claims to have been the British Consul in Zurich during World War One, where his life intersected with the likes of Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tsara, the founder of an anti-art movement called “Dadaism.” According to Carr, he could have prevented Lenin from going to Russia to take over the revolution, which would have changed the course of history. In fact, Carr is a highly unreliable, daffy narrator.

Loaded with wild puns and limericks, mixed with multiple references to The Importance of Being Earnest (the only thing that’s true is that Carr appeared as Algernon in a production of Wilde’s farce directed by Joyce, after which Carr sued Joyce for the cost of a pair of trousers and Joyce sued Carr for the cost of unsold tickets), Travesties is an intellectual roller coaster ride which manages to encapsulate the chaos of the 20th Century in the mind of one slightly demented man.

Patrick Marber’s production is perfectly paced, and his cast first rate. Warning, though: if you don’t know The Importance of Being Earnest, you’ll probably miss a lot of the fun.

Any time one gets to see a production of a play by George Bernard Shaw, it’s a must-see, and the current revival of Saint Joan, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is no exception. As always with Shaw, it’s the ideas that crackle. As an atheist, one would not expect him to accept Joan’s divine visions at face value, of course. What interests him is Joan the revolutionary. She had to be burnt, he says, because she posed a threat to the establishment – both religious and secular.

Daniel Sullivan has set the play on a bare stage against what appears to be an enormous, gleaming carillon, designed by Scott Pask. His cast is excellent, by and large, although I just don’t think Condola Rashad cuts it in the title role, particularly in the first act, when she’s supposed to inspire the French to defeat the English.

 

Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale, at the Public Theater, is a gripping drama about the African ivory trade whose central character in an elephant, brilliantly embodied by Sahr Ngaujah. Trade in ivory has been made illegal, but that doesn’t stop poachers from killing Mlima, or traders from figuring a way to game the corrupt government to get his tusks out of the country.

 

Nottage’s language is very beautiful and powerful, and the cast, under Jo Bonney’s inventive direction, is wonderful, all playing multiple roles except for Ngaujah. Meticulously researched but not ponderously so, Mlima’s Tale is one of the high points of this season. See it if you can.

Any time there’s a new play by Alan Ayckbourn, it’s also a must-see. Such is the case with A Brief History of Women, at 59E59, though the play is not so much about women as it is about a house, in this case an English manor, which morphs into a school, an arts centre and, finally a hotel. The play is actually four interrelated one acts, tied together by a central character named Anthony Spates, who starts out as a part-time servant at the manor, becomes a teacher, then an arts administrator and finally, a retired hotel manager filling in for the day. Antony Eden is perfectly understated as Spates.

Ayckbourn’s production lurches brilliantly from pathos to farce and back again, and his actors, all from his company at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, are wonderful.

See this one if you can – it’s great.

MEAN GIRLS. August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St.

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

HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD. Lyric Theatre, 214 W. 43rd St.

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

CAROUSEL. Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

THREE TALL WOMEN. John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

TRAVESTIES. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.

Tickets: www.roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300

SAINT JOAN. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

MLIMA’S TALE. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: www.publictheater.org or 212-967-7555

A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN. 59E59. 59 E. 59th St.

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

 

“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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2018 Humana Festival

 

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 reports on the 2018 Humana Festival.

Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival is always one of the high points of my year. I have missed only two festivals since I started going in 1980. This year, I saw 5 plays. It is always tempting to rank the plays one sees at Humana as if this were a horse race – win, place, show – but I always try to respond to each as an individual production rather than as part of a vast bill. Still, one can’t help but have a favorite, just as one can’t help designating one the Festival bomb.

The festival began with a panel discussion featuring The Kilroys, an organization which promotes the production of plays by women which have not yet been produced. They must have been ecstatic to see that 4 of the 5 Main Event plays were by women, two of them women “of color,” as apparently being “of color” is now a given precedence when they choose their annual list. I know this because I had the honor of being a Kilroys nominator but was given the boot when I protested that this policy was racist. What I thought was a stimulating debate ensued, at the end of which I was accused of being an “aggrieved white male” and a card-carrying member of Trump nation, which outraged me as I have been a tireless champion of women playwrights all my life. I sent them a list, playwrights such as Tina Howe, Shirley Lauro, Jane Martin (back to her start when she was definitely a woman), Theresa Rebeck and scores of others – all of whom were first published by Samuel French because of me – and I included many plays by women “of color” in the anthologies I have edited for Smith and Kraus and for Applause, such as Lynn Nottage, Elaine Romero, Fernanda Coppel, Anne García Romero, Brigette Wimberly and several others. I told my correspondent to ask any of these playwrights if they think I am an aggrieved white male.

There was also an interminable keynote address delivered by Anne Bogart, who ATL thinks is a genius (as for me, I say that the emperor has no clothes), and the annual presentation of the Steinberg Awards, administered by the American Theatre Critics Association, who awarded their top prize to The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson, about the heroic effort by members of the King’s Men to preserve the late William Shakespeare’s plays for posterity. The Wolf at the End of the Block by Ike Holter and Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler were runners up. Airness by Chelsea Marcantel won the Elizabeth Osborne Award, presented by Theatre Communications Group.

My favorite play (and, I think, the Festival audience’s) was Leah Nanako Winkler’s God Said This, a realistic mixed-race family drama. The Mom and Dad are James and Masako. Much of the play takes place in a hospital, where Masako is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Her two daughters, Sophie and Hiro, spend a lot of time with her, as does husband James when he’s not at an AA meeting. James has miraculously recovered from liver disease and the family is hoping for a similar miracle with Mom. Sophie is a born-again Christian, whereas Hiro is a thorough cynic. The scenes are broken up by James’ AA speeches. The final scene is, we think, another one of these, but James is actually delivering a eulogy at Masako’s funeral, during which the couple’s first meeting is dramatized. This is very moving, and beautifully staged.

Director Morgan Gould’s production was exquisite, and her cast first-rate. The play just won the prestigious Yale Drama Series Prize and will be produced by Primary Stages in New York next season.

I also enjoyed Deborah Stein’s Marginal Loss, about a financial services company trying to reestablish itself after the 9/11 tragedy, in which it lost most of its work force. They are in a warehouse in New Jersey, with one computer and one phone line. A temp has been hired to assist, and she quickly becomes very valuable as, gradually, they make contact with their customers and resume trading. Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Associate Artistic Director Meredith McDonough’s staging was crisp, and her actors were terrific. I particularly enjoyed Carla Buren as the temp, Margaret, who becomes an adept trader.

Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s Do You Feel Anger? was an absurdist comedy about business, as an empathy coach has been hired to do workshops with the employees, all of whom are extremely difficult. It’s as if the coach, Sofia, has fallen down the rabbit hole. The play was wildly funny, though it gradually petered out as it was really a one-joke concept until a surprising, rather forced, violent denouement, but the actors were hilarious.

In Susan Soon He Stanton’s We, the Invisibles the playwright, played by Rinabeth Apostol, interviewed various workers at a luxury boutique hotel where she worked for 10 years, as well as several guests. One of the most significant guests who appeared in the play is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, who was charged with raping a housekeeper but was acquitted by undermining the victim’s credibility. I doubt that the playwright interviewed him, but he came across as a truly slimy character who made Donald Trump look like a saint.

An intrepid case of 8 played multiple roles (with the exception of Apostol) and they were all terrific under Dámaso Robriguez’ slick, very inventive direction. Particularly good wss Rebecca S’Manga Frank, who invested the rape victim with a quiet dignity.

Finally, Mark Schultz’ Evocation to Visible Appearance, which was the bomb of the festival as far as I was concerned. Its central character was a teenager who may or may not be pregnant by her now-ex boyfriend. She hooked up with a very strange guy who was a Satanic punk rocker. I knew I was in trouble when I entered the theatre and was instructed to grab a packet of earplugs, which I needed whenever this guy screamed his “songs,” which were beyond terrible.

The set was negligible, with a vast junk pile spilling off the front of the stage.

Les Waters, ATL’s outgoing Artistic Director, commissioned and then directed the play. What he saw in it is beyond comprehension.

“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” 4 April 2018

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 FROZEN, THE BAND’S VISIT, ROCKTOPIA, DIDO OF IDAHO and LATER LIFE.

Frozen, the stage version of the hit Disney film at the St. James Theatre, looks like it will be an even bigger hit, with a phenomenal advance sale. The question is, does it deliver the goods for those who loved the movie?

Well, it’s a spectacular visual production, with astonishing special effects by Jeremy Chernick. The charming book by Jennifer Lee, based on her screenplay, tells the now-familiar story of a princess from the Frozen North born with the ability to make it even more, well, frozen. Robert and Kristin-Anderson Lopez have added several new songs, most of which are lovely but a couple of which are pretty silly and add nothing to the story (there’s a guy who runs an inn and a sauna way up in the mountains who has a ridiculous song called “Hygge,” sort of a frozen equivalent of “Hakuna Matata,” and then people come dancing out of his sauna in nude body stockings waving branches of leaves around in a sort of fan dance, which is truly ludicrous.

Still, I enjoyed this. The two leads, Caissie Levy (Elsa) and Patti Murin (her sister Anna) are delightful, and Levy nails the show’s most famous song, “Let it Go.” Michael Grandage’s direction is inventive, and he has assembled a strong supporting cast, including Cagney’s Robert Creighton as the weasly Weselton and  Greg Hildreth as Olaf, the snowman, done as a puppet a la The Lion King.

The night I was there, I saw hordes of little girls with their mommies, many of them wearing Elsa dresses, while the teeny-boppers wore outfits with snowflakes on them. Is this another Lion King? Well, only in that it will probably run as long; but, yes, it will please those of you who loved the movie.

As for me, I much preferred The Band’s Visit, a transfer from the Atlantic Theatre Co. now running at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It’s about an Egyptian band who have come to Israel to perform at a Muslim arts center, who wind up in the wrong town where they have to spend the night, and the town’s Israeli citizens take them in. Think of this as a sort of Middle Eastern Come from Away.

Itamar Moses’ book is just beautiful, as are David Yazbek’s songs. The show ends with a performance by the band, and their music is fantastic, sort of jazz with a Middle Eastern flair. I’d say they stop the show, except the show is over by this point.

The band’s director, Tewliq, was played originally by Tony Shalhoub, but he’s left the show to be replaced as the band’s conductor by Dariush Kazani, who is very touching, as is Katrina Lenk as a café owner who finds herself attracted to Tewliq for the all-too-brief time the band has in her town before they leave for the right town the next morning.

I’d also say, don’t miss it.

Don’t go to Rocktopia, at the Broadway Theatre, expecting a Broadway musical. It’s a concert which melds rock, classical music and opera, often very inventively, and the singers are phenomenal. There’s also an onstage chorus, the New York Contemporary Choir, which adds much to the overall effect. There are several solo musicians including blonde sprite Mairead Nesbitt, a founding member of the group Celtic Woman, who wows the crowd more than once. In fact, there are several stop-the-show moments. The video design by Michael Stiller and Austin Switser is phenomenal, and adds much to the overall experience.

If you prefer a rock concert to a Broadway musical, this one’s for you; but I like a good musical and I loved it.

I did see two plays which I also enjoyed, a new one by Abby Rosebrock called Dido of Idaho, at Ensemble Studio Theatre and a revival of the late A.R. Gurney’s Later Life, at the Harold Clurman Theatre, produced by the always-excellent Keen Co.

Dido of Idaho is a comedy about a female musicologist named Nora who’s having an affair with a married man who claims he plans to leave his wife (sure…). What they have in common is a passion for Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas and a passion, for, well, sex. She’s also a drunk. She passes out in her lover’s apartment when would should arrive but the wife, Crystal. The two women bond until, that is, Crystal finds out her new friend is having an affair with her husband, at which point she beats the crap out of her. Nora is pretty dinged up and her life is a mess, so she goes home to her mother, with whom she has talked on the phone throughout the play. There is a Big Reveal, though, as we find out that all is not as it seemed.

Lydia Khosh is wonderful as Nora, and the playwright herself turns in a fine turn as Crystal. Also good is Dahlia Davi as the mysterious mom.

This is an auspicious debut by a fine young playwright and actress.

The late A.R. Gurney has long been one of my favorite playwrights, and it was quite a pleasure to see his Later Life. I saw the original production about 25 years ago, and Keen’s production is just as good. The play is about a middle-aged man named Austin and woman named Sally at a dinner party in Boston. He’s divorced, she’s separated. She met him years before in Greece, when they were both young, and much of the first half of this 90-minute play consists of him trying to guess the circumstances of their first meeting. They were both attracted to each other, but he broke it off because he was convinced that something terrible was going to happen to him. She wants to know, did it? Also in the play are two actors who play a multitude of intruders to the terrace where the play is set. Liam Craig and Jodie Markell are delightful in all their roles and the two leads, Laurence Lau and Garrick, invest their roles with a poignant charm.

Later Life is Yet Another reminder of what a wonderful playwright Gurney was.

FROZEN. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.

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

THE BAND’S VISIT. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com of 212-239-6200

ROCKTOPIA. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

Tickets: www.telecharge.com of 212-239-6200

DIDO OF IDAHO. Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W. 52nd St.

Tickets: ensemblestudiotheatre.org

LATER LIFE. Harold Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com of 212-239-6200

 

“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” 31 March 2018

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 JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA, GOOD FOR OTTO, THE LOW ROAD, KINGS, DOGS OF RWANDA, BABETTE’S FEAST and THE SIGNATURE PROJECT.

You have until this weekend to catch Jerry Springer: The Opera, a wild, profane and extremely funny send-up of “The Jerry Springer Show” produced by The New Group at the Signature Center. Produced originally in London 13 years ago. It was deemed way too raunchy for Broadway. Then The Book of Mormon happened.

The first act is pretty much a typical Springer show, full of weirdos and misfits willing to abase themselves for their 5 minutes of fame, at the end of which Springer is shot by a disgruntled ex-employee. Where could this go after that (you might ask)? The answer is, Hell, where Jerry is tormented by the Devil, played with, well, devilish glee by Will Swenson (who plays the murdering employee in the first act. I saw Matt McGrath as Springer, who took over for the run’s extension from Terrence Mann. He’s fine, but he still looks like a kid, albeit with gray in his hair. Swenson, on the other hand, is wonderful, as you might expect, and the ensemble cast is phenomenal.

Our top director of comedy, John Rando, has outdone himself here, and the book and lyrics by Richard Thomas are hilarious, and the music by Stewart Lee and Thomas is one wonderful song after another.

David Rabe’s Good for Otto, also at the Signature Center and also produced by the New Group, is set at a mental health center in the Berkshires, focusing on patients who are receiving treatment from two psychiatrists, played by Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, who must contend with their challenging patients and the mental health bureaucracy. While there is not much in the way of plot, the various character threads are very compelling, and there are wonderful performances by the likes of F. Murray Abraham, Laura Esterman and, especially, Mark Linn-Baker, who plays a middle-aged retarded man who is obsessed with his pet hamster, Otto, who may be terminally ill; and, as you might expect, Harris and Madigan are superb.

The reviews I read haven’t been very good, but I found this play very compelling.

Also terrific are two plays at the Public Theater, Bruce Norris’ The Low Road and Sarah Burgess’ Kings. The Low Road is an epic drama about American capitalism, set in the mid-18th Century, narrated by the Scottish economist Adam Smith, whose The Wealth of Nations is capitalism’s foundational text. Norris explores the many contradictions of unrestrained capitalism by focusing on the career of a poor foundling determined to succeed, willing to stop at nothing, including murder. Rarely do we get to see a play with such a large cast. Kings is about the corrosive influence of money in American Politics. It’s central character is a recently elected, crusading Congresswoman determined to change the System. Set against her are two lobbyists (one of whom decides to join he in her crusade) and a powerful business-as-usual Senator. Eisa Davis is wonderful as the Congresswoman, and the always-excellent Zach Grenier is delightfully smarmy as the Senator.

Dogs of Rwanda, a monodrama by Sean Christopher Lewis at Urban Stages, is a narrated tale wherein a man tells of his personal experience with the Rwandan genocide while he was a teenaged missionary. He’s published a book about this horrific experience and has been contacted by a survivor who has criticized him for not telling the whole story. Dan Hodge is mighty fine as Our Narrator, but there is no escaping the fact that this is a story, not a play, albeit a most compelling one.

Babette’s Feast, at Theatre at St. Clement’s, based on an Izak Dinesen short story, is a tale of the denizens of a small Norwegian town far to the north, called Berlevåg, who have little to do but worship God. Then, a refugee from the Paris Commune massacre arrives, named Babette, whose family have all been killed, sent there by a soldier who visited there long ago, because he remembers that everyone there is kind so he figures she will be safe. She is taken in by the daughters of the late Dean of the church and becomes their housekeeper for many years. Then, word comes that she has won the 15,000 francs in the French lottery. Rather than use her windfall to return to Paris, she stays in Berlevåg and decides to cook a grand feast for everyone in the town. It turns out that Babette was chef at the finest restaurant in Paris, the Café Americaine, and her feast is truly scrumptious costing every sou of the 15,000 francs.

Karen Conrood has employed a very inventive non-realistic approach, in which the actors mime the props and play both male and female roles, in Dana Botez’ all-black costumes, which look Jacobean, giving the town the look of a place that time forgot (which, in fact, it is). The actors are all superb, particularly Michelle Hurst, who invests Babette with a quiet dignity.

Finally, The Signature Project, at the Sheen Center, is a brilliant monologue by an Irish artist named Patrick Dunning, who has been travelling around the U.S. with an incredible painting incorporating hundreds of thousands of signatures, using the color spectrum we can see and all the rest of the spectrum we can’t. When he shines an ultraviolet and ultrared light on it, we see amazing things we couldn’t see with the naked eye. There is also Irish dancing and songs by his brother, who appears in the play via skype from Ireland to sing a duet with the artist.

I have to say, The Signature Project is one of the most amazing things I have seen in quite a while.

JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA. Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

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

GOOD FOR OTTO. Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

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

THE LOW ROAD. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: www.publictheater.org

KINGS. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: www.publictheater.org

DOGS OF RWANDA. Urban Stages, 259 W. 30th St.

Tickets: www.urbanstages.org

BABETTE’S FEAST. Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

THE SIGNATURE PROJECT. Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker St.

Tickets: www.signatureproject.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” 3 January 2018

 

Lawrence Harbison, the Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in the New York theatre scene. In this column, Larry reports on Cross that River, Hundred Days, Sprongebob Squarepants, Once on this Island, Red Roses Green Gold, Junk, The Parisian Woman, Farinelli and the King and Pride and Prejudice.

I always enjoy attending productions at 59 E 59, a complex containing three small theatres founded by Elyzabeth Kleinhans, who ran it for several years before retiring and turning the reins over the Val Day, formerly a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor and ICM Partners. The productions at 59 E 59 are usually of very high quality, largely because the Artistic Director, now Ms. Day, decides what goes into one of the theatres, which are very much in demand. In January, Ms. Day’s choices start kicking in, and I am eager to see what she has come up with.

One of the last Kleinhans shows is Cross that River, a bio-musical about a black cowboy named Blue, played by Allan Harris as an older man and Jeffery Lewis plays young Blue, a runaway slave who managed to make it to Texas, becoming a trail hand, later a trail boss and eventually a rancher. Harris wrote the songs and co-wrote the book with Pat Harris. Harris’ songs are a mixture of country and jazz, and are altogether delightful, and he is a wonderful guitarist as well.

There is not much in the way of staging in Cross that River but the story is so compelling you won’t much care. And the music is wonderful!

Hundred Days, at NY Theatre Workshop, is also a narrated bio-musical, wherein Shaun and Abigail Bengson, backed up by a killer band, sing songs they have written about their love, which culminate when Shaun had a brush with death, leading them to wonder, if you find out you only have 100 days to live, how much living can you cram into that finite period?

Shaun Bengson has a pleasant voice, but Abigail’s is phenomenal, reminding me more than once of Janis Joplin.

Hundred Days is more concert than musical, but a damn fine concert.

If you saw that there is a new Broadway musical based on the kiddie cartoon, Spongebob Squarepants, and figured this must be a kiddie show, think again. Yes, this show at the Palace Theatre, which has become a surprise hit, can be enjoyed by kids, but the wacky humor of the cartoon show has been enhanced here by librettist Kyle Jarrow, and Tina Landau’s production is spectacular with wonderfully witty sets and costumes by David Zinn, and hilarious choreography by Christopher Gatelli.

 

The story, such as it is, involves a grave threat to the undersea community Bikini Bottom.

A submerged volcano names Mount Humongous is about to erupt, which will wipe out everything and everyone. The Mayor is ineffective in organizing an evacuation because of lack of funds, so Squidward Q. Tentacles, organizes a fundraising concert involving an undersea supergroup called The Electric Skates, but this goes awry. Meanwhile, the evil Sheldon Plankton wants to wipe out Bikini Bottom with a death ray developed by his computer, Karen. It’ll all left up to Spongebob and Sandy the Squirrel, who has invented a substance to drop into the volcano which will prevent its eruption joined, eventually, by Patrick Star, who has gotten tired of being worshipped by a horde of acolytes.

Ethan Slater is hilarious as that good-natured eternal optimist, Spongebob, and Danny Skinner as Patrick steals the show more than once, as does Gavin Lee as the nerdy Squidward Q. Tentacles.

The witty songs are by a multitude of songwriters, such as Cindy Lauper and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (of Aerosmith) but they all have a unity of style and work beautifully.

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting to like this show as much as I did, but I was quickly won over and had a wonderful time.

As I did at Once on this Island at Circle in the Square, a new production of a musical which started at Playwrights Horizons more than  two decades ago before moving up to Broadway, marking the debut of Lynn Ahrens (book & lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music). This production, directed by Michael Arden with choreography by Camilla T. Brown, is delightful.

The story focuses on a girl named Ti Moune, orphaned by a storm, who is taken in by a kindly, elderly couple and raised in their close-kit, poor community. She rescues a rich kid who has been in a car accident and falls in love with him. Alas, he is betrothed to a girl from his world. Hailey Kilgore is wonderful as Ti Moune, and there is strong supporting work all around. My faves were Philip Boykin as Ti Moune’s new father and Merle Dandridge as Papa Ge, one of the island gods who watch over Ti Moune.

Don’t miss this one.

Unless you’re a Deadhead you could, however, skip Red Roses Green Gold, at the Minetta Lane Theatre, which grafts songs by the Grateful Dead into a very flimsy, almost nonsensical story set in a saloon in a mining town called Cumberland which I take it sets the show in Appalachia; but this is just an excuse to perform the Dead’s songs. These songs are performed by terrific musicians but ones lacking in much acting ability. Often, the dialogue is unintelligible due to their poor diction and lack of projection.

I somehow missed the Grateful Dead in their heyday, so I was curious about their music. Turns out, it was a strange mixture of country, folk, jug band and rock – emphasis on the country, the soul music of red state America, played at the Minetta Lane by what appear to be a band of Trump voters. You have got to be kiddin’ me. In New York City? Lord have mercy …

Ayad Akhtar’s Junk, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, is about the unscrupulous world of Wall Street. Although it’s set in the 1980’s it couldn’t be more timely, as the Republicans and President Tweet are busy throwing out regulations which protected us from financial predators. The Greed Decade is coming back folks, with a vengeance. Those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.

The central character is the play, Robert Merkin (clearly based on Michael Milken) has invented a new way to finance corporate takeovers involving so-called “junk bonds” – high risk but high yield devices of mass destruction which saddled companies with so much debt they could no longer continue. The takeover artists then liquidated the company’s assets, everyone loses his job, they take a big tax write-off and then moved on to the next victim. This process in a simplified form was chronicled brilliantly by Jerry Sterner in Other People’s Money which ran 1000 performances at the Minetta Lane Theatre (now running real junk, Red Roses Green Gold), going on to become of the most produced plays in America and abroad for several years.

Akhtar’s play is much more complex, but just as trenchant as Other People’s Money. A financier wants to take over Everson Steel, using Merkin’s junk bonds, which, although it has diversified into pharmaceuticals, is vulnerable because its steel operation is not profitable. It’s third generation CEO, Thomas Iverson, Jr., is desperate to fend the guy off, because he knows the guy will liquidate the steel part of Iverson Steel, throwing all the workers, whom he views as family, out of work. He finds a “white knight” in the person of Leo Tresler, a gruff sort who is appalled by what Merkin is doing. Also in the mix are Judy Chen, a reporter who is writing a book about the junk bond craze, for whom the much older Tresler has the hots and a crusading D.A. out to take Merkin down obviously based on Rudolph Giuliani.

The production by Doug Hughes is spectacular, and the cast equally fine, with particular kudos going to Stephen Pasquale as Merkin, played as a true believer who believes he is saving the economy from white show gentiles, such as Tresler.

Junk only runs through this weekend. See it if you can. I think both play and production will be much-honored in the Spring when awards time rolls around.

I also enjoyed Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman, at the Hudson Theatre, a political drama about a woman named Chloe, played by Uma Thurman, married to a high-powered attorney who is trying to wheel his way into a federal judgeship. Chloe appears to be a rather callow woman at first, but she turns out to to be even more devious than her husband.

Pam MacKinnon’s direction is fluid and on the mark, although the female cast members are stronger then the males. Thurman is wonderful as Chloe, and there is strong work as well from Blair Brown, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, who might be able to swing the judgeship for Chloe’s husband, and from Philippa Soo as her daughter, a recent college graduate who wants a career in politics.

The Parisian Woman is an enthralling play about politics in the Age of Trump, and well worth seeing.

Also recommended: Farinelli and the King, at the Belasco Theatre, principally for Mark Rylance’s performance as addled King Philippe of Spain, the grandson of France’s Louis the 14th. At the outset of the play, Philippe is fishing in a goldfish bowl and his chief minister is trying to get him to abdicate. Set against the minister is Queen Isabella, who does not think the King is really incapacitated. She gets the idea to bring Farinelli, a world renowned castrato, to Spain in hopes that hearing him sing will restore the King to his senses – which it does.

The problem with the play is the lack of a truly credible threat, as the minister is portrayed as a fool. Also, the playwright, Claire van Kampen, plays fast and loose with the historical facts. In order to build up the role of Queen Isabella, for instance, she has the importation of Farinelli be her idea and even has her travel in London to fetch him, when in fact it was the king’s doctor who felt that hearing Farinelli sing would bring the king back to his senses, and it was the Spanish ambassador who arranged this in London.

What really makes the play sing, as it were, is the device of having a real contra tenor sing while the actor playing Farinelli stands by. Not that I think this device works very well – obviously, it would have been better to have had the actor playing Farinelli sing – but the opportunity to hear contra tenor Jestyn Davies sing is priceless.

So, go for Rylance and to hear Davies.

Playwright/actress Kate Hamill specializes in irreverent adaptations of classic English novels, in which she plays the female lead.  She made a big splash two years ago with her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which still has hopes of moving on to Broadway, then moved on to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the final production by the late, much lamented, Pearl Theatre. She’s back with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, where they appear to have taken up residence. All the hallmarks of Hamill’s previous adaptations are here in force: small cast with much doubling (usually of female roles played by men), deliberate anachronisms, etc. What emerges is a spoof of the novel rather than a straightforward adaptation. What was fresh and funny in her previous plays now seems merely silly, more for people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading the novel. If you are a Jane Austen fan, I think you’ll find it rather annoying.

CROSS THAT RIVER. 59E59, 59 E. 59th St.

Tickets: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-249-4200

HUNDRED DAYS. NY Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.

Tickets: www.nytw.org/show/hundred-days/#PBoffer or 212-460-5475

SPRONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway

Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

RED ROSES GREEN GOLD. Minetta Lane Theatre

JUNK. Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

THE PARISIAN WOMAN. Hudson Theatre, 131 W. 44th St.

Tickets: www.thehudsonbroadway.com/whatson/the-parisian-woman or 855-801- 6876 

FARINELLI AND THE KING. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Primary Stages at Cherry Lane Theatre, 36 Commerce St.

Tickets: www.ovationtix.com or 212-352-3101

“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” 3 November 2017

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 TIME AND THE CONWAYS, SQUEAMISH, TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, ILLYRIA, THE HOME PLACE, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE PORTUGESE KID, THE LAST MATCH and SHADOWLANDS.

J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways, last seen on Broadway in the late 1930s, is being given a splendid revival by Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre, directed by Rebecca Taichman, starring Elizabeth McGovern as the matriarch of a well-to-do British family. Preistley employed what was then a novel structure. The first act takes place in 1919 at a birthday party for one of Mrs. Conway’s daughters. As a charades game goes on offstage, we meet her three daughters and two sons, all full of hope for their assured future success. The Great War is finally over, after all, and hope springs eternal for everyone. The second act takes place 19 years later, and nobody’s life has turned out well. To top it off, Mrs. Conway’s solicitor reveals that her money is gone. Then we return to the birthday party in the third act, back to everyone’s rosy optimism, which takes on a terrible poignancy as we know what will happen to the Conways.

Taichman’s cast is superb. This one is a don’t-miss.

I also enjoyed Aaron Mark’s Squeamish, at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, wherein Alison Fraser plays a therapist who finds herself drawn to vampirism. The problem, though, is that the entire play is about what happened to the character in the past, which would be hard to sustain without a performance as riveting as Fraser’s, who here reveals quite a dramatic range, after years of mostly playing in musicals.

Tiny Beautiful Things, at the Public Theater is an adaptation by Nia Vardolos of Cheryl Strayed’s collection of online exchanges between her nom-de-plume, “Sugar,” and people who emailed her asking for advice. Vardalos plays Sugar, and three actors play many of the people whose plaintive queries appeared online. Thomas Kail’s direction is understated yet subtle, and Vardalos, who you will remember from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” is delightful. She’s one of those actresses who could read the phone book and charm you.

Richard Nelson’s Illyria, also at the Public Theater is about the early days of the New York Shakespeare Festival, when it was by no means assured that it would ever last more than a couple of seasons. It takes place before, during and after a production of Twelfth Night, which Joseph Papp directed after firing Stuart Vaughan in a flap about who to cast as Olivia. Also in the play are Merle Debuskey (Papp’s press agent), Bernie Gersten (who was to become the Festival’s business manager), the young Colleen Dewhurst and others. There is almost no plot, but it’s fascinating to watch and hear these young versions of people who went on to great success as they try to figure out how to keep Papp’s dream afloat.

I know a lot about what they were talking about, so I got all the references to offstage characters such as Robert Moses, “T” (T. Edward Hambleton, who was the money behind the Phoenix Theatre, and George C. Scott, who was at the time (and, indeed much later) a falling down drunk, but a genius when he was sober. I think, though, that if all this is new to you, a lot of it will pass in one ear and out the other. Also, Nelson has directed the play and much of it is “conversational’ – meaning so low in volume that even I, sitting in the second row, missed a lot of it. Also, it runs almost two hours without an interval.

If you are fascinated with this period in our theatre history, particularly as it pertains to Joseph Papp and the gang, I think you will have a good time. If you’re not, you’ll probably find Illyria a tough slog.

The Home Place, by the late Brian Friel, originally staged in Ireland in 2005 currently at Irish Rep, has not, as far as I have been able to determine, ever been presented here, which surprises me because it’s by one of the world great dramatists from the 1960s through this, his last play. Like all of Friel’s plays, it takes place in the fictional Irish town of Ballybeg in County Donegal. The year is 1978. The central character, a local squire named Christopher Gore, in whose house the play takes place, receives a visit from his cousin Richard, an anthropologist whose science presages that of the Nazis. He is studying racial characteristics by measuring people’s physical characteristics, hoping to prove that the Irish are inferior to the English, and he wants to do so with the local population. Also in the mix is his housekeeper, Rachel whom he wants to marry – but so does his son, and a local troublemaker named Con who rives to take on the “scientist,” and who might have been involved in a gruesome murder which occurred before the play began.

While not top-drawer Friel, The Home Place is nonetheless an enjoyable drama, subtly structured, and Irish Rep Artistic Director Charlotte Moore’s direction is superb. Her cast is excellent. It is difficult for me to pick out any faves, but if I had to I would put my finger on John Windsor Cunningham as Christopher and Rachel Pickup as Margaret.

I enjoyed this play thoroughly. While I wouldn’t label it a don’t-miss, it is still well worth a visit to Irish Rep.

You might remember Stanley Kubrick’s film from the late 1960’s of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, a chilling depiction of totally amoral youths who call themselves “Droogs” who play bizarre, violent games before going out to terrorize every adult they can find. Strangely, no author is credited in the adaptation currently on view at New World Stages. I thought it might have been the director, Alexandra Spencer-Jones, but I have been told it was Burgess himself. In the film, the Droogs’ victims are played by other actors; here, the actors playing the Droogs also play their victims, which undercuts the shock of what the Droogs inflict on them, making the play seem more or less like silly game-playing. That said, Spencer-Jones’ highly choreographed production is sensational, as is British actor Johnno Davies as Alex, the Droogs’ leader. No wonder they brought him over to recreate his performance.

When’s the last time you saw an out-and-out ha-ha funny comedy on a New York stage, with no dark, satiric edge? Think hard. Right. Long ago and far away. Comedies used to be a staple of the Broadway stage; now, we only see revivals of old ones. The reason for this is that the cultural ayatollahs, who decide not only what lives or dies but what, in fact, gets produced, dislike them. Who, in his right mind would produce a play which the critics will pan? Well, it appears, only Lynne Meadow of the Manhattan Theatre Club, where John Patrick Shanley’s The Portuguese Kid is currently running in their Off Broadway venue, City Center Stage I. Meadow is loyal to her playwrights, Shanley being one, so when he finishes a play, she does it.

Shanley’s latest is about a lawyer named Barry. A longtime client has died, and his widow, Atalanta, comes to Barry for legal advice. She also wants him to sell her house. She also is giving to yelling out his name during sex. Barry is married to a woman more than  half his age named Patty, although she pines for a young ne-er-do-well named Freddie, who is shacking up with Atalanta. Also in the mix is Barry’s domineering mother, who lives with him and works as his receptionist; and who hates his young wife (and vicey-versy). Who will wind up with whom? In other words, this play has nothing on its mind other than to provide laughs, which it does in abundance. No wonder it has been raked over the coals.

Jason Alexander, as Barry, serves up a variation one his “Seinfeld” character, and Mary Testa is a little too over the top as the mother, but Sherie Rene Scott steals the show as Atalanta, and Pico Alexander (Freddy) and Aimee Carerro (Patty) are almost as amusing.

If you are tired of play after depressing play and want just to have a good time and laugh your head off, The Portuguese Kid is for you.

In Anna Ziegler’s The Last Match, at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, two tennis stars go head to head in a quarterfinals match at the U.S. Open. Tim, an American on the last legs of his career at the ripe old age of 34, faces off against Sergei, a young Russian up-and-comer. Much of the play consists of these guy’s thoughts during their volleys, which are ingeniously staged by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, interspersed with off court scenes with their women: Tim’s wife Mallory, a former tennis player herself who has retired to try and have a baby, and the delightfully caustic Galina, Sergei’s girlfriend. All four actors are superb, the guys absolutely believable as top-seeded tennis players, the women compelling and often poignant.

I thoroughly enjoyed this play and think you will too.

I saw the original Broadway production of William Nicholson’s Shadowlands, starring the late Nigel Hawthorne and Jane Alexander, and I had my doubts as to whether the cast of the Off Broadway revival, at the Acorn Theatre, could come close to those two wonderful performances. Happily, the leads at the Acorn do come close in this superb production. I have always enjoyed Daniel Gerroll’s work, but I think his performance as Oxford don and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis is the pinnacle of his distinguished career, while Robin Abramson’s work as the Jewish American convert to Christianity after reading Lewis’ books on Christianity is equally as good.

A lifelong bachelor who lived with his brother, Lewis is here portrayed as a rather stuffy, emotionally reticent man until Joy Davidman barged into his life, determined to meet the man who changed her life. Much to his surprise, Lewis finds himself drawn to her, and they become close friends. When her marriage collapses, Joy decides to stay in Britain, but in order to do so she must marry a Brit. Despite his problem with marrying a divorced woman (forbidden by the church at that time), he ties the knot with her in a civil ceremony and then the two of them go on living separately – until Joy develops terminal bone cancer, at which time they have another marriage ceremony performed by an Anglican priest and live as man and wife until the end.

All his life, Lewis has preached, I guess you could say, that suffering is God’s way of bringing us to Him. Easy for him to say, until suffering hits home.

Christa Scott-Reed’s direction is top notch, and her supporting cast the same. The settings by Kelly James Tighe are ingenious and absolutely gorgeous, as is Aaron Spivey’s lighting.

The play has been produced by Fellowship for the Performing Arts, which specializes in plays with a Christian theme. In New York, where Faith is routinely mocked, that’s rather like Daniel in the lion’s den. I say, good for them!

Of the 10 plays I saw last week, Shadowlands was by far the best.

TIME AND THE CONWAYS. American Airlines Theatre. 227. W. 42nd St.

Tickets: 212-719-1300

SQUEAMISH. Samuel Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: 212-967-7555

ILLYRIA. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: 212-967-7555

THE HOME PLACE. Irish Repertory Theatre, 132. W. 22nd St.

Tickets: 866-811-4411

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

THE PORTUGESE KID. City Center Stage I. 131 W. 55th St

Tickets: www.manhattantheatreclub.com

THE LAST MATCH. Laura Pels Theatre. 111. W. 46th St.

Tickets: https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/The-Last-Match.aspx

SHADOWLANDS. Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

 

“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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“Gone But Not Forgotten — Theatre Companies

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN — Theatre Companies

At the end of the 2016-2017 season, the sad news came that the Pearl Theatre Co., a long time Off Broadway stalwart, was folding, a victim primarily of the skyrocketing rents plaguing anyone who tries to do business in New York City. Founded in 1984 by Shepard Sobel and his actress wife Joanne Camp, the Pearl specialized in solid productions of classic plays with minimal directorial intrusion, which made them seem increasingly quaint in these Ivo van Hove and Sam Gold times, which are more about the director’s take on a play than the play itself, as the author intended it to be staged.

For most of its time with us, the Pearl was in residence at Theatre 80, a shabby but cozy theatre in St. Mark’s Place. When they lost that space in 2007, then moved uptown to Stage II at the City Center, and then to the theatre in W. 42nd St. built by Signature Theatre, vacated by them when they built the spectacular Signature Center a block east in W. 42nd St.

What was also unique about the Pearl is that they employed a company of actors. There have been other companies who had acting companies, such as Atlantic, Circle Rep, the Jean Cocteau and Irish Rep, but mostly these were basically pools from which casts could be drawn. The Pearl had an actual acting company, and if one went there a lot over the years, as I did, these actors began to seem like old friends — fine actors such as Sean McCall, Dan Daily, Chris Mixon, Carol Schultz, Jolly Abraham and Bradford Cover. McCall, a short guy with a beautiful baritone voice, played most of the young men. Dan Daily, a stocky fellow with a tenor voice, played most of the old guys and Carol Schultz was the older women. Daily was particularly good in plays by Shaw and he put me in mind more than once of the great Philip Bosco, also outstanding in Shaw. He was superb as Tarleton in MISALLIANCE but equally good as William the waiter in YOU NEVER CAN TELL, and he stole the show as the Fire Chief in Ionesco’s THE BALD SOPRANO. He was also a memorable Falstaff in HENRY IV, Pt. 1.

The only misfire I ever saw at the Pearl was a dreadful production of MAJOR BARBARA, wherein the director, David Staller, rearranged Shaw’s text, used double casting which made no sense and staged the play on a terrible black unit set, which killed the comedy. One of their best productions was of O’Neill’s A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, directed by then Artistic Director JT Sullivan, which was as good or better than the several other productions of the play I have seen, with the exception of the Jose Quintero production at the late lamented Morosco Theatre, which starred Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst and Ed Flanders, which established the reputation of a play which had been consigned to the dust bin of American Theatre history.

At the end, the Pearl had jettisoned their acting company, which made them not really the Pearl anymore, their last production being a dramatization of VANITY FAIR, using none of the Pearl actors, written by and starring Kate Hamill, which was a fine production but, well, not really the Pearl.

New York City is new play-crazy – which is great — but I shall miss the Pearl’s dedication to old plays.

The demise of the Pearl got me thinking about the other theatre companies which I used to attend regularly which are now gone, such as Circle Rep, the WPA, the Hudson Guild, the American Place Theatre, American Jewish Theatre and Jewish Rep, as well as of the Broadway and Off Broadway theatres which we have lost, such as the aforementioned Morosco, the Helen Hayes in W. 46th St., and Off Broadway theatres such as the Variety Arts, the Promenade and the Century Center. I will be telling about these lost commercial theatres in another chapter.

The WPA was founded by Kyle Renick (a producer), Howard Ashman (a playwright) and Stuart White (a director) and specialized, as did Circle Rep, in American realism. Mostly, they did new plays, although I saw memorable productions there of Tennessee Williams’ A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR and a dramatization of Edith Wharton’s ETHAN FROME, by Owen and Daniel Davis, which was produced originally in 1936 and was a great success for Ruth Gordon and Raymond Massey. Their biggest hits were Tom Toper’s NUTS, which moved to Broadway and then became a successful film starring Barbara Streisand and Richard Dreyfus, Robert Harling’s STEAL MAGNOLIAS (also a hit film), Larry King’s THE NIGHT HANK WILLIAMS DIED, Kevin Wade’s KEY EXCHANGE and, of course, Ashman and Menken’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, which started at their tiny theatre in 5th Ave. and moved to the Orpheum (where STOMP has been running for years), running for eight years before becoming a successful film starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin and Ellen Greene, recreating her role as Audrey from the Off Broadway production.

After a few years at their original location in 5th Ave., the WPA moved to the Chelsea Playhouse, a brand new theatre in W. 23rd St. By this time, Ashman and White were dead, lost to AIDS, but Renick kept it going until the building’s owners decided to tear it down and put luxury condos in its place. Since there weren’t any other viable Off Broadway spaces for not-for-profit companies (the Cherry Lane and the Theatre de Lys were commercial rental spaces at the time, and this was before the construction of the Theatre Row and New World Stages multiplexes) Renick decided to fold. I have fond memories of  the many WPA productions I saw over the years, several of which were designed by their brilliant in-house set designer Edward (“Hawk”) Gianfrancesco, one of which was a play I placed there, Don Nigro’s GROTESQUE LOVESONGS. Hawk’s splendid set was a two-story house with a greenhouse attached. The buzz on this production was very good – until, that is, the Times sent their cabaret critic, Stephen Holden, who dismissed it with a syllogism: plays about Midwestern families are boring/ GROTESQUE LOVESONGS is about a Midwestern family/ GROTESQUE LOVESONGS is boring — which killed any chance the play might have had to transfer.

Circle Rep was founded in the late ‘60s by Marshall W. Mason, Rob Thirkeld, Tanya Berezin and Lanford Wilson. Mason, the Artistic Director, was its driving force; Wilson, its resident playwright. They had an affiliated group of actors, such as Conchata Ferrell, Trish Hawkins, Judd Hirsch, Jonathan Hogan, Jeff Daniels and William Hurt, many of whom moved on to TV and film, but their “star” was Lanford Wilson, who came up with Mason in the off off Broadway scene in the 1960s, often working at Caffe Cino. They got themselves a loft on the Upper West Side, where they opened the play which was to establish their reputation, Wilson’s THE HOT L BALTIMORE, which transferred to Circle in the Square Downtown, in Bleecker Street, where it ran for four or five years in the early 1970s. They then built a theatre in what had once been a garage in 7th Ave. South, just below Sheridan Square. It was here that they produced many plays by Lanford Wilson, including TALLEY’S FOLLY, which won the Pulitzer Prize, THE FIFTH OF JULY and BURN THIS – all of which moved to, and succeeded on, Broadway – and William Hoffman’s AS IS, which was the first play to deal with the AIDS crisis.

When Mason decided to move out to Los Angeles to work in film, sadly Circle Rep folded two or three years later, burdened by too much debt to keep going.

The Hudson Guild Theatre Co. performed in an auditorium in the community service center of what were basically low-income housing projects in W. 26th St. It was founded by playwright PJ Barry, who turned it over to Craig Anderson, who ran it for several years before moving out to Los Angeles to become a successful TV producer. For a few years, the Hudson Guild was an Off Broadway powerhouse. It was here that ON GOLDEN POND and the American premiere of DA started, both of which later had successful Broadway runs. After Anderson’s departure, though, the company went slowly downhill, petering out several years ago. Now, it’s basically a community theatre.

As is the way of the march of time the WPA, Circle Rep and Hudson Guild Theatres died out, but in their place have sprung numerous Off Broadway companies, many of which have done terrific productions; but I miss the old days when I could see a new play by Larry Ketron at the WPA, Lanford’s latest at Circle Rep and an Irish import by the likes of Hugh Leonard at the Hudson Guild.

The American Place Theatre was founded by Wynn Handman and The Rev. Sidney Lanier at St. Clement’s Church, Rector of St. Clement’s, in W. 46th St. in the mid-1960s and was, for a time, quite a cutting-edge company. This was before there was much off and off-off Broadway, so theatregoers in search of an alternative to Broadway had a place to go. Handman did poetic dramas, such as Robert Lowell’s THE OLD GLORY and William Alfred’s HOGAN’S GOAT, which featured a standout newcomer named Faye Dunaway, soon to be lost to Hollywood, and Sam Shepard’s KILLER’S HEAD, featuring another newcomer, named Richard Gere.

In the early 1970’s New York City started offering tax breaks to developers who included a theatre in their new skyscraper – for tax purposes, they got ten free stories – which resulted in the Minskoff Theatre (on the site of the old Hotel Astor), the Uris (now the Gershwin), Circle in the Square Uptown and an off Broadway theatre in the new J.P. Stevens building in W. 46th St. just off Avenue of the Americas. Handman moved his theatre into this new space, which was to prove the American Place’s downfall. Plays which seemed oh-so cutting edge way to the west now had trouble attracting audiences to a theatre just off Times Square, and the critics were often harsh in their assessments of their productions, I think because they expected a more mainstream experience in the Broadway theatre district. Walter Kerr (admittedly a rather conservative critic) once referred to the American Place as “that continuing disaster area.” It got harder and harder for Handman to keep the theatre going, and eventually he downsized to a basement space way below street level (which is now known as the Roundabout Underground), finally folding altogether.

One of the most important and long-term legacies of the American Place, though, is the Women’s Project, founded by Handman’s Literary Manager, Julia Miles, with the support of the Ford Foundation, to do new plays by women, directed by women, at a time when both were exceedingly rare. She struck gold with her first production, a revue concocted by Julianne Boyd and Joan Micklin Silver consisting of songs about contemporary womanhood, which opened in the basement space and moved to the Village Gate (alas, another lost theatre) in Bleecker Street, where it ran about a year. This was A … MY NAME IS ALICE, which I got my boss at Samuel French to acquire and which went on to many productions across the country, as well as two sequels. When the American Place folded, Ms. Miles began producing in the original Theatre Row theatres, before moving into Theatre Four in W. 55th St., subsequently the Julia Miles Theatre, where the Women’s Project was ensconced for several years before having to vacate the premises because the theatre was just too decrepit. The Women’s Project continues to be an important off Broadway theatre company.

American Jewish Theatre was founded by Stanley Brechner, who started out in a small theatre in the YMHA in the Upper East Side before moving to the basement theatre in W. 26th St. which was the original home of the Roundabout. Brechner did Israel Horovitz’ Fountain Pen Trilogy in the Upper East Side space and, in W. 26th St., exemplary revivals of musicals such as MILK AND HONEY, RAGS and THE ROTHSCHILDS, as well as a new musical called A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE (another one I got Samuel French to acquire), which should have moved but didn’t, and fine new plays such as BORN GUILTY by Ari Roth (who is now running Theatre J in Washington, D.C., a Jewish Theatre founded by former American Place Theatre Literary Manager Martin Blank). At the end, Brechner could only afford to do projects which came with money attached (a disturbing off Broadway trend which I will discuss in another chapter), usually a guaranteed harbinger of the end, finally folding and absconding to Columbia with whatever money he had left (some of which, I suspect, was from subscriptions).

Jewish Rep was started by Ran Avni in a small space in the 14th St. YMHA, where it operated for several years before moving to Playhouse 91 in the Upper East Side (which doesn’t appear to be used for theatre anymore). I saw many memorable plays and musicals produced by Jewish Rep at the WHMA and at Playhouse 91, such as Susan Sandler’s CROSSING DELANCEY (another gem I landed for Samuel French), which became a successful film directed by Joan Micklin Silver, starring Amy Irving and Peter Riegert, and the musical THEDA BARA AND THE FRONTIER RABBI, directed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, which deserved a commercial transfer but didn’t get it. Then, about 10 years ago, Jewish Rep disappeared. I still don’t know what happened to it.

There have many companies which came and went during my life in New York City, such as the Impossible Ragtime Theatre and Theatre at St. Clements; but the ones I have told you about were the most significant. They are all sorely missed.

 

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