“On the Aisle with Larry” 11 May 2018

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on MEAN GIRLS, HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD, CAROUSEL, THREE TALL WOMEN, TRAVESTIES, SAINT JOAN, MLIMA’S TALE and A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN.

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

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

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

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

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

undo the damage they have done?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a beautiful production, well-worth seeing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

See this one if you can – it’s great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

                                                                                      — George F. Will

 

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

 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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2018 Humana Festival

 

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, usually brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but in this column, Larry reports on the 2018 Humana Festival.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

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

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 4 April 2018

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on FROZEN, THE BAND’S VISIT, ROCKTOPIA, DIDO OF IDAHO and LATER LIFE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d also say, don’t miss it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROCKTOPIA. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

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

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

Tickets: ensemblestudiotheatre.org

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

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

 

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

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

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

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 31 March 2018

On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA, GOOD FOR OTTO, THE LOW ROAD, KINGS, DOGS OF RWANDA, BABETTE’S FEAST and THE SIGNATURE PROJECT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE LOW ROAD. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: www.publictheater.org

KINGS. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: www.publictheater.org

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

Tickets: www.urbanstages.org

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

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

THE SIGNATURE PROJECT. Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker St.

Tickets: www.signatureproject.com

 

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

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

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

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 3 January 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t miss this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, go for Rylance and to hear Davies.

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

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

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

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

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

SPRONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway

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

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

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

RED ROSES GREEN GOLD. Minetta Lane Theatre

JUNK. Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

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

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 3 November 2017

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on TIME AND THE CONWAYS, SQUEAMISH, TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, ILLYRIA, THE HOME PLACE, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE PORTUGESE KID, THE LAST MATCH and SHADOWLANDS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thoroughly enjoyed this play and think you will too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets: 212-719-1300

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

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

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: 212-967-7555

ILLYRIA. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: 212-967-7555

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

Tickets: 866-811-4411

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

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

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

Tickets: www.manhattantheatreclub.com

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

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

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

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

 

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

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

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

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“Gone But Not Forgotten — Theatre Companies

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN — Theatre Companies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 29 May 2017

 

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on GROUNDHOG DAY, ANASTASIA, INDECENT, A DOLL’S HOUSE PART 2, THE WHIRLIGIG, THE LUCKY ONE and THE LITTLE FOXES and comments on the Kilroys list.

I was not able to catch Groundhog Day at the August Wilson Theatre during its press dates because its star, Andy Karl, was out due to an onstage injury (he tore his ACL), so the press agent slid me into Bandstand instead. I am pleased to report that Karl is back in the show, wearing a knee brace, and has just won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Actor in a Musical. It is richly deserved.

Groundhog Day comes to us from London (where Karl won the Olivier Award). It’s based on the wonderful film about a sardonic weatherman named Phil who is assigned, much to his dismay, to cover the annual ceremony in Punxsutawney Pennsylvania wherein a large rodent forecasts how much more winter we’ll have. If he sees his shadow when he emerges from his burrow and scurries back inside, there will be 6 more weeks of winter. Phil (who shares the same name with the groundhog) would rather be anywhere else. Well, a severe storm sets in after the ceremony, and Phil and his crew are forced to spend another night in Punxsutawney. When Phil wakes up the next morning, it’s Groundhog Day all over again – over and over again — and he’s the only one aware of it. Phil’s progression from jerk to decent human being forms the story’s dramatic arc, as he comes actually to like the denizens of the town even as he tries to figure out how to escape his seemingly never-ending predicament, and as he goes from trying to seduce his producer to falling in love with her.

Karl is terrific in the show, as is Barrett Doss as Rita, the producer, as are all the supporting cast, under Matthew Warchus’ inspired direction, and the inventive sets by Rob Howell are great fun, as is Danny Rubin’s wonderful book. Tim Minchin’s songs are absolutely delightful, with one terrific number after another.

Groundhog Day is definitely a must-see. In a season of mighty fine Broadway musicals, it’s one of the best.

I also enjoyed Anastasia at the Broadhurst Theatre, a slick musical adaptation by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), directed by Darko Tresnjak, of the animated film based on the story of the woman who claimed to be the only surviving daughter of the Romanov family. Two charming rogues find a street sweeper named Anya and try to pass her off as the Czarina. She has amnesia and doesn’t remember much about her past, but after much coaching she becomes credible. The thing is, she may actually be Anastasia.

The show has a lot in common with Disney musicals. Nothing dark, nothing disturbing, a plucky heroine and lovable rogues. It’s the kind of show you’d feel comfortable taking your kids to. Christy Altomare is wonderful as Anya, as are Derek Klena and John Bolton as her two handlers, and there is a mighty fine turn by Mary Peth Peil as the Dowager Empress, who they must con/convince in order to get their hands on the Romanov fortune.

Mention must also be made of Linda Cho’s sumptuous costumes, Alexander Dodge’s beautiful sets and, most especially, Aaron Rhyne’s astonishing projections – all a feast for the eye.

Indecent, at the Cort Theatre, is a transfer from Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre. It’s a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, created by Vogel and the director Rebecca Taichman (the first time I have even seen such a credit), about a troupe of intrepid Yiddish theatre actors putting on a play by Sholem Asch entitled The God of Vengeance. It’s structured as a memory play, wherein the troupe’s stage manager tells the story as the actors perform it.

I have never seen or read The God of Vengeance, but we are given to understand that it’s a classic of the Yiddish drama, highly controversial in its day in its harsh depiction of its characters but also because it contains a lesbian sex scene, which appears to be the main focus of Vogel and Taichman.

The ensemble is excellent, and Taichman’s direction is brilliant; but the play itself didn’t grab me. If you’re a lesbian, though, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Lucus Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part Two, at the Golden Theatre, employs a brilliant conceit: what if Nora from Ibsen’s play, who notoriously left her husband and children, returned years later? Why would she do so? Turns out, she has become a successful writer, under a pseudonym – but an arch-conservative judge has found out that she is still married to Torvald, has discovered her real name and has threatened to prosecute her for signing her own contracts, which a woman wasn’t allowed to do in 19th Century Norway. So, Nora needs to persuade her husband to grant her a divorce – which he refuses to do.

Laurie Metcalf is sensational as Nora and Chris Cooper equally so as her tortured husband, Jane Houdyshell provides welcome comic relief as the housekeeper and Condola Rashad is terrific as the crafty daughter, who Nora needs in order to change Torvald’s mind. Hnath’s writing employs a lot of amusing anachronisms, which I enjoyed. While he sympathizes with Nora’s dilemma, he sympathizes even more with her abandoned husband, and Chris Cooper breaks your heart, particularly when compared Metcalf, who is rather shrill (which is exactly right for her character, I must admit). I usually aren’t wild about Sam Gold’s direction, but here it is first-rate.

Unless it wins the Tony Award, A Doll’s House Part Two will probably not run much longer, regrettably. It’s a tough sell to the Broadway audience, even with its stellar cast, so see it now. You snooze, you lose.

In Hamish Linklater’s The Whirligig, a New Group production at the Signature Center, a young woman lays dying of hepatitis C. She’s a junkie and has contracted the disease from an infected needle. Her divorced parents bring her home to die, and the non-chronological plot goes back and forth in time, as we see the dying woman as a sweet young teenager. The dramatic crux is, how did she become the dying junkie?

Linklater’s writing is breath-taking, as is Scott Elliott’s direction, and the cast is magnificent – particularly Norbert Leo Butz as the father and Zosia Mamet as the girl’s former BFF. In an era when few plays require more than four actors and have shorter and shorter running times, it was refreshing for me to see eight actors up there, in a play which runs two and a half hours but which never seems to run out of steam.

The Whirligig is a don’t-miss.

The Mint Theatre specializes in lost plays which don’t deserve to be forgotten. The Lucky One, by A.A. Milne, at the Beckett Theatre, is certainly a “lost play.” It was produced briefly on Broadway in the 1920s and then faded into obscurity. It’s about two brothers competing for the hand for the same desirable woman, Pamela is engaged to marry Gerald, much to the dismay of his brother Bob. Gerald is charming but rather callow; whereas Bob is a hapless sort. When Bob finds himself caught in skullduggery at the bank where he works and has to go to prison, he implores Pamela not to marry Gerald, to wait for him. Will she or won’t she?

Director Jesse Marchese’s cast is excellent. My only quibble has to do with Vicki R. Davis’ set. A set must do two things: it must suggest the period and social milieu in which the play takes place and it must facilitate effortless movement by the actors. Davis’ set is a space-dominating two-sided circular staircase, with steel rail supports, descending to the drawing room where the action takes place. This stair unit is just plain ugly and looks modern and industrial. It also results in many awkward entrances and exits.

The Lucky One is enjoyable, but I wouldn’t say the Mint has made a case for it as an unjustly-forgotten classic.

In the revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club at their Broadway venue, the Friedman Theatre, and superbly directed by Daniel Sullivan, Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney play both Regina and Birdie, alternating in the roles. I saw Nixon as Regina and Linney as Birdie. I wish I could have seen them vice-versa, but there were so many shows coming at us I couldn’t find another slot.

 

The play is about the scheming Hubbard clan, a once-genteel Southern family whose cotton plantation is on the ropes; so, brothers Ben and Oscar have hatched a deal with a businessman from Chicago to build a mill on their property which will obviate the need to ship their cotton north for processing. Problem is, Ben and Oscar don’t have all the financing for this project. Their brother-in-law Horace, married to their sister Regina, does, but he’s been gone for weeks, recuperating from heart trouble at a hospital. Regina, being a woman at the turn of the 19th Century, has to go along with what her brothers are planning, so she agrees to send her daughter Alexandra off to try to persuade Horace to come home. When he does, he finds that the bonds he has kept in a safety deposit box have been stolen and used to pay the rest of his brothers’ share of the deal. Regina, a fiercely-determined woman who wants to get the hell out of her stifling, loveless marriage and go up to Chicago to live in high style, must turn the tables and get ahold of the money the family stands to make on the deal. Will she, or won’t she?

Cynthia Nixon, as Regina, is as steely and manipulative as Nora is A Doll’s House Part Two and Laura Linney is heartbreaking as Birdie, married to brother Oscar, whose lot in life is worse than Nora’s was in Ibsen’s original play. Michael McKean and Darren Goldstein are wonderfully smarmy as Ben and Oscar. They’d fit right into today’s corporate America, probably winding up in President Tweet’s cabinet; and Richard Thomas is giving one of his finest-ever performances as Horace.

My friend and colleague Michael Bigelow Dixon, for many years Literary Manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville, recently published a book with Smith & Kraus entitled “Breaking from Realism,” which I consider to be a brilliant manifesto of the burgeoning Anything But Realism movement in our nation’s theatres, which has ruled the roost at European theatres for many years. I quibble with his touting of some practitioners of Anything But Realism, whom he considers geniuses but whom I think are, to varying degrees, humbugs. I also quibble with Dixon’s assertion that Realism as a viable dramatic style is boring and old-fashioned. So, he would probably dislike The Little Foxes. If you, on the other hand, actually enjoy an excellent example of old hat, old fashioned Realism when it is done exceptionally well, you won’t find better proof at the Friedman Theatre that Realism is alive and kicking.

Finally: The Kilroys is an invaluable organization created to promote production of more plays by women. Since its inception, I have had the honor to serve them as a nominator for their annual List, which publicizes worthy plays by women which are as yet unproducedd. This year, I was instructed by the administrator of the List that I was to give preferment to plays by women of color and transgender. Regarding the latter, no instruction was given as to whether this meant men transitioning to be women or women transitioning to be men, nor were there any suggestions as to how nominators were to know when they read a play if its author is transgender. Be that as it may, I replied that while I would be happy to serve the Kilroys as a Nominator, I would not favor any ethnic or racial group, because I consider this to be racist. A flurry of emails were exchanged between me and said administrator, who finally accused me of being among the cohort of “aggrieved white males” who has put our country in jeopardy by electing You-Know-Who. Oh really.

When I was at Samuel French I was responsible for the first publication of Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, Shirley Lauro, Jane Martin (when “Ms. Martin” was definitely a woman) and many, many other plays by female playwrights. The first play I recommended which the firm published was by a woman. The anthologies I have edited for Smith & Kraus and Applause contain many plays by women, many of them “of color,” such as Lynn Nottage, Elaine Romero, Danai Gurira, Nikkole Salter, Anne García Romero, Kirsten Greenidge, Bridgette Wimberly, Elaine Romero, Fernanda Coppel and others. Many of the best playwrights whom I have assisted as The Playfixer are women. I’ll betcha none of the above considers me to be an “aggrieved white male.”

Apparently, if you disagree with the Kilroys, an organization founded to promote woman playwrights but whose focus is now to promote certain women playwrights over others, you find yourself considered the Enemy, a card-carrying member of Trump Nation.

Ignorance and incivility are rampant on both sides of the political divide. If this doesn’t change, we will never be able to work together to make America great again (and I hasten to add, not in the Trumpian sense).

Finally finally: on this Memorial Day weekend I would like to share with you the link to a video which memorializes those who made the Supreme Sacrifice, underscored by John Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Omd9_FJnerY

 

GROUNDHOG DAY. August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St.

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

ANASTASIA. Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 45th St.

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

INDECENT. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.

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

A DOLL’S HOUSE PART 2. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.

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

THE WHIRLIGIG. Signature Center, 480 W. 52nd St.

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

THE LUCKY ONE. Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

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

THE LITTLE FOXES. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

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

 

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

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

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

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 30 April, 2017

Lawrence Harbison, the Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on CHURCH AND STATE, COME FROM AWAY, BANDSTAND, A BRONX TALE, WAR PAINT, PRESENT LAUGHTER, MISS SAIGON, THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS and VANITY FAIR.

It had to happen – plays which take on the abhorrent mindset now dominating our politics. New World Stages has one, with another coming there soon. Running now is Jason Odell Williams’ Church & State, with Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall opening there in late May. You can guess what the latter is about.

In Church & State, a Republican Senator from a southern state is running for re-election, abetted by a feisty campaign manager from New York and his fiercely ambitious wife, when there is a Sandy Hook-like school shooting in his state, causing him to question not only his knee-jerk rejection of any attempts at gun control but also his faith in God. To the chagrin of his wife and his campaign manager, he expresses this to a blogger at the funeral of one of the shooting victims and it goes viral. Can the political fallout be contained? Not if he doesn’t want it to be.

Williams’ play is an entertaining exercise in liberal fantasizing that it is possible for a Republican to realize and admit the error of his ways. I was willing to go with this, aided enormously by Rob Nagle’s anguished performance as the Senator, a decent man undergoing crises both of faith and of conscience; but my problem with the play has to do with the character of the campaign manager, who is identified as a Jewish Democrat from New York. I refuse to believe that any Democrat – particularly from the reddest of Red States — would work to help elect a Republican, all of whom have proven themselves time and time again to be a bunch of liars, frauds and nincompoops, simply because of her ravening ambition (She thinks her guy has a shot at the White House). Her politics and her home state should have been left unmentioned, which would have made her much more believable as a craven political operative.

That said, all the performances in Church & State are terrific, starting with the aforementioned Nagle and moving on to Nadia Bowers as his wife, who portrays what is basically a caricature with much wit and brio, and Christa Scott-Reed, as the campaign manager.

Come from Away, at the Schoenfeld Theatre, has a wonderful story that needed to be told. It’s set in Gander, Newfoundland, to whose airport planes were diverted on 11 September, 2001. An intrepid cast plays befuddled passengers who were forced to wait for days until their planes can take off, and the townspeople who took them in. What emerges is a compelling portrait of people coming together at a time of crisis.

 

Christopher Ashley direction of this ensemble is brilliant, as are the book, music & lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. My faves among the performers were Lee MacDougall, as a mild-mannered Brit and Patricia Wheatley as a Texan woman, both middle-aged passengers on an American Airlines flight from London to Dallas, who fall in love and, especially, Jenn Colella as the pilot of their flight, whose song “Me and the Sky,” about her love of flying, is a “wow.” In fact, the whole show is a wow. Don’t miss it.

Also mighty fine is Bandstand, at the Jacobs Theatre, about a piano-playing ex-World War II soldier who founds a band comprised of vets in hopes of winning a radio swing band contest. His girl singer is not a vet, but she’s a war widow. Her husband was Our Hero’s best friend. Will they win by echoing the feel-good patriotic sentiment of the national zeitgeist or will they take a chance with a song which tells the truth about the horror of war?

The band members are as adept musicians as they are actors and Laura Osnes, as the singer is, as you might expect, delightful. Corey Cott, as the band leader, oozes charisma.

Andy Blankenbuehler’s direction is wonderful and his choreography is spectacular. The original score by Richard Oberacker (both book and lyrics), makes us believe that we are hearing music of the period. And Rob Taylor’s book is terrific.

I had a very good time at Bandstand. I think you will, too.

As much as I enjoyed Bandstand, I liked A Bronx Tale, at the Longacre Theatre, even more. Adapted by Chazz Palminteri from his one man play and the film thereof, it’s a very compelling coming of age story of a young man from the Italian section of the Bronx torn between his father’s admonition that he make something of himself and the pull of a local gangster named Sonny, who takes the kid under his wing. Bobby Conte Thornton is wonderful as Cologero, oozing as much charisma as Corey Cott in Bandstand, and Nick Cordero makes more of Sunny than just your basic garden variety thug (Ironically, Cordero played Cheech in the musical version of Bullets over Broadway, for which Palminteri received an Oscar nomination). The direction, by Robert DeNiro and Jerry Zaks (more Zaks than DeNiro I suspect) is absolutely first rate, as is the cast of supporting players – especially, Ariana DeBose as a girl from the black neighborhood with whom Cologero falls in love, and Richard H. Blake and Lucia Gianetta as Cologero’s parents. The score by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) is brilliant – one great song after another.

This is the most competitive season for Broadway musicals in my memory. I hope A Bronx Tale survives the Tony Roulette, even if it doesn’t receive a nomination for Best Musical. It certainly deserves to. I hear the “word-of-mouth” for the show is very strong so maybe, just maybe …

On the other hand, I think War Paint, at the Nederlander Theatre, is a shoo-in for a nice run even when it doesn’t win the Tony (which I don’t think it will), due to the presence of two great stars in its cast, Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole, playing cosmetics divas Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, respectively. Book writer Doug Wright compares their stories perfectly in what has the feel of two separate musicals melded together. Did you know that before these two great female entrepreneurs, cosmetics were considered appropriate only for prostitutes and showgirls? I didn’t. War Paint tells the story of how Rubinstein and Arden sold women on making themselves artificially beautiful, as they became the first two women who had their name on a major corporation. Even their great success, though, did not get them what they really craved – acceptance into the crème de la crème of Society. Arden was a farm girl from Ontario and, hence “new money” – Rubinstein was Jewish. Wright’s book chronicles their rise and fall, the latter due to their refusal to embrace the new medium of television advertising, unlike cut-rate competitors such as Charles Revson (Revlon).

At the performance I attended, Patti Lupone was out but her understudy, Donna Migliaccio, was not only fabulous but was a dead ringer for Lupone. I’m sure half the audience thought they were seeing Patti. Christine Ebersole is magnificent as Elizabeth Arden, embodying the efficacy of her cosmetics in that she doesn’t appear to age a day over the roughly 30-year period in which the show takes place. Douglas Sills and John Dossett, perfectly cast, are excellent as the Men in Their Lives.

Michael Grief’s direction is excellent, and the score by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) is effective though only once in a while rises to greatness (Arden’s big solo number at the end, “Beauty in the World,” is a terrific song, sold outstandingly by Ebersole.

War Paint is a show which will appeal mostly to women and, I expect, gay men; but then, they buy most of the tickets, don’t they? Husbands will have to suffer in silence, as they usually do when dragged to the theatre by their wives.

The sterling revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter at the St. James Theatre, marking the return to Broadway of Kevin Kline, is an absolute delight. Director Moritz von Stuelpfnagel keeps this tale of narcissistic West End actor Garry Essendine perfectly paced with a strong supporting cast, and Kline is hilarious as Essendine. He is much the best of the four I have seen in the role, the others being George C. Scott, Victor Garber and Frank Langella, who was pretty good though he was stuck in a misbegotten production which came about at a time when gay men were rediscovering Coward as Gay Playwright, so the production was gay gay gay, which I think would have discomfited Sir Noël, living in a time when gay people had to keep it under wraps or face gaol.

 

Present Laughter is old-fashioned theatre at its best. If you enjoy a Blast from the Past once in a while, it’s tea time for you.

 

Another revival on the boards is Boublil and Schonberg’s (of Les Míserables fame) Miss Saigon, at the Broadway Theatre, which is every bit as good as the original and features a fantastic performance by Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer. The score is magnificent, and Laurence Connor’s direction is top-notch. Eva Noblezada is heart-breaking as Kim, the Vietnamese bar girl who falls in love with an American G.I., played compellingly by Alistair Brammer. My date, unfamiliar with the show, was blown away, and I was very moved once again by this musical tragedy. I have been a “Theatre Geezer” for several years now, as I often see revivals and I saw the original production. Lord have mercy, how did I get so old?

Miss Saigon is a don’t-miss.

As is The Play That Goes Wrong at the Lyceum Theatre, a hit import from London, about an inept amateur troupe attempting to put on a cheesy murder mystery called “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” Years ago, Michael Green wrote a best-selling book called “The Art of Coarse Acting” satirizing bad British amateur theatre, which sparked a vogue for coarsely acted plays (“The Coarse Acting Show,” and so on). The Play That Goes Wrong is firmly, and hilariously, in this grand tradition. Mark Bell’s direction is endlessly inventive as is the cast, and the collapsing set by Nigel Hook is in itself worth the price of admission.

If you’re in the mood for an evening of Nothing But Laffs, The Play That Goes Wrong is definitely for you.

I also enjoyed John Leguizamo’s new one-man show, Latin History for Morons, at the Public Theater, though not as much as I have his others, such as Spic-o-Rama and Mambo Mouth. Here, he was less funny and more earnest, as he recounts how Latinos have been excluded from the history books. It is something that needed to be said, though, and Leguizamo makes a compelling case.

Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair, something of a follow up to her Sense and Sensibility, an off Broadway hit last season, about orphan girl Becky Sharp’s attempts to rise in the world, scruples be damned, is cleverly done, with a small cast playing multiple roles, often men playing women. It is directed very simply though very inventively by Eric Tucker. My only quibble is that it seems over long at more than 2 and a half hours, which audiences just aren’t used to any more, having increasingly short attention spans (I have a friend who has what I call a “90-Minute Fanny.” Anything over 90 minutes is Too Long.)

Still, if you can spare the time, Vanity Fair is well worth seeing.

 

CHURCH AND STATE. New World Stages, 240 W. 50th St.

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

COME FROM AWAY. Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St

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

BANDSTAND. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.

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

A BRONX TALE. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St,

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

WAR PAINT. Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 42st St.

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

PRESENT LAUGHTER. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.

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

MISS SAIGON. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

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

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.

TICKETS: http://www.broadwaygoeswrong.com/tickets.php, www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Alas, closed.

VANITY FAIR. Pearl Theatre. 555 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.pearltheatre.org or 212-563-9261 

 

“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” 14 April 2017

“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, usually brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but in this column, he reports on this year’s Humana Festival.

This year marked the 50th year of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s new play festival, which has been sponsored by Humana since 1992. In the early years of the Festival, ATL did as many as 12 plays – hard to believe, but true. In recent years, they have settled on 5 full length plays, a bill of 3 10-minute plays and what has come to be called the “apprentice event,” which consists of an anthology of commissioned playlets more or less organized around a central theme.

This being Louisville, it is challenging not to think of the Festival as a sort of theatrical Kentucky Derby with Win, Place, Show and the Rest of the Field, but one must. Never again will these plays be presented together on what amounts to a vast bill. That said, there are always clear Audience Favorites and usually one that Nobody Likes. This year was no exception. In the former category were Chelsea Mercantel’s Airness and Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry It Out.

Apparently, there are Air Guitar contests all over the country and, indeed, the world, involving elaborately choreographed routines as competitors advance through sectionals to the national and then world championships. These people take playing air guitar really seriously, and Mercantel takes them seriously as well. Her characters all have air guitar nom de plumes, such as “Shreddy Eddy,” “Cannibal Queen” and “D Vicious,” the latter the reigning national champion. Into their mix strides a determined woman named Nina, there to study their moves and eventually compete with them. We find out later that she wants to wreak revenge on D Vicious, who jilted her at the altar, by dethroning him. She resists admonitions that she must have an air guitar name; but eventually, she decides to call herself “The Nina.” As we follow these determined friends/competitors, we learn their back stories. And we learn a lot more than any of us knew about air guitar. As Shreddy Eddy tells The Nina, there are six elements which she must master, the last of which is the elusive quality of “Airness.” ATL’s Associate Artistic Director, Meredith McDonough, did a brilliant job of streaming together this rather episodic play and her cast was superb. One actor played the announcer at all the air guitar events. At the curtain call, we found out that he is the actual reigning air guitar national champion as he launched into a wonderfully goofy, elaborate routine which brought down the house.

Cry It Out is about recent mothers. Jessie, in whose backyard the play takes place, is a lawyer on maternity leave. Her new friend Lina is a feisty blue collar woman forced to rely on her aunt for day care—a real problem as the aunt is a drunk. Into their small group walks Mitchell, another neighbor, who asks that they include his wife in their daily get-togethers. She has reacted to new motherhood with extreme hostility, and Mitchell hopes getting her together with other mothers will help. His wife Adrienne does show up, and she’s every bit as hostile as her husband has described her. She comes back a second time to egg Jessie’s house because she found out that Jessie suggested to her husband that maybe she is just suffering from post-partum depression. It’s not depression Adrienne has – it’s rage. Again, this had a superb cast consisting of Jessica Dickey (Jessie) Andrea Syglowski (Lina) Jeff Riehl (Mitchell) and Liv Rooth (Adrienne).

 

I would be surprised if Airness and Cry It Out didn’t turn up in New York in the next year or two.

 

I also enjoyed Tasha Gordon-Solomon’s I Now Pronounce and Basil Kreimendahl’s We’re Gonna Be OK although, strangely enough, the ending of both plays just doesn’t work. I Now Pronounce takes place, as you might imagine.at a wedding. The officiating rabbi drops dead, though, before he can say “I now pronounce you Man and Wife,” freaking out both bride and groom. The groomsmen and bridesmaid try to sort this out, even as they have their own issues. Also on hand are three little girls, who are amusing but who could have been cut without being missed. The playwright solves the problem of whether or not her bride and groom are married by having a bridesmaid (who was falling down drunk up until this point but who is now miraculously sober) just happen to be an ordained minister – so she finally says the vital words. Oh wait – before that the rabbi’s wife showed up, played by the same actor who played her husband. This is amusing but highly unlikely. Youlda thunk the old lady would have gone to the hospital to see her dead husband. Before all this silliness at the end, the actors did a lovely a cappella rendition of Pachelbel’s “Canon.” The play should have ended there.

We’re Gonna Be OK is set in the fall of 1962 and is about two neighboring families. The Dad of one is obsessed with the Nuclear Peril and persuades his neighbor to help him build a bomb shelter in the back yard. When the Cuban Missile Crisis hits they decide that This Is It – the Big One – and move their families underground, where everyone comes to a deeper understanding of themselves. This is an amusing though unlikely premise, but the playwright couldn’t figure out how to end it. We hear a roar which may just be the nuclear apocalypse – which of course never happened. Up until then, though, the play was terrific, with fine performances all around.

Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas’ Recent Alien Abductions was the one play I didn’t care for nor did any of the folks I talked to. It started out promising, with a lengthy monologue by a young Puerto Rican man about his obsession with “The X Files.” The action then shifts to the family home. The guy who delivered the monologue is now dead, a suicide in New York. The play becomes a Terrible Family Secret play about the dead kid’s abusive brother. Most festival-goers were left scratching their heads.

This year’s apprentice event was The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield, by various writers, consisting short pieces which question the “progress” that technology has provided, although there are some playlets which have nothing to do with this. The main purpose of this event is to showcase the talents of ATL’s hard working apprentices, and this year’s group acquitted themselves well.

ATL does two big weekends of Humana plays, only offering the 10-minute plays on the second one. I went to the first this year, so I missed them, dang it. What could I do? The Masters was being played on the second weekend.

I’m off to NYC next week, booked for 10 shows in 7 days. Woo-hoo!

“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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