“On the Aisle with Larry” 11 April 2014

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 ROCKY, ALADDIN, IF/THEN, LES MISERABLES, ALL THE WAY, MOTHERS AND SONS, THE HEIR APPARENT and SPEAKEASY DOLLHOUSE.

The mad dash to the Tony Awards is in full swing. April is a great month for theatre audiences, if you have the money to spend on Broadway shows, but the cruelest month for critics, who can barely keep up with everything – and not just on Broadway, as Off Broadway seems to think that the Real Season is in April, too. But on Broadway, where Real Money is at stake, everyone’s playing Tony Roulette. If their number comes up, they can keep playing; if not, goodnight Irene.

There is an unusual amount of competition this season for the Tony for best musical. Thirteen shows, but only four can be nominated. This might surprise you, but one of the most worthy of a nomination is Rocky, at the Winter Garden Theatre, a musicalization of the iconic 1976 film about a two-bit boxer who miraculously gets a shot at the title and almost pulls it off. The book, by Thomas Meehan and none other than Sylvester Stallone takes a cinematic masterpiece and makes it compellingly theatrical, thanks in large part to the brilliant direction by Alex Timbers. The climactic fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed is an incredible piece of stagecraft, as a boxing ring descends from the flies into the house as patrons are herded up onto the stage and seat banks roll in upstage, stage right and stage left, creating a true arena. The 17-minute fight sequence is intricately choreographed. It looks for all the world as if the two fighters are beating the crap out of each other. I’m no fan of boxing – but I am of brilliant choreography, which this truly is.

The songs, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, have come under criticism for being second rate. This is hogwash. Rocky contains one terrific song after another, perfectly integrated into the book and beautifully sung.

As Rocky, Andy Karl has to go up against the great performance of Sylvester Stallone in the film, rather like Rocky has to take on the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. Karl does not try to reproduce Stallone’s performance; his Rocky is all his own, but just as compelling as Stallone’s was. Margot Seibert makes a very touching Adrian; and Dakin Matthews, as Mickey the trainer, is every bit as crusty as Burgess Meredith was. Terrence Archie is wonderful as Apollo Creed, all pomp and bluster until he’s surprised by an opponent who actually may beat him.

When it’s over, the audience stands and cheers – and not just the macho men, either.

ALADDIN at the New Amsterdam Theatre, is a lot better than you may have heard, too. A lot of this is due to Casey Nicholaw, who directed and choreographed this stage adaptation of the animated Disney film. Yes, it’s a cartoon, with platitudinous “messages” like, “Be true to yourself” and “A girl should be able to marry the guy she loves, not the guy her dad has picked for her.” So, don’t go to Aladdin expecting anything profound. Just expect a great-fun evening.

The Aladdin, Adam Jacobs, and the Princess Jasmine, Courtney Reed, are endearing, but the real standout performance comes from James Monroe Inglehart as the Genie, who comes damn close to making you forget about Robin Williams, who voiced the role in the film, and is a strong contender for the Featured Actor Tony Award. His rendition of “A Friend Like Me,” brilliantly staged by Nicholaw, stops the show. Also good are Jonathan Freeman as the villain, Jafar (who voiced the role in the film) and Don Daryl Riviera as his sidekick Iago (not a parrot as in the film, but sort of a toady/henchman).

All the wonderful songs from the film are here, with the addition of a few more which Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken wrote which were cut from the film, the most memorable of which is “Proud of Your Boy,” wherein Aladdin expresses his hope that his dead parents would be proud of him. Yes, it’s a recycling of “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop of Horrors and “Part of Your World: from The Little Mermaid but that didn’t bother me. It’s a very catchy tune.

Go – you’ll have a great time (unless you’re a jaded cynic).

I wasn’t wild about IF/THEN, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. On the plus side, it has an original book, a rarity in these days of musicals based on movies. On the minus side, the book is awfully convoluted and confusing. Idina Menzel plays a woman who comes back to NYC after 12 years in the boonies (Arizona), her marriage over. Her story is trifurcated, as we follow her in three different what-if scenarios. This starts out being clever but eventually devolves into annoying. It also extends the running time to almost two and a half hours, which is way too long. Had Tom Kitt and Brian Yorket just stuck with one plotline, opting for simplicity over cleverness, the show would have been a lot better.

Still, Idina Menzel is back. She has one of the greatest voices in the history of the musical theatre, and her songs do not disappoint her fans. She’s the best – indeed, the only – reason to see If/Then.

The revival of LES MISERABLES, at the Imperial Theatre, is thrilling. Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have come up with a very different scenography than the iconic original production, and Ramin Karimloo is astounding as Jean Valjean. Will Swenson is no slouch either as Javert.

This is a world-class production of one of the greatest works of the 20th Century musical theatre, and not to be missed.

Robert Shenkkan’s ALL THE WAY, at the Neil Simon Theatre, is a brilliant historical drama about President Johnson and his determinate to ram civil rights legislation through a recalcitrant Congress. President Obama’s current difficulty in getting conservatives to do anything is nothing new. Bryan Cranston is giving the performance of the season as LBJ. He’s nothing less than astonishing, but the entire (large) cast is very strong.

I think this one’s a shoo-in for the Tony Award for Best Play. It’s another don’t-miss.

Terrence McNally’s MOTHERS AND SONS, at the Golden Theatre, is a poignant if somewhat attenuated drama about the mother of a man named Andre who died of Aids 20 years ago, who for some reason decides to visit her son’s lover, much to his dismay and that of his husband, both of whom wonder, “Why now?” The strong acting carries the evening, with Tyne Daly leading the charge as Andre’s mother, but Frederick Weller and Bobby Steggert are also terrific as the gay couple.

While not top-drawer McNally, Mothers and Sons is still worth seeing.

David Ives’ adaptation of an early 18th Century farce by Jean-François Regnard, THE HEIR APPARENT at Classic Stage Co, is a frantically silly rhymed couplet farce, about the efforts of a nephew to ensure that he gets all his wealthy, invalid uncle’s money when he dies. Of the overall fine cast, the standouts are Paxton Whitehead as the old geezer and Carson Elrod as a wiley servant who hopes to get some if his dough too so that he can marry his lady love, a serving wench. Director John Rando keeps things at a fast pace, making the comedy as broad as you can imagine. Some of this is hilarious – some is just plain silly. If you’re in the mood for silly, you couldn’t do much better.

SPEAKEASY DOLLHOUSE, at the Players Club, is Yet Another audience emersive event. They bring you into the Players through a back alleyway, into the dining room which has been cleared of tables, and you’re in 1919, at the start of Prohibition. You’re let in at 7:45. Then you stand around for 45 minutes until the “show” begins. You’re supposed to wander through the Players wherever you choose. There are so many people, though, that it usually impossible to observe anything. I started out watching a terrible puppet show about the nesting habits of birds in the Galapagos Islands, then trudged upstairs where there was a card game going on. One of the players was Mark Twain. This mostly consisted of boring small talk. I finally gave up and went back down to the dining room, where there were various women singing songs of the period, one of whom was a stripper/contortionist. Finally, I gave up entirely and ditched.

Speakeasy Dollhouse, is totally chaotic and disorganized.

ROCKY. Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
ALADDIN. New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 866-870-2717
IF/THEN. Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 866-870-2717
LES MISERABLES. Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
ALL THE WAY. Neil Simon Theatre. 250 W. 52nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 866-870-2717
MOTHERS AND SONS. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
THE HEIR APPARENT. Classic Stage Co., 136 E. 13th St,
TICKETS: 212-677-4210
SPEAKEASY DOLLHOUSE. Players Club, 16 Gramercy Park S.
TICKETS: www.speakeasydollhouse.com

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.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” 18 March 2014

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 BEAUTIFUL, LOVE AND INFORMATION, NOTHING ON EARTH CAN HOLD HOUDINI, HAND TO GOD, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF, CHARACTER MAN, STAGE KISS, THE TRIBUTE ARTIST, ODE TO JOY, ARLINGTON, MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT and LONDON WALL

Beautiful, at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, is about Carole King. Who is/was Carole King? Only one of the greatest pop songwriters of the 1960s. Those of you old enough to remember her songs will hear her Greatest Hits in this show, along with the Greatest Hits of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who are subsidiary characters here. Douglas McGrath’s fine book follows King from early success as a teenager through highs and lows of life and love, culminating in the success of her solo album “Tapestry,” an iconic album of the early 1970s, and her legendary concert at Carnegie Hall.

Jessie Mueller is giving a sensational performance as Carole King. She’s a Broadway belter, but here she manages to reproduce King’s distinctive voice without sounding annoying, much of the time accompanying herself superbly on the piano. Jake Epstein is fine as her tortured husband and songwriting partner, as are Jarrod Spektor and Anika Larsen as Mann and Weil.

Why should you care about songs and songwriters from 50 years ago? That is, if you’re not old enough to remember them when their songs were new, and when they were young? When I think of the junk that passes for pop music today, I weep. Here’s your chance to hear some great music from an era when great songs were about love, and hope, and had catchy melodies and orchestrations that didn’t sound machine-made. You can hear the greatness that once was American popular music at Beautiful, at Motown, at Jersey Boys at A Night With Janis Joplin and at After Midnight. There’s a reason why oldies stations thrive on FM radio. Here’s your chance to discover why.

Don’t miss Beautiful.

Caryl Churchill has a new “play,” Love and Information, produced by NY Theatre Workshop at the Minetta Lane Theatre. I put “play” in quotation marks because what it actually is a series of unrelated doodles, some only 3 or 4 lines long, some 3 or 4 minutes, 57 in all, lasting almost two hours sans intermission. The critics have gone nuts. I almost went nuts, in a different way, and could barely wait for it to be over. Other than that it’s a chance to see some really fine actors, Love and Information is eminently miss-able.

As is Nothing on Earth Can Stop Houdini, at the Axis Theatre, a to varying degrees incoherent play about Houdini’s obsession with exposing mediums as frauds, incoherently directed by Randall Sharp and featuring acting which ranges from the barely adequate to the execrable.

Much, much better, and one of the high points of this season, is Robert Askins’ Hand to God, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. I first saw this two years ago, at Ensemble Studio Theatre, where it was very successful. Thankfully, MCC has brought it back, and once again we get to see Stephen Boyer’s incredible performance as a teen named Jason in his Mom’s Christian puppetry workshop at her church whose puppet named Tyrone takes on a life is his/its own. Is Jason possessed or merely severely troubled; or, in fact, is Tyrone the Devil? Boyer is hilarious/scary in the dual roles of Jason and Tyrone, and Geneva Carr, as his harried Mom, is brilliant as well.

This one’s a definite don’t-miss. It may transfer for a commercial run, but maybe not so see it now just in case.

I haven’t read the novel The Bridges of Madison County, and never saw the movie, so the musical version at the Schoenfeld Theatre was, for me, like a new, original show. It’s the tale of an Italian war bride named Francesca who has wound up a farm wife in Iowa. While her husband and two teenaged kids are away at the state fair, she has a torrid affair with a photographer who has come to town to photograph the local picturesque covered bridges. He has to move on, of course, but the memory of this lost love haunts her for the rest of her life.

Marsha Norman, who wrote the book, assumes that anyone who lives in a nowhere place like Iowa , particularly if she is artistically inclined, must lead a life of quiet desperation, surrounded by narrow-minded people, so she doesn’t bother to dramatize this. What we see is a woman in a community of down-home friendly neighbors, with a kind, hardworking husband who loves her, who loses her mind over a handsome stud. I found this rather annoying.

Kelli O’Hare and Stephen Pasquale are the lovers, and both are fine, as is Hunter Foster as Francesca’s nice guy of a husband, but I found Jason Robert Brown’s score rather dull except for a few songs. The set is very bare bones, the kind you might see in a well-meaning community theatre production.

This one just didn’t grab me. Maybe it’s a guy thing – although the woman I was with wasn’t wild about it either.

I saw two one-man shows within the space of a few days – Satchmo at the Waldorf (at the Westside Theatre) and Character Man (at Urban Stages). I recommend both.

Satchmo at the Waldorf is about Louis Armstrong towards the end of his life, living and performing at the Waldorf Astoria before an audience of exclusively white people. Armstrong’s is a great story, well-told by playwright Terry Touchout. The great classical actor John Douglas Thompson is giving a phenomenal performance as Armstrong, occasionally his white manager and Miles Davis, who considers Armstrong to have become nothing but a clown. A great story, a great performance. What are you waiting for?

Character Man, written and performed by Jim Brochu, is an engaging trip down memory lane, an encomium to all the character men (and a few women) Brochu has known during the course of his career. His stories about the likes of David Burns, Jack Gilford, Jack Klugman and Zero Mostel are great stories, all about the great generosity of actors towards each other, though a little too often Brochu comes across as something of a hanger-on and name-dropper. No matter. He’s still delightful.

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, at Playwrights Horizons, is about an actress cast in a revival of a dreadful Broadway flop from the early 1930s. Why anyone would want to revive this turkey, and who, is never adequately explained. Jessica Hecht plays this artificial character artificially, an act I have seen one too many times. I have loved previous plays by Ruhl, but for me this one was a real misfire.

Primary Stages has extended Charles Busch’s hilarious The Tribute Artist, so you have until the end of the month. Busch plays a “celebrity impersonator” named Jimmy, down on his luck. He’s lost his job in Las Vegas and has come to NYC to lick his wounds and visit an eccentric old lady in whose townhouse he camps out whenever he’s in New York. She is an agoraphobic recluse. When she drops dead, Jimmy his friend, a brash but desperate real estate agent hatch a plan for Jimmy to impersonate the old bag in hopes of getting their hands on the house. Complications arise in the form of the appearance of the old lady’s niece who, the conspirators learn, actually inherits the house by the terms of the old lady’s husband’s will; and the appearance of a shady character who once was the old lady’s lover. He learns of the conspiracy and threatens to reveal all unless he gets a piece of the action. So this is one of those comedies wherein everybody is trying to con everybody else. It’s expertly constructed, if a little long, and well worth checking out. Great fun!

Craig Lucas’ Ode to Joy, produced by Rattlestick at the Cherry Lane Theatre, is a drama about the lover affair between an artist, played with quiet intensity by Kathryn Erbe, and a recently widowered cardiac surgeon (Arliss Howard). They meet in a bar, fall in love, and begin a downward spiral of alcohol and drug addiction. We follow them over the course of several years as they battle and finally break up, meeting again years later when both are in recovery. It’s strong stuff, and often rather over-written, but Lucas’ direction of his play is assured and Erbe and Howard are giving strong performances.

Vineyard Theatre has up and running a chamber opera by Polly Pen and Victor Lodato entitled Arlington, wherein a woman sings up a storm while she waits for her mother to come for a visit, and then is occasionally joined in the second half by her pianist, who becomes her husband, at war in the Middle East. The score is almost entirely comprised of recitative and is incredibly boring, even as well sung as it is by Alexandra Silber. Fortunately, the evening is blessedly brief.

Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night has been revived by Keen Co. at the Harold Clurman Theatre. It’s a drama about a middle aged Jewish clothing manufacturer who falls in love with his cute, blonde, gentile receptionist. He’s a lonely widower, she’s trapped in a frustrating marriage to a musician who doesn’t pay sufficient attention to her. Jonathan Silverstein has double cast all the roles but the two principals and has tried valiantly to make the play work in one set, an apartment, which functions as both her place and his. The concept doesn’t work, but fortunately there are fine performances, most notably by Jonathan Hadary as the manufacturer and Nicole Lowrance as his young lady love.

Finally, Mint Theatre has found another lost gem, London Wall ll live a life of wealth; but should she continue to wait for her boyfriend to get his act together?
Davis McCallum has directed a uniformly superb cast.

They don’t write ‘em like this anymore. Would that, occasionally at least, they did. The Mint Theatre’s productions are always worth checking out. This one is too.

BEAUTIFUL. Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
LOVE AND INFORMATION. Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 212-391-1239
NOTHING ON EARTH CAN HOLD HOUDINI. Axis Theatre, 1 Sheridan Square
TICKETS: 212-391-1239
HAND TO GOD. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.
TICKETS: 212-352-3101
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF. Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
CHARACTER MAN. Urban Stages, 259 W. 30th St.
TICKETS: www.smarttix.com or 212-868-4444
STAGE KISS. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.ticketcentral or 212-279-4200

THE TRIBUTE ARTIST. Primary Stages, 59 E 59
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral or 212-279-4200
ODE TO JOY. Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.
TICKETS: 212-989-2020
ARLINGTON. Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St.
TICKETS: 212-353-0303
MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT. Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral or 212-279-4200
LONDON WALL. Mint Theatre, 311 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: 866-811-4111 or www.minttheater.org

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.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” 29 January 2014

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 SURRENDER, GROUNDED, MACHINAL, THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER, OUTSIDE MULLINGAR, WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT, A MAN’S A MAN, DISASTER, A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER, HANDLE WITH CARE and THE NIGHT ALIVE.

The Surrender, Toni Bentley’s erotic memoir, which has now closed, got a lot of negative press. True to form, I rise to defend it.

This was a monodrama wherein the speaker, clearly Ms. Bentley, tells us how she developed an obsession with sex after her ballet career ended; and not just any kinda sex – anal sex. “Euwww,” went the critics, many of whom were women. To which I respond, why not? If Club Members go for it, why not straight women? The speaker tells us in graphic detail how she achieved a kind of emotional and spiritual transcendence through her obsession, not only with anal sex but with total surrender to her lover. “You gotta be kidding me,” went the critics. Well, here’s what I think of that: any play which features a woman who really likes to Do It is a good thing and ought to be encouraged. And I found Laura Campbell, who suffered guilt by association for her temerity to perform the role courageous, sexy and very compelling. So there.

George Brant’s Grounded, which is finishing up its run at Walkerspace, is another compelling monodrama, this one about a female fighter pilot who loves flying as much as Toni Bentley’s speaker loves sex. While on leave, she meets her soul mate in a bar and becomes pregnant by him, which requires her to take a 3-year leave from the Air Force. When she returns, she finds that fighter pilots are no longer needed, and she is assigned to operate drones from a console at a base outside Las Vegas. The Air Force has become the Chair Force, Eventually, she goes crazy. Hannah Cabell is wonderful as the pilot, and deserves to get nominated for those solo performance awards the press organizations give out at the end of the season.

Roundabout has revived Machinal, Sophie Treadwell’s expressionist drama from the 1920’s, at the American Airlines Theatre, in an astounding production directed by Lyndsey Turner, featuring Rebecca Hall as a disturbed secretary who marries the boss, a Typical Insensitive Male played full-bore by Michael Cumpsty. This is A Doll House in extremis. The Young Woman (as she is listed in the program) is supposed to represent the Plight of Woman in a Man’s World. Many women will, no doubt, nod their heads and say, “There, you see? That’s what it’s like to be a woman.” As for me, I found Treadwell’s character to be a lament for female victimhood and, therefore, insufferable.

That said, Ms. Hall is terrific in the role, assisted by an excellent supporting cast; and the technical elements, from the revolving set by Es Devlin to the nightmarish lighting by Jane Cox, are Just Plain Brilliant.

Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, at Atlantic Stage II, a film from the early 1960s, has been adapted by Roy Williams, who has updated the story to the present. The new version is about a young black man named Colin who is incarcerated for petty burglary in a juvenile detention facility. A counsellor at the prison takes an interest in Colin and encourages his passion for running, believing it to be his salvation. Sillitoe/Williams have a different take, as Colin embraces his social fate rather than trying to transcend it, becoming a representative of so many young people these days, as in, “What’s the point of even trying?” I have no sympathy for this point of view; but that said, Leah C. Gardiner’s production is outstanding, as is Sheldon Best as Colin.

John Patrick Shanley’s latest, Outside Mullingar at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is about a middle-aged man named Anthony who may or may not inherit the family farm when his Da dies. His father is reluctant to will it to him because he thinks Anthony doesn’t love the land enough. Also in the mix is a neighbor woman who has loved Anthony since she was a little girl – but Anthony is too emotionally blocked to do anything about it, mourning a failed relationship with another woman years ago. The Big Revelation at the end as to the cause of Anthony’s reluctance to commit to another woman is rather ridiculous, but Brian F. O’Byrne almost makes it credible. Debra Messing is lovely as the woman who loves him, and Peter Maloney is giving one of the finest performances of his distinguished career as the father.

Outside Mullingar is not exactly top-drawer Shanley – but it’s still worth seeing, if mostly for these three fine actors.

What’s It All About, at NY Theatre Workshop, has been extended – and rightly so. It’s a brilliant re-imagining of the music of Burt Bacharach by Kyle Riabko which taps into the zeitgeist of 20-somethings. Performed by Riabko and an incredible group of singer/musicians, it makes a strong case for Bacharach as one of the great American songwriters, and is a don’t-miss.

Bertolt Brecht’s early play A Man’s a Man has also been re-imagined, with a wonderful score by Duncan Sheik and superb, whimsical direction by Brian Kulick. For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s about a porter named Galy Gay who finds himself sucked into an absurd war waged by England against Nepal. Gibson Frazier is fine as Gay – but the best performance comes from drag performer Justin Vivian Bond, who infuses the Widow Begbick with a perfect blend of schadenfreud and sass. A Man’s a Man is not top-drawer Brecht; but still, this is rarely staged play is well worth seeing

Disaster, at St. Luke’s Theatre, is a goofy send-up by Seth Rudetsky of all those 1970s disaster movies, involving a casino ship and an earthquake immediately beneath it at a pier in the Hudson River, loaded with songs of the period. Rudetsky plays a Jeremiah whose warning about an imminent earthquake go unheeded. The performances are very broad, as you would expect, but not annoyingly so as everyone is having such a good time. My fave was Jennifer Simard as a nun with a secret gambling addiction. If you’re in the mood for silly, this would be a good choice.

An even better choice would be A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, a musical version of the film Kind Hearts and Coronets, wherein an impoverished distant relative of an aristocratic family, whose mother was disinherited when she married a commoner, realizes that he’s 8th in line to the earldom. All he has to do is bump off the 7 individuals ahead of him, which he proceeds to do with flair. All his murder victims are played with aplomb by the great actor Jefferson Mays. Bryce Pinkham reaches the top of the list of Broadway leading men with his performance as the murderer.

The direction by Darko Tresnjak is witty and most inventive and the score, by Steven Lutvak (music) and Robert L. Freedman (lyrics) features one delightful song after another. The show has received deservedly good reviews but for some reason isn’t selling very well (I think it’s the cheesy TV commercial), so you can certainly go to TKTS and get half-price seats. Do so – the show is great fun.

Handle with Care, at the Westside Theatre, is a comedy by Jason Odell Williams about a hapless deliveryman who loses a coffin being shipped back to Israel, containing the body of an elderly woman. He must explain what has happened to her granddaughter. Since she doesn’t speak any English, he enlists the help of the one Jewish person he knows, whose Hebrew consists of what he had to learn for his bar mitzah. The granny, played by Carol Lawrence, appears in flashbacks. Turns out, she came to the U.S. with her granddaughter to try to find the love of her life, who she hasn’t seen since she was a young woman.

The play is riddled with unlikely contrivances, which Karen Carpenter has directed right into, but it winds up being sentimental in a good way. When’s the last time you saw a play with a happy ending?

The Night Alive at Atlantic Theatre Co. is, like Handle with Cares very dark and edgy.
It begins when a middle-aged man named Tommy brings a girl named Aimee, who has been beaten up by her boyfriend, home to his squalid room, which he rents from an old codger named Maurice. The boyfriend, a sinister chap, shows up and mauls Tommy’s gofer, Doc. Tommy wants to blow the joint and emigrate to Europe. Will the girl go with him?

McPherson’s writing is taut and poignant, and Ciarán Hinds (Tommy), Jim Norton (Maurice) and Caoilfhion Dunne (Aimee) are just plain terrific. This one, too, is a don’t-miss.

THE SURRENDER. Harold Clurman Theatre. Alas, Closed
GROUNDED. Walkerspace, 46 Walker St.
TICKETS: www.ovationtix.com or 212-353-3101
MACHINAL. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300
OUTSIDE MULLINGAR. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER. Atlantic Stage II, 330
W. 16th St.
TICKETS: www.ovationtix.com or 212-353-3101
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT? New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.
TICKETS: 212-460-5475
A MAN’S A MAN. Classic Stage Co., 136 E. 13th St.
TICKETS: 212-677-4210
DISASTER! St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER. Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W.
48th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
HANDLE WITH CARE. Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
THE NIGHT ALIVE. Atlantic Theatre Co., 336 W. 20th St.
TICKETS: 866-811-4111

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.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” 16 December 2013

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 WAITING FOR GODOT, NO MAN’S LAND, TWELFE NIGHT, RICHARD III, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, FUN HOME, ONE NIGHT, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND THEN KILL THEM and THE PATRON SAINT OF SEA MONSTERS.

Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Pinter’s No Man’s Land, currently playing in alternating repertory at the Cort Theatre, are an inspired pairing. Both have two great male roles, and both express haunting feelings of existential despair in a world where the search for meaning is pointless. Essentially, Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon are trapped forever in no man’s land, as are Pinter’s Hirst and Spooner.

But in this case the play is not the thing. The Main Event is the pairing of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. McKellen is Spooner and Estragon (Gogo); Stewart is Hirst and Vladimir (Didi).

Sean Mathias has directed both plays. Had Samuel Beckett or his indefatigable executor Barney Rosset still been alive, they would have either closed this production of Waiting for Godot or demanded that Mathias go back to the setting as described in the text – a desolate place in the middle of nowhere. Mathias has chosen to literalize the interpretation of the play as a response to the awful chaos and desolation in Europe during and after the Second World War, setting the play in what appears to be a bombed –out town square, with the famously bedraggled tree growing out of it, which sets the play in the middle of somewhere instead of nowhere, which I think is Wrong. But the setting is not the only Bad Idea in this production. Stewart makes a fine Didi, but For Some Strange Reason McKellen is doing a Scottish accent which makes him sound as if he were imagining Sean Connery in the role. Shuler Hensley appears to be modelling his performance as Pozzo on Foghorn Leghorn, and Billy Crudup has been directed to dash around the stage during Lucky’s famous monologue, delivering it at a too-brisk pace, in a high-pitched voice which renders most of it unintelligible.

The production of No Man’s Land is much better. Stewart is wonderful as the addled Hirst, rather the Pozzo of this play, and McKellen here drops the Scottish accent and nails Spooner’s desperation to become Hirst’s servant – in effect, his Lucky. Henley and Crudup are much better here as Hirst’s servants. The problem is, the play itself just seems like all too much self-indulgent wheel-spinning.

Also playing in alternating repertory are Shakespeare’s Richard III and Twelfth Night (called here Twelfe Night after the spelling in the First Folio), at the Belasco Theatre. Both plays are staged by Tim Carroll and both are done in authentic Elizabethan style, with an all-male cast on a stage which approximates that of the Globe Theatre, as adapted for the proscenium stage at the Belasco. Above the stage, musicians in period dress play music on period instruments, and at the end of both the actors dance a jig.

Rylance plays Countess Olivia in Twelfth Night and Gloucester (later Richard III). He is a gifted comic actor, and his Olivia is the funniest performance in that role I have ever seen. Unfortunately, his Richard III is also the funniest performance I’ve ever seen. He comes off like The Joker in Batman, which totally undercuts Shakespeare’s portrait of Pure Evil. On the plus side, though, taking stock of the recent discovery of Richard’s skeleton in Leicester, he plays him with a curved spine and a withered left arm. His company of actors, all Brits, is superb. You could skip Richard III, but don’t miss Twelfe Night.

Another don’t-miss Shakespeare on the boards is Julie Taymor’s astounding production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Theatre of a New Audience’s handsome new Polonksy Shakespeare Center, half a block from BAM in Brooklyn, loaded with totally original staging and hauntingly beautiful scenic effects. Few of the actors can I recall ever seeing before. All are superb.

Also brilliant is Fun Home at the Public Theater, which has been extended four times. The book and lyrics are by Lisa Kron, the music by Jeanine Tesori. It’s been beautifully adapted from a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel about growing up gay in a family where the Dad turns out to be gay as well. Tesori’s music is truly beautiful, and Kron displays a heretofore untapped lyrical gift. Michael Cerveris, as the gay Dad, here demonstrates why he’s one of our greatest actors in musicals.

You can still catch Fun Home. Don’t miss it.

Alas, you’ve missed two Rattlestick productions — Charles Fuller’s One Night at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and Halley’s Feiffer’s How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them, at Rattlestick’s theatre in Waverly Place. One Night was about a traumatized female Iraq war veteran, raped and the hung out to dry by the chain of command, and a good Samaritan determined to save her. Why, we found out at the end. Feiffer’s play followed three girls from 10-20s and was a brilliantly theatrical dissection of Mean Girl Syndrome. Both productions lived up to Rattlestick’s usual high standards and confirms this theatre’s status as one of the New York Theatre’s best showcases for new plays.

You’ve also missed Marlane Mayer’s The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters at Playwrights Horizons, about the doomed love of a geeky young woman for a Bad Boy, among other things. The play was wonderfully theatrical, but I thought director Lisa Peterson got carried away with this theatricality, making a lot of it Just Plain Silly. Still, I was glad I saw it.

WAITING FOR GODOT and NO MAN’S LAND. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
TWELFE NIGHT and RICHARD III. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Pl.,
Brooklyn
TICKETS: 866-811-4111
FUN HOME. Public Theater, 435 Lafayette St.
TICKETS: 212-967-7555
ONE NIGHT. Chery Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St. Alas, closed.
TICKETS: 212-989-2020
HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND THEN KILL THEM. Rattlestick Playwrights
Theatre, 224 Waverly Pl. Alas, closed.
THE PATRON SAINT OF SEA MONSTERS. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St.
Alas, closed

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.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” 12 November, 2013

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 SNOW GEESE, AFTER MIDNIGHT, BIG FISH, EAGER TO LOSE, BETRAYAL, GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN, THE MODEL APARTMENT, A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN, EAGER TO LOSE, JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK, THE WINSLOW BOY and A TIME TO KILL.

Some of the reviews of Sharr White’s The Snow Geese, currently on view at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, were more than somewhat dismissive, including that of the usually reliable Elizabeth Vincentelli in the Post. My theory on why this was is later in this column; but suffice it to say that I thought this was a beautiful production of a very compelling play. It takes place during World War I, in a hunting lodge in upstate New York owned by a wealthy family which finds, to its surprise and dismay, that recently deceased Dear Old Dad squandered the family fortune and they are now penniless.

Mary Louise Parker plays the matriarch, who’s totally in denial about the state of her family’s finances. She’s always wonderful to watch, but even though she is playing a role that’s about her age she still looks like she’s about 25, so it’s hard to believe her as the mother of two grown sons. In a superb cast, two actors stand out particularly – Brian Cross as the younger son who’s the only one he sees things clearly, and Jessica Love as a Polish maid, a refugee from war-torn Europe whose family was once wealthy too. She embodies the old maxim that there are no small parts, only small actors. Mark my words, she will one day be a Big Name. The great Daniel Sullivan has directed the play as terrifically as you would expect.

Did you ever wonder why you see so few plays not sent in the present? I think one of the reasons for this is that many critics have a prejudice against these kinds of plays, as evidenced by Big Ben’s comments in the Times; and, let’s be frank, critics not only decide what lives or dies but what, in fact, gets produced. Don’t pay any attention to Big Ben. This is a beautiful evening in the theatre.

After Midnight, at the Brooks Atkinson, is a terrific review celebrating the glorious music of the Harlem Renaissance. We are at the famed Cotton Club, there to hear one wonderful song after another, performed by the likes of Fantasia Milano and Adriane Lenox (who knew this fine dramatic actress could sing like that?), and to enjoy period choreography by Warren Carlyle which will knock your socks off. Apparently, it’s OK for musicals to take us back to the past, so all the reviews have been raves. Pay attention to them; ignore the reviews for The Snow Geese. This is one heckuva good time.

The reviews for Big Fish, at the Neil Simon Theatre were also rather dismissive and have taken their toll: Big Fish has announced that it will close on December 29. This appears to be a classic case of Nothing Could Equal The Film. I never saw the film, so I went into this with fresh eyes and had a mighty fine good time at this whimsical fable about a tall tale-spinning Dad and his son who goes on a quest to find out just what, if anything, his father has told him is true. The great Norbert Leo Butz plays the dad with all the aplomb this wonderful actor can muster, and Bobby Steggert is, as always, great as his son. For me, though, the Main Event was Susan Stroman. Her direction and choreography are truly wonderful. And, I was astounded by the projections created by Benjamin Pearcy, the most amazing I have ever seen on any stage.

Go. I promise you won’t regret it. And, you can certainly get a half-price ticket!

Eager to Lose, which has just closed at Ars Nova after a much-deserved extension, was a whacky burlesque show with a book written in rhymed iambic pentameter – Moliere does burlesque! We were at the Tim Tam Room, hosted by an actual burlesque star named Tansy. She and two other women did hilarious but absolutely authentic strip teases. The book concerned who loves who. The strips and the costumes were wonderful. I hope this show will resurface somewhere else, like Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, which started in this space, went on to Off Broadway success and is now going to move to Broadway. If it turns up again, I’m going!

Betrayal, at the Ethel Barrymore, is a fine production of Harold Pinter’s last great play, about an adulterous love affair, which famously tells the story backwards chronologically. It’s been superbly directed by the great Mike Nichols and features Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and an actor I never heard of before named Rafe Spall, who more than holds his own against these two great stars.

I can tell you this Betrayal is well worth seeing and you should go; but, alas, its limited run is completely sold out. Imagine my surprise.

The Public Theater has moved the Foundry Theatre’s production of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan, acclaimed last season at La MaMa, to its Martinson Hall. The production stars Taylor Mac in the twin roles of Shen Te and Shui Ta, a good hearted prostitute and her arch-capitalist cousin, and this wonderfully weird actor doesn’t disappoint. Director Lear DeBessonet perfectly translated Brecht’s style to our times.
This is one of the best productions of a Brecht play I have ever seen, and is not to be missed.

Donald Margulies’ The Model Apartment, at Primary Stages, is a dark comedy about an elderly couple. We think they’ve merely retired to Florida, but in fact they have gone there to escape their monstrous daughter. There’s a lot of hoo-hah about the Holocaust, which seemed to me rather forced; but the performances are all good – particularly, that of Diane Davis as the seriously demented daughter who tracks her parents down in order to continue to torment them. The Model Apartment is not exactly a Fun Evening In The Theatre, but if you’re up for Strong Stuff, it’s well worth seeing.

A Night with Janis Joplin, at the Lyceum, is a simulated Janis Joplin concert, featuring a sensational performance by Mary Bridget Davies as Janis, and strong performances by a quartet of singers who embody Joplin’s musical influences (Etta James, Aretha Franklin, etc.). Davies may just win the Tony for this – she’ll certainly get a nomination. Don’t miss her.

Irish Rep has up and running a fine production of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, featuring J. Smith Cameron as Juno, a mother struggling to keep going during the Irish Troubles. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is the finest performance of her distinguished career, as one critic dine, but she’s mighty fine. Also excellent are Ciarán O’Reilly as Captain Boyle (the Paycock of the title) and John Keating as his ne’er-do-well drinking buddy, Joxer Daly.

I would say this is well worth seeing.

As for Terrence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, at the American Airlines Theatre, this is a rather creaky drama about a father determined to clear his son’s name. The actors are all solid, but all too much of the drama occurs offstage, at the son’s trial in the House of Commons. The play just collapses.

Rupert Holmes’ adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, at the Golden Theatre, is much more interesting; but basically it’s a staged version of the movie; well done, but why bother? Sebastian Arcelus plays the Matthew McGonaghey role, and he looks amazingly like him. This too has announced its closing. I’m not surprised.

THE SNOW GEESE. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
AFTER MIDNIGHT. Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
BIG FISH. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000
EAGER TO LOSE. Ars Nova, 511 W. 54th St. Alas, closed
BETRAYAL. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN. Public Theatre, 435 Lafayette St.
TICKETS: 212-967-7555
THE MODEL APARTMENT. Primary Stages, 59 E. 59th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200
A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN. Lyceum Theatre. 149 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St.
TICKETS: 212-727-2737
THE WINSLOW BOY. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300
A TIME TO KILL. Golden Theatre, 251 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.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” 10 October 2013

“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 ROMEO AND JULIET, THE GLASS MENAGERIE, PHILIP GOES FORTH, NATURAL AFFECTION, THE OLD FRIENDS, THE FILM SOCIETY, BAD JEWS, AND MILES TO GO, BRONX BOMBERS, MR. BURNS, and LADY DAY.

The new production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre,
directed by David Leveaux, is a modern dress version and Romeo, played by film star Orlando Bloom, makes his entrance decked up in black, riding on a motorcycle. For the most part, Leveaux’ concept works well; but the Big Question is, how’s Orlando Bloom? Surprisingly good, considering that he doesn’t have much stage experience. And his co-star, Condola Rashad, while vocally not quite there, still makes a fine Juliet. Brent Carver is excellent as Friar Lawrence, making far more of an impression than any previous actor I have seen in this role, and Chuck Cooper is a wonderfully bombastic Capulet. The strongest performance, though, comes from Christian Camarco as Mercutio, all piss and vinegar and heartbreaking when he dies. My only quibble with this production was the double death scene at the end, which ought to pack far more of a punch than it does.

Still, this is a fine production and well worth seeing.

As for The Glass Menagerie, at the Booth Theatre, this landmark revival, brilliantly directed by John Tiffany and sure to be talked about for years to come, features Cherry Jones as Amanda in one of her greatest performances, able matched by Celia Keenan-Bolger as the doomed waif Laura, Zachary Quinto as Tom and Brian J. Smith as Jim, the Gentleman Caller. The famous scene between Laura and Jim has never been done better, at least in my experience.

This production is One for the Ages. Don’t miss it.

Mint Theatre has up and running a fine production of a forgotten play by George Kelly, Philip Goes Forth, about a young man who fancies himself a talented playwright. Philip goes to New York to make it in show business, but is forced to face the fact that he doesn’t really have the drive or the ability to achieve his dream. Jerry Ruiz’ production is solid, as are all the actors, the best being Rachel Moulton in the small role of a dotty poet who lives in the apartment where Philip winds up in New York, and Jennifer Harmon as their sardonic landlady, once a great Broadway actress now reduced to this.

While the Mint doesn’t make a case, as it often does, that the play is a Lost Classic Undeservedly Forgotten, Philip Goes Forth holds the stage nicely and it’s exceedingly well-acted.

The Actors Company Theatre (T.A.C.T.) also has a forgotten play on the boards, albeit from a later era than Kelly’s, William Inge’s last Broadway play Natural Affection, wherein Inge tried to out-Albee and out-Williams with a dark portrait of a couple. She’s the breadwinner, he’s a macho car salesman. When her teenaged son comes to stay with him, fresh out of a juvenile detention facility, the sparks fly. Newcomer Chris Bert, kind of a cross between Shia LaBeouf and Paul Dana, is riveting as the disturbed kid, and John Pankow practically steals the show as a drunken next door neighbor who probably has a homo-erotic fixation on the car salesman.

It’s easy to see, though, why this play failed in 1963, around the time of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and at the height of Tennessee Williams’ fame. Inge was trying to be as shocking as them, but he was no Albee, and certainly no Tennessee Williams. His gruesome ending is ridiculously contrived. Yuck.

The late Horton Foote’s The Old Friends, at the Signature Center, has for some reason never had a full production. Like all Foote’s plays, it is set in Harrison, Texas. The central characters are Sybil Borden, who comes home after years of living in South America with her failure of a husband and is now penniless, her husband dead, and Howard Ratliff, an estate manager for the richest woman in town, who has finally found himself in his 50s and wants to marry Sybil, the girl who got away. Hallie Foote and Smith are very strong is these roles, as is Betty Buckley as the alcoholic rich bitch.

This superb production, directed by Michael Wilson, is a must-see.

Jon Robin Baitz’ first play, The Film Society, is being given a sterling revival by the Keen Company at the Clurman Theatre. If you don’t know this fine play, it’s about a teacher at a prep school in South Africa during the apartheid era, who just wants to stay out of all the school’s politics and run his film study group. Jonathan Silverstein has assembled a superb cast, led by Euan Morton as the teacher and featuring wonderful performances from the likes of Gerry Bamman as the headmaster and Richmond Hoxie as a dying teacher.

This, too, is a don’t-miss.

As is Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, which features a wonderfully demented performance by Tracee Chimo as a young Jewish woman who fancies herself the only one in the family who is serious about her Jewishness and who is determined to have a her recently-deceased grandfather’s religious necklace. Over my dead body, says her cousin Liam, and what ensues is a titanic war of wills.

Bad Jews has transferred upstairs, after running last season in the Roundabout Underground. It’s a huge hit, and most deservedly so.

Chad Beckim’s And Miles to Go, a Partial Comfort production at the Wild Project, is about a veteran teacher at a failing high school much at odds with the school’s administration, who must contend with hopelessly unruly students and, ultimately, a gunman who comes into the school and starts firing. The play has a lot to say about the utter hopelessness of urban public education in this country, and Randy Danson is terrific as the teacher. Beckim hasn’t quite come up with the perfect ending, but still this is a gripping drama and a don’t-miss.

Primary Stages is running two productions simultaneously, Donald Margulies’ The Model Apartment at 59 E 59 (read about this in my next column) and Eric Simonson’s Bronx Bombers, at the Duke Theatre, the subject of which is the New York Yankees. In the first act, Yankee coach Yogi Berra tries to mediate a dispute between manager Billy Martin and star player Reggie Jackson, who he pulled from a game during an inning because of Reggie’s lack of hustle in right field. Martin fears that Steinbrenner will fire him. Reggie doesn’t care about anything but “the immensity that is Reggie Jackson.” A suitable subtitle for the play could be “Yogi Agonistes.” The first act is terrific, full of tense conflict, but then Simonson goes off in an unfortunate direction in the second act, which is a dream Yogi has wherein all the Yankee greats come to dinner — Dimaggio, Ruth, Gehrig, Jeter, etc. – all in their uniforms. Not much drama here – mostly anecdotes in lieu of dramatic action.

The actors are excellent – particularly Francois Baptiste as Reggie in the first act and Elston Howard in the second –and Simonson’s direction is adequate, but the play just runs gradually out of steam. If you’re a hardcore Yankees fan, you might enjoy this. Anyone else would, I think, lose interest quickly.

Playwrights Horizons has a hit with Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, subtitled a
Post-Electric Play – a hit these days being good reviews enabling a 2-week extension of the typical Off Broadway limited run. A group of people are sitting around a campfire trying to reconstruct one of their favorite “Simpsons” episodes. A stranger comes stumbling out of the woods, and everyone pulls out their guns. These are dire times. There has been a biological catastrophe, killing most of the population, but there are some people left who for some reason are immune – just like in Stephen King’s “The Stand.” The interloper is not a threat and (what luck!) he remembers the missing part of the episode in question. As the play moves further into the future, there are travelling troupes of “Simpsons” re-enactors, and in the final act we get to see an entire performance, done like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. This sounds daffy, I know, but who knows what will become of civilization after the Apocalpyse?

Lady Day, at the Little Shubert Theatre, is a contrived bio-musical about jazz singer Billie Holiday. It’s basically just a vehicle for Dee Dee Bridgewater to strut her stuff. Fans of Holiday’s music will enjoy this during the times when Bridgewater stops with the history lesson and just sings. For most of the audience, though, Lady Day lays a big fat egg.

ROMEO AND JULIET. Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000
THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
PHILIP GOES FORTH. Mint Theatre, 311 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: www.minttheatre.org or 866-811-4111
NATURAL AFFECTION. Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
THE OLD FRIENDS. Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: 212-244-7529
THE FILM SOCIETY. Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
BAD JEWS. Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: 212-719-1300
AND MILES TO GO. Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St.
TICKETS: www.partialcomfort.org or 866-811-4111
BRONX BOMBERS. Duke Theatre, 229 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.dukeon42.org or 646-223-3010
MR. BURNS. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200
LADY DAY. Little Shubert Theatre, 422 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.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” 12 September 2013

“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 FETCH CLAY MAKE MAN, YOU NEVER CAN TELL, WHY WE LEFT BROOKLYN, A USER’S GUIDE TO HELL FEATURING BERNARD MADOFF, THE LIFE AND SORT OF DEATH OF ERIC ARGYLE. Also, THE HILL TOWN PLAYS.

Turns out, when he was training for the second Liston fight, Muhammad Ali invited a former star movie actor from the 1930’s named Lincoln Perry to his training camp. You’ve never heard of Perry, but you might know him as his screen nom de plume, Stepin Fetchit. Turns out, “Fetchit” was nothing like the slow-witted, lazy man he played on screen, but was a highly intelligent and crafty man who was the first black actor to receive a studio contract with screen credit in Hollywood, negotiating his own contracts. Now, in the civil rights era, he is a has-been and an embarrassment to his race. Why would Ali, who has recently joined the Nation of Islam, aka the Black Muslims, want him in his camp? Well, Fetchit was good friends with the great heavyweight champ Jack Johnson, and Ali wants to punp Stepin Fetchit for information about Johnson, particularly about a supposed secret punch Johnson used to knock out his opponents. Fetchit hopes to parlay this new relationship with the famous athlete to get back into movies. This is the premise of Will Power’s, well, powerful new drama, Fetch Clay, Make Man, currently burning up the stage at New York Theatre Workshop in an extraordinary production by Des McAnuff.

Ray Fisher and K. Todd Freeman, as Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit, are astonishing – and there is strong work as well from Nikki M. James as Ali’s wife Sonji and John Earl Jelks as Brother Rashid, delegated by Elijah Muhammad of the Nation to keep an eye on his latest high-profile convert.

I think Fetch Clay, Make Man could turn out to be this season’s Big One, but it’s all up to the NY Times’ The Ish, who was there the performance I attended, and whose review should be out tomorrow. I’m sitting here with bated breath, keeping my fingers crossed and knocking on wood.

The Pearl Theatre Company is back with a delightful production of George Bernard Shaw’s comic confection, You Never Can Tell about an impoverished dentist named Valentine who falls in love with a well brought up, wealthy example of the “New Woman,” and she with him, much to her surprise and dismay. David Staller’s production is solid, though not more; but there are some wonderful performances, most notably from Sean McNall as Valentine, Amelia Pedlow as his lady love and from Zachary Spicer as a solicitor who comes in at the end to sort it all out and practically steals the show. The best performance, though, comes from Dan Daily (as it always does at the Pearl) as the very proper waiter William (whose name is actually Walter). Daily of the New York theatre’s finest classical actors, sort of a home-grown Ralph Richardson, and he really shines in this small but telling supporting role.

You Never Can Tell is not top-drawer Shaw, but minor Shaw is still head and shoulders above anybody else of his era. And this is, overall, a fine production, well worth seeing.

Matthew Freeman’s Why We Left Brooklyn, at the East 4th Street Theatre, is set at a going-away dinner party hosted at their Park Slope apartment by a couple who are – gasp! – ditching New York for Columbus, Ohio. He’s been a struggling actor for several years, and has finally given up and taken a teaching job at a high school. She’s staying behind for a while but will join him in Ohio eventually. Their friends are, to varying degrees, appalled.

This is an interesting subject, but the unfortunates are that Freeman throw in way too much, making his play way too long for something which is essentially a practically plotless dinner party conversation; and Kyle Ancowitz’ staging is very weak, as much of the dialogue is spoken “intimately” by the actors, making all too much of it unintelligible.

You could skip this one and not miss much.

You could also skip Lee Blessing’s A User’s Guide to Hell Featuring Bernard Madoff at Atlantic Stage II (though not an Atlantic Theatre Co. production), a tedious allegory which imagines Bernard Madoff in hell which, it turns out, is Manhattan. Michole Biancosino’s production is mostly just broad an silly.

Blessing is usually a fine writer, but he really misfired with this one.

Ross Dungan’s The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle, at 59 E 59, is sort of a “what hath Elevator Repair Service Wrought sort of play, wherein the actors take turns narrating the story of a lonely man who has just died, leaving behind a voluminous roman a clef based on his life, written to the woman he should have married but didn’t. I am ordinarily not a fan of this kind of theatre, but Dan Herd’s production is wonderfully inventive, and his actors superb.

This is a poignant, most unusual evening of theatre, well worth seeing.

Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre has accomplished the extraordinary feat of opening and running five plays (The Hill Town Plays) by one of their house playwrights, Lucy Thurber, simultaneously, in five different theatres. Once I have seen all five, I will tell you about them all but for now, suffice it to say that all of the ones I have seen so far are being given terrific productions, with many of the performance truly unforgettable. My fave so far is Where We’re Born, at Rattlestick’s theatre in Waverly Place. It’s the best production, and the best play – but all are well-worth seeing.

FETCH CLAY MAKE MAN. NY Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.
TICKETS: 212-460-5475
YOU NEVER CAN TELL. Pearl Theatre Co., 555 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: 212563-9261

WHY WE LEFT BROOKLYN. East 4th St. Theatre, 83 E. 4th St.
TICKETS: www.smarttix.com or 212-868-4444
A USER’S GUIDE TO HELL FEATURING BERNARD MADOFF. Atlantic Stage
II, 330 W. 16th St.
TICKETS: www.projectytheatre.org or 212-352-3101
THE LIFE AND SORT OF DEATH OF ERIC ARGYLE. 59 E. 59
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200
THE HILL TOWN PLAYS.
• WHERE WE’RE BORN. Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, 224 Waverly Pl.
• ASHVILLE. Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.
• SCARCITY. Cherry Lane Studio, 38 Commerce St.
• STAY. New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher St.
• KILLERS & OTHER FAMILY. Axis Theatre, 1 Sheridan Sq.
TICKETS: www.ovationtix.com or 212-352-3101

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.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” 27 August 2013

 

“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 SOUL DOCTOR, LET IT BE, FIRST DATE, LOVE’S LABOURS LOST, STORYVILLE, MURDER FOR TWO, STILL JEWISH AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, THE GREAT SOCIETY and HARBOR.

Used to be, the summer was pretty dead as far as theatrical activity went, particularly on Broadway; but that is starting to change. We have the fringe festivals and the NY Musical Festival livening things up, Off Broadway theatre companies such as Primary Stages are extending their seasons or starting them early (depending on how you look at it), and this summer we have had three new Broadway shows, Soul Doctor, Let it Be and First Date. Producers of these shows are betting that they‘ll stand a better chance opening now rather than playing the Tony Roulette in the spring. That remains to be seen.

Soul Doctor, at Circle in the Square, is a bio-musical about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who wrote and performed religious folk music in the 60s and 70s. I lived through that era, but I never heard of the guy. Robert S. Wise, who wrote the book and has directed the show, tells a compelling story, about a courageous artist who believed in the transformative power of music and tried to reach out to the rock and roll generation, at the risk of becoming a pariah in the orthodox Jewish world.

Wise takes considerable dramatic license with Carlebach’s life inventing, for instance, a mentorship and friendship with the jazz singer Nina Simone which, apparently, never happened. What carries the evening is Carlebach’s infectious music and the endearing performance of Eric Anderson as Our Hero. The audience the night I attended loved the show. I wonder, though, if it is going to be able to surmount the mostly snarky reviews to survive past the fall. We’ll see …

Let it Be, the Beatles simulation at the St. James Theatre, is this season‘s first casualty. It’s closing September 1, much before its previously announced closing as a “limited engagement.” It’s basically Rain with cast replacements. The performers are all terrific musicians (the guy who plays George stops the show with his astounding rendition of Eric Clapton’s guitar riff in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) and expert Beatles impersonators; but if you saw Rain, why would you go and see Let it Be?

First Date, at the Longacre Theatre, is basically a rather lightweight musical about a couple on – you guessed it – a first date. He‘s an earnest fellow on his first date since his fiancée left him at the altar 14 months ago; she’s a rather catty woman with severe trust issues. An ensemble of 2 men and 2 women play various friends of the daters. She blows him off, but then gradually starts to give him another chance and, of course, they wind up happy-ending it.

The cast is terrific, particularly Zachary Levi as the male half of the date; but First Date just seems out of place on Broadway. Alas, there is no possibility of commercial success off Broadway anymore, so the producers are betting that a low weekly nut will give their show a shot. I doubt it. If you’re asked to pay Broadway prices, you want high-rent not low-rent.

Love’s Labours Lost has, alas, closed at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. This was a musical goof on Shakespeare’s comedy about 4 men who take a vow to abjure the world (including women) and spend three years in study. Of course, 4 hot women arrive on the scene, and the vow goes out the window. Alex Timbers adapted Shakespeare’s play and directed the show, and provided us with a lot of fun; and Michael Friedman‘s songs were hilarious pastiches of various pop rock styles (my fave was “I’m the One Who Wants To Be With You, a send up of boy band music). Loves Labours Lost deserves to resurface, but it probably won’t. Alas …

Storyville, the large cast musical York Theatre Co. has done in quite a while, has also closed. This was a show written by Ed Bullins (book) and Mildred Kayden (music and lyrics) at least 30 years ago, which only now has received its NYC premiere. The story of Storyville had to do with the old red light district in New Orleans and focuses on a young wannabe jazz musician and a lady of the night he falls for. It’s a rather conventional tale, and it’s easy to see why it never made it to Broadway, but Bullins’ book was well-constructed and several of Kayden’s tunes were quite catchy.

Murder for Two, at Second Stage Uptown (also closed), was a goofy two-actor musical with a book by Joe Kinosian and songs by Kellen Blair, wherein a young police officer arrives on the scene of the murder or a famous novelist. While he awaits the arrival of the detective in charge he takes matters into his own hands and begins interviewing suspects, all of whom are present, all of whom have good reason to kill the guy and all of whom are played by an energetic ham named Jeff Blumencranz. Both actors take turns at the onstage piano. Murder for Two, though ingenious and quite a vehicle for Blumencranz and Brett Ryback, who played the wannabe detective, but I felt it went on too long and wound up being Just Plain Silly.

Avi Hoffman’s Still Jewish After All These Years, at Stage 72 (formerly the Triad), is an energetic retrospective of Hoffman’s career wherein he recounts numerous breaks and bad breaks he had as he tried to surmount his rep in the business of show as only suitable for Jewish parts before moving to southern Florida. He sings songs from shows he was in, accompanied by an onstage pianist, and even throws in a Menasha Skulnik routine. Hoffman is charming and funny, and quite a good singer. He makes a convincing case that he should have become, if not a star then certainly a constant presence on New York stages.

Before the performance of The Great Society I attended, producer Albert Podell, a retired lawyer and sometime Broadway investor, announced from the stage of the Clurman Theatre that he had found this play by attending a reading of it, it is the best political play since A Man for All Seasons, and he was producing it as a showcase in order to iron out any kinks before taking it to Broadway. Alexander Harrington, who wrote the play, covers the length and breadth of the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, in a little less than three hours, with 13 actors. The actors are excellent – particularly, Mitch Tebo who plays LBJ. Given the realities of production on Broadway, The Great Society stands no chance, even if Podell were able to come up with the money. 13 actors, no stars, almost 3 hours long; A Man for all Seasons wouldn’t stand a chance on today’s Broadway, either – even with a star of the stature of Paul Scofield. While I admire Podell’s championing of what is actually a really good play, gone are the days when a play like this could succeed on Broadway.

Finally, you can still catch Chad Beguelin’s excellent Harbor at 59 E 59, produced by Primary Stages, about a destitute mother of a teenaged daughter who arrives on the doorstep of the home her brother shares with his partner in Sag Harbor. She’s pregnant again, and she hopes her brother and his lover will take her baby. The actors are fabulous, under Mark Lamos’ touching direction. Erin Cummins, as the white trash mom and Alexis Molnar as her daughter will break your heart.

Don’t miss this one.

SOUL DOCTOR. Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
LET IT BE. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
FIRST DATE. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
LOVE LABOURS LOST. Delacorte Theatre. Alas, closed.
STORYVILLE, York Theatre Co. Alas, closed.
MURDER FOR TWO. McGinn/Cazale Theatre. Alas, closed.
STILL JEWISH AFTTER ALL THESE YEARS. Stage 72, 158 W. 72nd St.
TICKETS: 800-838-3006
THE GREAT SOCIETY. Clurman Theatre. Alas, closed.
HARBOR. Primary Stages, 59 E. 59th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.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” 25 May 2013

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 HERE LIES LOVE; MURDER BALLAD; NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812,
BUNTY BERMAN PRESENTS, THESE HALCYON DAYS and THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE.

Here Lies Love, Murder Ballad and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, all of which opened Off Broadway this month, have something else in common: they are all “audience immersive” musicals; that is, there is little separation between the performers and the audience. You’re right there in the midst of them, as songs and dancing swirl all around you.

Here Lies Love, at the Public Theater, is about the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, wife of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Director Alex Timbers has ripped out the seats in the Public’s LuEsther Mertz Theatre, which leaves a large room in which patrons stand, amongst platforms which are moved about by stagehands. It’s a brilliant concept, but only if you don’t mind standing for the 80 minutes the show runs. It also helps if you like to boogie. The score, by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, is one terrific song after another, performed by an energetic cast led by Ruthie Ann Miles as Imelda. This has become quite a hot ticket, but the Public has just extended it another month, so you may be able to get in.

The interior of the Union Square Theatre has also been ripped out to accommodate Murder Ballad, which has transferred there from Manhattan Theatre Club. A faux bar/restaurant has been created, with tables in what used to be the orchestra and seating on what used to be the stage. The story, a love/lust triangle, involves a rather callous young woman who marries a classic Nice Guy but who pines for the Bad Boy boyfriend she left behind. Like Here Lies Love, the show is through-sung, with a score by Juliana Nash and lyrics by Julia Jordan which is wonderful. All the performers are phenomenal, and director Trip Cullman once again has demonstrated why he is one of the finest directors of his generation.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is being performed in a venue in the meat packing district, where a large tent has been erected, containing a quasi-Russian nightclub, dubbed Kazino. The audience is seated at tables, and a modest Russian meal is served before and during the performance. Also though-sung, it’s based on a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace which, like Murder Ballad, has a love triangle, this one involving a young woman who’s supposed to marry an impoverished prince; but since he’s away fighting the French she takes up with a Bad Boy, an officer, instead. Composer/lyricist Dave Malloy has essentially musicalized a play, which means yes, it’s all sung, but mostly they are singing the dialogue, which I found wearisome. The singing is OK, but not close to that in Here Lies Love or Murder Ballad, and some of the acting is too broad.

As you can see, I have written about these three shows in order of preference.

Bunty Berman Presents is yet another new musical, produced by the New Group at the Acorn Theatre. It’s about a cheesy Bollywood director/producer whose production company is on the ropes. Bunty, an Indian version of Max Bialystock has made one flop after another. His only hope is a pact with the devil, in the form of a gangster who’s willing to fund Bunty’s studio, but only if he makes his son a star. So, we’ve got elements of The Producers here, as well as Bullets Over Broadway. The problem is, Ayub Khan Din’s book is broad and rather silly, and the songs he’s written with Paul Bogaev seem like generic Broadway show tunes of a bygone era. This could all be said of The Producers, I know, but that show had two great stars and Susan Stroman to direct them. Scott Elliott is a fine director of dramas, but he’s no Susan Stroman. Bunty Berman Presents isn’t terrible, but it just isn’t good enough; and, it caps off a very weak season for the New Group, lowlighted by my personal favorite for Bomb of the Year, Clive.

These Halcyon Days, at the Irish Arts Center, is a poignant two-hander by Deirdre Kinahan set in on the porch of an old folks’ home, sort of The Gin Game without the gin. Sean, a retired actor, sits around in a wheelchair in what seems to be terminal depression, until Patricia barges in. She’s a retired schoolteacher with a liver condition which requires constant care. She misses the life she once had. Sean doesn’t much miss acting, but he does miss his “partner” of many years, who has pretty much dumped him in the home and gone off to start a new relationship. Anita Reeves and Stephen Brennan and superb, under David Horan’s sensitive and non-obtrusive direction. These Halcyon Days is funny and touching, even if you’re not of the demographic of the characters. After all – you will be one day, won’t you?

Finally, CSC has ended its season with an uneven production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, in a translation by James and Tania Stern with which I was unfamiliar. I only knew the Eric Bentley version, which seems to me superior to this one, and which includes Brecht’s lyrics (there are songs interspersed throughout). Here, lyrics by W.H. Auden have been substituted, set to music by Duncan Sheik, which is unremarkable but at least it’s not Kurt Weill.

The story, in case you don’t know the play, is about a peasant woman named Grusha who saves the infant son of an aristocrat murdered during a revolution. The bad guys want to kill the baby, too, so Grusha treks across the mountains and starts up a new life. For a while, she pretty much drops out of the play as Brecht takes up the story of Azdak, the tow n drunk and reprobate who finds himself appointed judge. The stories converge when the child’s mother, a callow aristocrat who only wants her child back because he has inherited his father’s money, shows up demanding justice, which Azdak dispenses with the circle of chalk.

Brian Kulick has staged the play as if it were being presented by a ragtag group of Russian actors, who enter babbling in Russian but then switch to English. They are all terrific, most playing several roles each. My fave was Elizabeth A. Davis as Grusha. My least fave was Christopher Lloyd, who is way too over the top (and, I think, way too old) as Azdak.

HERE LIES LOVE. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
TICKETS: 212-967-7555
MURDER BALLAD. Union Square Theatre, 100 E. 17th St.
TICKETS: 800-982-2787
NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812. Kazino, 13th St. @
Washington St.
TICKETS: www.kazinonyc.com
BUNTY BERMAN PRESENTS. Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: 212-244-3380
THESE HALCYON DAYS. Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St.
TICKETS: 866-811-4111
THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE. Classic Stage Co., 136 E. 13th St.
TICKETS: 212-677-4210

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.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” 6 May 2014

Lawrence Harbison, our The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on PIPPIN. THE BIG KNIFE, I’LL EAT YOU LAST, THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, ORPHANS, SCRAMBLED EGGS and MOOSE MURDERED.

Roger O. Hirson’s book for Pippin (back on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre) always gets short shrift, as do most musical books, so I have decided to start my comments with it. Pippin is supposed to be about the son of Charlemagne; but, really, it’s a contemporary tale of a confused 20-something trying to find something to believe in, and to make his way in the world. When the show first came out, in 1972 (71?), its context was very much the Vietnam War. This time around, I saw in Pippin’s story a parable about young people cast adrift from a world which does not value them, who somehow must navigate the tricky path to adulthood, all too often a slippery slope.

Diane Paulus has reconceived the show as a circus, complete with phenomenal acrobatics. Amazingly, many of the acrobats she has hired are also terrific dancers, and they execute Chet Walker’s Fosse-inspired choreography with wonderful aplomb. Pippin is no longer a goofy hippie – he’s an archetypal contemporary 20-something – and Matthew James Thomas is terrific in the role. Andrea Martin (Berthe) and Charlotte D’Amboise (Fastrada) both stop the show, Martin with her feisty rendition of “No Time at All,” which she finishes hanging upside down on a trapeze, and D’Amboise with “Spread a Little Sunshine,” wherein she demonstrates that she’s still got it as one of the best dancers on Broadway.

Don’t miss Pippin. You’ll have a great time. Expect multiple Tony Awards.

As for The Big Knife, at the American Airlines Theatre, director Doug Hughes does the best he can with Odets’ creaky drama, a poison pen letter to Hollywood, but in the end the play just collapses under the weight of contrivance. Bobby Cannavale seems at sea in the pivotal role of a movie star who tries to take on the insidious studio system and loses. Marin Ireland, as his wife, seems at sea too. Both actors have been much better elsewhere. The best performance comes from Richard Kind as a malevolent studio boss, but it’s not enough to save this turkey of a play.

Bette Midler is giving quite a star turn at the Booth Theatre in John Logan’s I’ll Eat You Last, wherein she plays the late super-agent Sue Mengers. She sits on a sofa the whole time, and manages to hold the audience in the palm of her hand as she regales us with tales of how she became one of the top Hollywood power brokers. Mengers was a ruthless, indefatigable woman, but with a wonderful catty wit which is on full display here.

Midler’s snub from the Tony nominating committee is inexplicable. Puh-lease … Bette wuz robbed.

A different kind of star turn is on display at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, in the revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. Cicely Tyson has come out of retirement to play Carrie Watts, the old lady who just wants to go home to the town of her youth. Tyson is heartbreaking as Carrie. Even if Midler had gotten a Tony nomination, Tyson would still be a shoo-in. Director Michael Wilson’s production is haunting, and there is wonderful work here from Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Carrie’s son Ludie, from Vanessa Williams as his catty wife Jessie Mae, and from Condola Rashad as a young woman Carrie meets on the bus on her way home.

Bring plenty of Kleenex.

It’s just been announced that Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, at the Schoenfeld Theatre is closing in a couple of weeks, a victim of the Tony Roulette. Had it opened earlier in the season it might have had a shot at finding an audience, but there is just too much competition this time of year, even with the presence in the cast of Alec Baldwin, who is terrific as Harold, the gangster on the lam who because a strange father figure to two childlike young men. Ben Foster is terrific as Treat, the thuggish older brother, but the performance being given by Tom Sturridge as Philip, is seared in my memory. Sturridge plays Philip as if he were a feral cat, jumping all over John Lee Beatty’s dilapidated set. He’s phemonenal.

Orphans deserved better. It’s a great play, being given a great production by A-list director Daniel Sullivan. See it before it closes.

I also enjoyed Scrambled Eggs, at the Beckett Theatre, a comedy by Robin Amos Kahn and Gary Richards about a menopausal woman who tells us the story of her trials and travails. Amy Van Nostrand is wonderful as Our Heroine, and is ably supported by Anne O’Sullivan, Mary Catherine Wright, Jim Frangione, Candace Brecker and Michael Dean Morgan as a Cast of Thousands.

Scrambled Eggs will have particular resonance for 50-something women; but I’m not of their number and I found it quite amusing.

Finally, I read Arthur Bicknell’s Moose Murdered, his self-published memoir of how the most famous bomb in Broadway history happened. You know the one I mean. It’s a cautionary tale, told quite wittily, about how the best laid plans of mice, men and playwrights oft can go astray. It would have been easy for Bicknell to seek revenge for what happened to him and his play; but this is a man with great good humor and a philosophical outlook on life. He’s probably been kinder to the culprits than they deserved.

Anyway, I recommend his book. You can get in on Amazon.

PIPPIN. Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

THE BIG KNIFE. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300
I’LL EAT YOU LAST. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL. Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd ST.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
ORPHANS. Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
SCRAMBLED EGGS. Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: 800-447-7400
MOOSE MURDERED. Available at www.amazon.com

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.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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