Archive for category “On the Aisle with Larry”

“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

 

Share

“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.

 

Share

“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

 

Share

“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

Share

“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

Share

“On the Aisle with Larry” 15 October 2016

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 GREASE, HOLIDAY INN, THE ENCOUNTER, MARIE AND ROSETTA, MAESTRO, ALL THE WAYS TO SAY I LOVE YOU and COMMUNION.

Cats is back, at the Neil Simon Theatre, in essentially the same production as the original, though a little scaled-down. I was curious as to how it would hold up after all these years. The answer is, very well.

Once again, Trevor Nunn’s production is superb, with stop-the-show turns by Tyler Hanes as the Rum Tum Tugger, Andy Huntington Jones and Shonica Gooden as Mongojerrie and Rumpleteazer and, especially, Ricky Ubeda as the magical Mr. Mistoffeles. I also enjoyed Quentin Earl Darrington and Christopher Gurr as those geezers, Old Deuteronomy and Gus the theatre cat (Gurr also has a nice turn as Bustopher Jones). British pop star Leona Lewis (Grizabella) has been criticized for, essentially, Not Being Betty Buckley, which I think is unfair. She plays Grizabella as far more decrepit than Buckley, practically collapsing before pulling herself to her feet for “Touch me,” which I found stunningly moving. Though she doesn’t quite match Buckley’s clarion powerhouse of a voice, she is after all playing a character who can barely move. At the end, which she ascends to the Heavyside Layer with Old Deuteronomy, she flies up into the wings as pure spirit, which is incredibly powerful.

What interested me the most about Cats, though, was that this time around it seems more than just about a bunch of cats singing and dancing at the Jellicle Ball. Themes of joy, terror and the transience of time emerge in a subtly moving way which is, I think, aside from the spectacular production, the real reason for the show’s timeless appeal.

Holiday Inn, at Studio 54, is a musicalization of the 1947 movie about a hoofer who decides to forsake show business for a farm in Connecticut. He’s about to lose it to foreclosure, so he decides to produce shows tailored for each holiday. He also falls in love with the woman whose family owned the farm for generations, who’s now a school marm.

This is being billed as “The New Irving Berlin Musical,” which it very much seems to be. One great Berlin song after another is inserted effortlessly into the book, by Gorden Greenberg and Chad Hodge. It’s a confectionary throwback to the Berlin era of Broadway musical comedy, cleverly and wittily constructed and wonderfully directed by Greenberg and choreographed by Denis Jones, with lovely, amusing costumes by Alejo Vietti which put me in mind of the best work of William Ivey Long.

As for the performances, they are all first rate. Bryce Pinkham, as the ex-hoofer, Jim, has an offbeat charm which takes us away from any memory of Bing Crosby, who played the role in the film, and Corbin Bleu, as his former dance partner, Ted, is terrific but nothing like Fred Astaire. Also wonderful are Lora Lee Gayer as Linda, the schoolmarm who joins Jim’s show and falls in love with him, Meghan Sikora as Lila, Jim’s ex fiancé and dance partner, and Megan Lawrence as the farm’s caretaker, Louise.

Holiday Inn is scheduled to run through January 15, but I would be surprised if it isn’t extended. It’s a thoroughly delightful old-fashioned musical comedy. Those who enjoy that kind of thing couldn’t do better.

The Encounter, at the John Golden Theatre, is one of the oddest, totally unique, pieces of theatre you will see (or hear) in your theatre-going lifetime. There is a pair of headphones on every seat. Before the story begins, you are instructed how to use them by the great British director Simon McBurney, who created the show and who is its lone performer. What commences is a harrowing tale, performed by McBurney, about a National Geographic photographer who becomes hopelessly lost in the Amazon jungle in pursuit of a primitive tribe called the Mayaruna. You hear the performance through your headphones, sometimes in front of you, sometimes beside you and sometimes in back of you. You feel as if you are immersed in the story with McBurney and his many characters in a way that the usual sort of “immersive theatre” can never do, because in that, you’re always apart, watching. It’s astounding. I turned my head around several times out of reflex, to see who was speaking, the illusion was that effective.

The Encounter runs about two hours, sans interval, as McBurney cavorts around the stage; but you’re never aware of time passing, you’re so totally engrossed in what you are hearing. Don’t miss this one.

I had never heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who, it turns out, practically invented rock ‘n roll, until I saw George Brant’s Marie and Rosetta at the Atlantic Theatre Co. We are in a funeral parlor in Mississippi, where Rosetta is staying along with a neophyte she has discovered and recruited to join her act named Marie Knight, there being no hotels for “coloreds.” The premise of the play is that Rosetta and Marie are rehearsing for a performance that evening. There’s a surprise twist ending which I found a little hard to buy, but until then what we get are one great gospel tune after another. Both women play a kick-ass piano, and then Rosetta pulls out her electric guitar, turning traditional gospel into rock, long before Chuck Berry sang of Johnny B. Goode and urged Beethoven to roll over.

Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones rock out as Rosetta and Marie. This is a story that needed to be told.

I always enjoy going to 59 E 59, rarely more so than when I saw Maestro, a one-man play wherein Hershey Felder portrays Leonard Bernstein. Felder is a terrific pianist, and he even looks a little like Bernstein as he takes us from the maestro’s early years through his great successes as a composer and conductor, to his later years when he became a promiscuous gay man, even though he was married. It’s a compelling story and Felder tells it well. This is definitely a don’t-miss.

As is All the Ways to Say I Love You, a 50-minute monologue by Neil LaBute at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where the always-wonderful Judith Light plays a high school teacher who tells us of her torrid love affair with a student. Why she is telling this now is never explained, but her story is a humdinger, bursting with female ecstasy. I was riveted.

I was, on the other hand, somewhat bored by Daniel MacIvor’s Communion at Urban Stages, although much of this was due to MacIvor’s exceedingly slow-paced direction, particularly in the first scene, which involves a distraught women and her therapist. Things get better in the second scene when we meet the women’s daughter, the source of her distress, and improve again in the final scene, wherein the daughter comes to the therapist after her mother’s death to ask for her help. The three actresses are fine, though – particularly Jackie Hansen as the daughter, who is the most interesting character in the play.

Communion didn’t grab me, but afterwards I talked to two women who were very moved by it. One just saw it for the second time. I have little patience for women venting about their feelings, a typical guy thing I guess.

 

CATS. Neil Simon Theatre, 252 W. 52nd St.

TICKETS: 800-653-8000

HOLIDAY INN. Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.

TICKETS: 212-719-1300

THE ENCOUNTER. John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.

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

MARIE AND ROSETTA. Atlantic Theatre Co., 336 W. 20th St.

TICKETS: 866-811-4111

MAESTRO. 59 E 59, 59 E. 59th St.

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

ALL THE WAYS TO SAY I LOVE YOU. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.

TICKETS: 866-811-4111

COMMUNION. Urban Stages. 259 W. 30th St.

TICKETS: 866-811-4111

 

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

 

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

 

                                                                                      — George F. Will

 

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

 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

Share

“On the Aisle with Larry” 29 July 2016

 

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 BUTLER, QUIETLY, HIMSELF AND NORA, TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, HADESTOWN, SIMON SAYS, OSLO and PRIVACY.

I always enjoy going to 59 E 59, the cozy complex of 3 Off Broadway theatres just off Park Ave established by Elysabeth Kleinhans in 2002. Ms. Kleinhans does not produce herself, but she decides what goes into her theatres, and she has very good taste, so you stand a very good chance of having a great experience there. Most of the events are imports from other cities, such as the summer’s Main Event, the Brits Off Broadway Festival, which this year featured two plays, one old, one new, written and directed by Sir Alan Ayckbourn with his Scarborough company. I missed both this year (drat!) but I caught two others, City Stories and Ross & Rachel, which were outstanding.

One of the 3 current offerings is Richard Strand’s Butler, an import from New Jersey Rep. It is rare that I get to see a new play not set in the present, as most off Broadway and regional theatres won’t do a “historical play,” for whatever reason, which I think is ridiculous. Butler is set just after the start of the Civil War, at a Union Garrison commanded by Gen. Benjamin Butler, a businessman with no military experience. An adjutant arrives in Butler’s office to inform his that an escaped slave has demanded sanctuary, which annoys Butler to no end because the thing he hates the most is having demands put on him. Eventually, he agrees to see the escapee, names Mallory, who turns out to be a literate, articulate man with whom he engages in a spirited debate, explaining to him that under the Fugitive Slave Act he is legally obligated to return him to his owner. In a brilliant, and most amusing turn, though, Butler comes up with a way to get around the law. Mallory has been used by the Confederates to build their fortifications – which makes him, in Butler’s view not a mere slave but “contraband.”

The four actors in in Joseph Discher’s production are superb, most notably Amos Adamson as Butler and John G. Williams as Mallory. Adamson looks like he has stepped right out of a Matthew Brady daguerreotype, and Williams is compelling as a man whose intellect matches that of any white man.

I wouldn’t see surprised if this has a commercial Off Broadway transfer – it’s that good.

Quietly, another import, this one from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, is burning up the stage at the newly refurbished Irish Rep, in a co-production with the Public Theater. About the refurbishment: Irish Rep has moved the bathrooms to where the awkward side section used to be and added a balcony to compensate for the lost seats, a brilliant solution to the problem which has plagues this theatre since it opened.

Quietly is a pub play set in Belfast, 36 years after what used to be called The Troubles, during a world cup soccer match between Northern Ireland and Poland. Jimmy, a man in his 50’s is meeting Ian, of the same age. The Big Reveal is the tragic, senseless event in both men’s lives which happened when they were 16. The play is a bit talky, but ultimately packs a real punch (literally and figuratively), and Patrick O’Kane and Declan Conlon are superb as Jimmy and Ian.

This, too, is a don’t-miss.

I quite enjoyed Himself and Nora, a musical by Jonathan Brielle about James Joyce and his tempestuous relationship with Nora Barnacle, which is winding down its run at the Minetta Lane Theatre. I had always thought that Joyce and Nora were married; but apparently, they were together 27 years before they tied the knot. While the focus is on Joyce’s long road to literary fame, the most interesting character is Nora Barnacle, a feisty, strong-willed woman who bears him two children and stick with him through thick and thin, despite Joyce’s abuse of her, often fueled by alcohol. Whitney Bashor is sensational as Nora, with a lovely  singing voice and beauty and charm to boot; but Matt Bogart almost matches her as the contentious, self-centered author. Three other actors play various roles, including Joyce’s da, Ezra Pound, a Catholic priest, Sylvia Beach and the two children, Giorgio and Lucia, the latter of whom went mad and had to be institutionalized.

Brielle’s music is delightful and the direction by Michael Bush, while economical, is first-rate.

Shakespeare’s rarely performed Troilus and Cressida is being given a stirring modern dress rendition at the Delacorte Theatre, directed by our finest interpreter of the Bard’s work, Daniel Sullivan. Set during the Trojan War, the play focuses on the love between a Trojan prince and a Trojan woman, even as the Greeks’ dilemma about what to do about the recalcitrant Achilles plays itself out. This has often been called one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” in that it’s neither comedy nor tragedy, but the real problem with the play is that there’s no resolution to the story of the two lovers.

Still, I can’t imagine the play being done better. Achilles, played by David Harbour (until he had to drop out due to an injury), is played as a sort of biker dude, complete with a Mohawk. John Glover is delightfully sleazy as Pandarus, Bill Heck heroic as Hector and and Max Casella wickedly cynical as Thersites; but the real finds are newcomers Andrew Burnap and Ismenia Mendez in the title roles. Both speak their roles beautifully and have all the chops to emerge as major classical theatre stars.

Hadestown, which is concluding its run at NY Theatre Workshop, is a quirky though-sung rock music retelling by Anaïs Mitchell of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. While Mitchell’s music isn’t really theatre music, it’s well sung by a talented cast headed by Patrick Page, whose big bass voice blows the roof off, staged by Rachel Chavkin in the round with the audience seated on bleachers.

This is a huge audience favorite, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it pops up in a commercial venue this season.

Simon Says by Mat Schaffer, at the Lynn Redgrave theatre, is about a retired academic named Williston who has found a reluctant man able to channel the Other Side, in the person of a man named Simon. The play’s a load of claptrap, but it does feature the return to the stage after a 4-year absence of Brian Murray, all stooped and hunched over. I was hoping that this was some sort of characterization; but when Murray comes out for the curtain call, sadly this is the way he walks now. It’s heart-rending to see. He’s giving his usual fine performance, though, in a rather mediocre play.

J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre is a fascinating, large cast, large-canvas drama about the background to the Oslo Accords, the first time Israel and the PLO sat down together to try and resolve the intractable conflict between them. The central characters are two Norwegians, played wonderfully by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle, who are indefatigable as they try to get the two parties to meet and, somehow, work out a compromise. In fact, Bartlett Sher’s cast is the finest on a New York stage at present.

The play grabs you and won’t let go as it offers the tantalizing possibility that maybe, just maybe, there is a way for both sides to co-exist peacefully, then hits you in the gut when you realize that they got close; but that ultimately the whole deal fell apart.

The production is a huge hit and is transferring upstairs to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, which makes it Tony-eligible. Expect it to be a major contender at awards time next spring.

James Graham’s Privacy, at the Public’s Newman Theatre, is an even bigger hit, and not only because of the presence in cast of Daniel Radcliffe. The entire run is sold out, though the Public is doing a Hamilton-style lottery for a handful of tickets before every performance. Radcliffe is very engaging as a blocked playwright whose girlfriend has dumped him because he has been emotionally distant, too private with her. He goes to a psychoanalyst, played with his usual quirky aplomb by Reg Rogers, and begins a quest to learn about the effect of privacy, or the lack thereof, in our lives. What he finds out will shock you. If you get in, be sure to bring your smart phone, as you will need it to get the full effect of this disturbing, brilliant play.

I would be amazed if this doesn’t transfer to Broadway, where it will vie with Oslo for the Tony Award.

BUTLER.59 E 59.

TICKETS: www.59e59.org

QUIETLY. 132 W. 22nd St.

TICKETS: 212-727-2737

HIMSELF AND NORA. Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane

TICKETS: 800-745-300

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA. Delacorte Theatre, Central Park.

TICKETS: free the day of performance

HADESTOWN. NY Theatre Workshop. 79 E. 4th St.

TICKETS: 212-460-5475

SIMON SAYS. Lynn Redgrave Theatre. 45 Bleecker St.

TICKETS: 866-811-4111

OSLO. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center

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

PRIVACY. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

TICKETS: 212-967-7555

 

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

 

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

 

                                                                                      — George F. Will

 

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

 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

Share

“On the Aisle with Larry” 3 May 2016

Lawrence Harbison, our The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on THE COLOR PURPLE, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, RED SPEEDO, THE HUMANS, BRIGHT STAR, THE FATHER, BLACKBIRD and HEAD OF PASSES.

I am dilatory in posting my column this time around – sorry. I have been caring for my mother in Ann Arbor Michigan, which turned out to be a full time job until she passed away three weeks ago; plus, I have been teaching two playwriting classes in the Theatre Dept. at the University of Michigan, a program which is vastly superior to what it was when I was there in the early 1970’s. I am amazed at the acting talent here, and am even more amazed at the playwriting ability of several of my students.

I have been returning to NYC periodically to see Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award-eligible shows. I haven’t been able to catch as many as in previous seasons, which is frustrating for me because I am something of a theatre addict, but I had to do what I had to do. My Mom needed my help.

Of the shows I have seen which are still running, one of the best is John Doyle’s stunning production of The Color Purple, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Conventional Wisdom has it that Broadway theatregoers expect to see their money up on stage, in the form of expensive sets and costumes. Doyle confounds this by staging this musicalization of the Alice Walker novel on a unit set, with a pared down cast. Here, as is often the case, less is quite a bit more, particularly as there are three incredible performances, from Cynthia Erivo as the battered but not bowed Celie, sex on a stick with Jennifer Hudson as Shug Avery, and a performance by Danielle Brooks as Sofia which is every bit as touching as Oprah Winfrey’s was in the film.

This looks to be a shoo-in for the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival (although I haven’t yet seen SHE LOVES ME). Don’t miss it.

I also enjoyed the latest production of Fiddler on the Roof, at the Broadway Theatre, starring Danny Burstein as a very fine Tevye. Working within the confines of Jerome Robbins iconic staging, director Bartlett Sher still manages to find a lovely freshness in his cast, which also includes the ever-quirky Jessica Hecht as Golde. One fresh interpolation has Burstein appear at the beginning as a visitor from the future to Annatevka, in a red parka. When he doffs the coat, he becomes Tevye. In the end, when the villagers are forced to leave their homes, Burstsein reappears as the future guy in red, to help pull Tevye’s milk wagon. This device is partly intrusive, partly touching.

The rest of the supporting cast is first-rate. My faves were Adam Kantor as a delightfully nervous but determined Motel and Ben Rappaport as the radical gentile student, Perchik, who upends tradition most of all by marrying one of Tevye’s daughters (“Unheard of! Unthinkable!”)

This is a wonderful production of an American classic, and not to be missed.

Lucas Hnath is hot hot hot these days, fresh off his success with The Christians, which premiered at the Humana Festival, became a hit at Playwrights Horizons and has since gone on to many production nationwide. His latest, Red Speedo, which played at NY Theatre Workshop, was about a gifted swimmer named Ray who looks to be a lock to make the U.S. Olympic team until we find out that he has gotten so good so fast because he has been taking performance-enhancing drugs, something his lawyer brother wants to cover up because if it gets out, there will be no gravy train of million-dollar endorsements.

My problem with the play is the lack of awareness that all Olympic athletes have to take drug tests. In other words, no way could Ray’s drug use be covered up. If you were willing to suspend your disbelief, though, the play is a powerful indictment of what it just may take to reach the top level in any sport these days. It helps to have a brilliant performance from Alex Breaux as Ray. Breaux has a sleek swimmer’s body and a dim athlete’s mind, and should be remembered at awards time for his amazing performance. 

The Humans by Stephen Karems, at the Helen Hayes Theatre, a transfer from Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, is a warm hearted comic drama about a family reunion at Thanksgiving, set in a Chinatown duplex apartment (are there duplex apartments in Chinatown?), to which all the clan has tracked in from Scranton. Nothing much happens, but the characters are very enjoyable and the cast uniformly wonderful. My faves were the parents, played by the always-excellent Reed Birney and Jane Houdyshell.

My only real quibble is with the ending, which goes all supernatural on us. This apartment is haunted? Huh? Where did that come from?

The Humans got pretty much across-the-board excellent reviews, and appears to be the favorite for Best Play in this year’s Tony roulette, which mystifies me as the category includes The Father, King Charles III and Blackbird, both are which are in my judgement  superior to this Nice Little Play.

Bright Star (music, book & story by Steve Martin, music lyrics and story by Edie Brickell), at the Cort Theatre, is another warm-hearted feel good show. It’s set in two time periods, 1923 and 1945-46, in Appalachia. Teenager Alice falls in love with a boy, gets pregnant and is forced to give the baby up for adoption, or so she thinks. In fact, the baby is thrown off a bridge and killed (or so we think). In the future (1945), Alice is the editor of a prestigious literary journal, to which a young serviceman comes with his short stories, hoping to get them published. Hometown gal Margo is in love with him, but he’s focused on literary success. You see it coming a mile away – the would-be writer is Alice’s long-lost and presumed dead son – but what holds our interest is how she will find this out.

The wonderful music is very unusual for Broadway – it’s bluegrass, played by a terrific onstage band. I love bluegrass music, so this was right up my alley. All the performances are fabulous – particularly, that of Carmen Cusack as Alice.

We are so inundated with cynicism these days. It’s refreshing to see a feel-good show once in a while, ain’t it?

At the Samuel F. Friedman Theatre, Frank Langella is giving one of the great performances of this season, or any other season, in Florian Zeller’s The Father, translated by Christopher Hampton. He plays André, an elderly man slipping further and further into an Alzheimer’s fog. We never quite know which scenes are “reality” and which are as André sees reality, which touchingly portrays what it must be like to suffer from this terrible disease. Doug Hughes’ production of this difficult play is just plain brilliant.

The Father should be at the top of your must-see list.

As should David Harrower’s Blackbird, at the Belasco Theatre, about a middle-aged man named Ray who is confronted at his workplace by a woman whom he sexually molested years ago, when she was twelve years old. After serving time in prison, Ray has started a new life under a new identity; but Una has tracked him down and is relentless as she harangues him about what he did to her. What makes the play so powerful is that they still love each other. What do you do when the Love of Your life, your soulmate, is twelve?

Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels are harrowing as Una and Ray, under Joe Mantello’s brilliantly subtle direction. Go – you won’t ever forget these two great performances in this get-you-in-the-gut play.

Other than the fine performances, especially by Phylicia Rashad as a family matriarch, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes, at the Public Theater, was eminently miss-able. This endless drama was about what to do about Mom, who is in bad shape (bad ticker). In the second act, the house is destroyed by a storm (onstage) and everyone dies (offstage) except Mom. G. W. Mercher’s set was incredible, but the play itself was a tempest in a teapot.

I continue to be mystified as to why McCraney is considered to be one of our most important young playwrights. Yes, he’s hot hot hot; but I say he’s not not not.

THE COLOR PURPLE. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.

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

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

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

RED SPEEDO. New York Theatre Workshop. Alas, closed.

THE HUMANS. Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St.

TICKETS:  800-447-7400

BRIGHT STAR. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.

TICKETS:  800-447-7400

THE FATHER. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. 261 W. 47th St

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

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

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

HEAD OF PASSES. Public Theater. Alas, closed. 

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

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

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

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

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

Share

“On the Aisle with Larry” 26 November 2015

“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 KING CHARLES III, ON YOUR FEET, MISERY, SYLVIA, THÉRÈSE RAQUIN, RIPCORD, LOST GIRLS and HIR.

Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, at the Music Box Theatre, is an import from London, where it created quite a sensation. It’s easy to see why. It’s a “what-if” play, imagining what might happen when Prince Charles becomes King Charles.

I am something of an Anglophile, but I didn’t know that the British monarch is not just in a ceremonial position. He can refuse to sign off on legislation Parliament passes. Of course, no monarch has exercised that right for hundreds of years – but what if he did? While Charles awaits his coronation, Parliament passes a law severely curtailing the power of the press. Charles tried to persuade his Prime Minister to reconsider. When he won’t, Charles in effect vetoes the bill, precipitating a political crisis not seen in England since the first King Charles.

Bartlett has chosen to put the play into iambic pentameter – with rhymed couplets at the end of scenes, giving King Charles III the gravitas and dramatic power of a Shakespeare history play.

The British cast, led by Tim Pigott-Smith in the eponymous role, is brilliant, under the powerful direction of Rupert Goold.  Pigott-Smith even looks a little like Charles; but the actors playing the rest of the royal family are practically dead-ringers. I particularly enjoyed Richard Goulding as Prince Harry, who has had it with being a Royal and just wants to live a normal life.

I won’t give it away, but the ending is very powerful – almost tragic, and it blew me away. God save the King!

On Your Feet, at the Marquis Theatre, is a “jukebox” bio-musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan, featuring wonderful choreography by Sergio Trujillo and compelling performances by Ana Villafañe as Gloria and Josh Segurra as Emilio Estefan, with strong supporting work from Alma Cuervo as Gloria’s feisty grandmother.

On Your Feet is very entertaining, featuring the Estefans’ terrific music; but it also has dramatic punch. When Emilio tells a music producer who wants him to continue producing niche music for the Latino market that he is not a Cuban, he is not a Latino – he’s an American, the audience cheers. On Your Feet, along with Hamilton, will eventually have a powerful impact in fighting the demonization of non-white people which is integral to the appeal of the Godawful Obstructionist Party’s (GOP) presidential candidates.

I have not seen the film of Stephen King’s Misery, so going to the Broadhurst Theatre to see William Goldman’s stage adaptation was like seeing a new play. You probably know the premise: Famous Novelist has an accident and is rescued by a loony fan who, when she finds out that in his latest novel, her favorite character is killed off, goes berserk and will not let her idol leave her house until he writes a new novel bringing him back.

Bruce Willis is a little too low-key for my taste, but Laurie Metcalfe is sensational. There aren’t many chills in this thriller, but still it’s worth seeing, even if you’re not a Stephen King fan.

A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia has been given a fine revival at the Cort Theatre, directed by the king of the A-List, Daniel Sullivan. It’s about a middle-aged man who rescues a stray dog in Central Park and brings her home, much to the consternation of his wife. Matthew Broderick, toning down the jittery voice and gestures which he has used ever since How to Succeed in Business with Really Trying, is very touching as Sylvia’s new master, and Julie White is fine as his wife; but the real standout performances comes from Annaleigh Ashford in the title role. She is the epitome of Dog. There is excellent work as well from Robert Sella as a guy who also walks his dog in Central Park, and as a jittery matron, practically stealing the show in the latter role.

Gurney is one of my favorite playwrights, and Sylvia is delightful. Its limited run is set to end in early January, so you have some time (but not much) catch it.

At Studio 54, Roundabout is presenting a new translation by Christopher Hampton of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, a gloomy tale of a young wife trapped in a loveless marriage who takes a lover. They decide to murder the husband. Will they get away with it?

Keira Knightley, in the eponymous role, is rather bland, but there is strong work from Matt Ryan as her lover, and from Judith Light as her mother in law. The direction, by Evan Cabnet, is just right, and the lighting and sound, by Keith Parham and Josh Schmidt respectively, even more so.

Davis Lindsay-Abaire’s Ripcord, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is a quirky comedy about an odd couple who share a room in an old folks’ home. Holland Taylor plays a difficult, unfriendly woman named Abby who can’t stand her roommate Marilyn, a chirpy, cheerful woman named Marilyn played by Marylouise Burke. It’s a situational comedy, made interesting by the wonderful performances of Taylor and Burke, enjoyable but not in the same league with some of Lindsay-Abaire’s previous plays, such as Good People.

I enjoyed far more John Pollono’s powerful Lost Girls, produced by MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, a touching drama about three generations of women. Maggie and her mother Linda are frantic when Maggie’s teenager daughter runs away in an epic snowstorm. Maggie elicits the assistance of her ex-husband Lou, a cop, to try and find her. Piper Pirabo is terrific as Maggie, as is Tasha Lawrence as Linda. Lost Girls has a great Big Reveal at the end, which you won’t see coming and which will stun you. It’s definitely a don’t-miss.

As for Taylor Mac’s Hir, at Playwrights Horizons, I enjoyed it but must say I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It’s a dark dysfunctional family comedy, in which the author reveals that there are not just 2 sexes – there are 20. Kristine Neilsen plays the Mom, in her patented whacky style. Nobody does an addled middle-aged women better than she; but sometimes she goes more than a little over the top, as she does here.

Still, if you love Kristine Neilsen and agree with Mac’s sexual/political points, you will quite enjoy Hir.

KING CHARLES III. Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.

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

ON YOUR FEET. Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway

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

MISERY. Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St.

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

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

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

THÉRÈSE RAQUIN. Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.

TICKETS: 212-719-1300

RIPCORD. Manhattan Theatre Club, City Center Stage 1, 131 W. 55th St.

TICKETS: 212-581-1212

LOST GIRLS. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.

TICKETS: 866-811-4111

HIR. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St.

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

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

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

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

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

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

Share

“On the Aisle with Larry” 10 November 2015

“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 FOOL FOR LOVE, OLD TIMES, CLEVER LITTLE LIES, THE GIN GAME, BARBECUE, ECLIPSED, AMAZING GRACE, ROTHSCHILD & SONS, THE CHRISTIANS and CLOUD NINE.

Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, currently burning up the stage in a revival at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway venue, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is classic Shepard, and this new production makes the case for the play’s being one of this great playwright’s best.

Set in a motel room on the edge of the Mohave Desert, it tells the story of Mae and Eddie, a couple who can’t live with each other but can’t live without each other. Eddie, a rodeo cowboy, has disappeared from Mae’s life one too many times, and she has started a new life in a new town when Eddie shows up once again, hoping to rekindle the fire they once had. She is determined to resist him this time; but she can’t. I won’t give away the Big Reveal near the end of the play about who they really are – but suffice it to say, it’s a doozy.

As Mae, Nina Arianda confirms her status as the finest stage actress of her generation, and Sam Rockwell is terrific as well as her errant cowboy. Also good are Tom Pelphrey as a man who shows up to pick Mae up for a date and finds himself in the middle of her tug of war with Eddie, and Gordon Joseph Weiss as a mysterious old man who sits off to the side. He’s part of the Big Reveal at the end.

This one’s a don’t-miss.

As is Roundabout’s revival of Pinter’s Old Times, at the American Airlines Theatre, about a couple, Deeley and Kate, who are visited by a mysterious women from their past named Anna. Who is she, why has she come back into their lives, and what does she want?

The play’s a little too elliptical and obscure (even for Pinter); but nevertheless it’s fascinating, played with wonderful subtlety by Clive Owen as Deeley, Kelly Reilly as Kate and, especially, by Eve Best as Anna, under the subtly inventive direction of Douglas Hodge.

Old Times hasn’t had a major production in NYC since the original one in I think about 1971, so it’s not as familiar to theatregoers as Pinter classics like The Homecoming and Betrayal. Here’s your chance to see it.

At the start of Clever Little Lies, by Joe DiPietro, at the Westside Theatre, a young man reveals to his father after they have played tennis that he is having a torrid affair. He pleads with his dad not to tell his mother, but she wheedles it out of him and goes all out in trying to persuade him not to chuck his family for this new flame. As is typical, Marlo Thomas and Greg Mullavey, as the parents, are actually old enough to be the grandparents; but that said, they do a fine job. Thomas is particularly strong as a mother determined to prevent her son from making a Big Mistake.

Clever Little Lies is a throwback to the sort of comedy which appeared regularly on Broadway 50 years ago. Although it’s expertly constructed, and well-staged by David Saint, it seems rather thin on a contemporary stage. Nevertheless, it’s a crowd-pleaser if you’re Of a Certain Age and long for the glory days of early Neil Simon.

D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Gin Game, at the Golden Theatre, is another revival, this one with a black cast, James Earl Jones and Cecily Tyson as Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey, who live in a run-down old folks’ home. Weller is a cranky old coot who is obsessed with gin rummy. Clearly, no one will play with him anymore – until, that is Fonsia arrives at the home. She proceeds to win every game, which absolutely infuriates Weller. You would think that a play which consists of little more than a few hands of gin would seem rather thin. You would be wrong. Subtly, Coburn uses the card game as a metaphor for luck vs. free will, as he carefully peels back the layers of denial which have caused Weller and Fonsia to wind up in the home, forgotten and alone.

Jones and Tyson are delightful as Weller and Fonsia – astounding, actually, when you recall how old they are. The Gin Game is well worth checking out.

Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue, at the Public Theater has, alas closed. It was a brilliant comedy about a trailer trash family, meeting at a picnic area in a state park to do an intervention on their drug addict sister, named Barbara. In the first scene, they’re white trash; then, light out and up, and it’s the same family, only they’re black. Then it becomes something else entirely. I hope you got a chance to see this unique, most unusual comedy.

Still running at the Public Theater is Danai Gurira’s grim drama, Eclipsed, about 3 Liberian women who are in effect sex slaves to a warlord during that country’s civil war.

Although this is indeed grim, it’s a compelling story which needed to be told. The presence in the cast of Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’O, as the youngest of the women, has drawn a lot of buzz to the play, which is transferring to Broadway in the spring for a limited run. I can’t see this catching on with the Broadway audience these days, which is not to say you should skip it when it reopens. The all-female cast is first rate (even though the Liberian accent they are doing makes about a quarter of what they are saying unintelligible).

AMAZING GRACE, a musical about the composer of that famous hymn, has closed at the Nederlander theatre. I caught one of the last performances and thought Arthur Giron’s and Christopher Smith’s book excellent, even though I understand not all of it is exactly historically correct, and Smith’s music/lyrics mighty fine. The problem with the show was the actor who played Our Anti-Hero, John Newton. He had a James Barbour quality baritone voice but was rather a stick in the acting department. The character is a dissolute rake who sees the Error of His Ways (he’s a slave trader) and, ultimately, finds redemption. Unless you believe in his torment, you can’t believe in his redemption. I don’t blame the actor as much as I blame the director, Gabriel Barre, who should have seen the problem and helped his guy find the darker colors in his role instead of letting him act like a rather arrogant frat boy. He was the only weak link, though, in the cast, which featured terrific performances by Erin Mackey as the woman who refuses to give up on the goodness inside John Newton, and Chuck Cooper as a family slave.

Nice try, but no cigar.

Rothschild & Sons, at the York Theatre Co., was a reworking of the Boch/Harnick/Yellen Broadway musical The Rothschilds, pared down to 90 minutes with a much smaller cast. The music was lovely, and the story very compelling, about how the Rothschild family went from rags to riches, and then used their financial clout to force Germany to eliminate its repressive anti-Jewish laws. Bob Cuccioli was, as you might expect, brilliant as the Rothschild pater familias. While I don’t think this new version will make The Rothschilds part of the musical theatre canon, still it was well-worth seeing.

Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, which premiered at the 2014 Humana Festival and which has just closed at Playwrights Horizons, was a fascinating play about what happens when the leader of a mega-church announces during Sunday service that God has told him that there is, in fact, no Hell, only Heaven. This causes a rift which splits the church in two and may cause the pastor his job and his marriage. Cleverly, Hnath presents his story straightforwardly, without the satirical scorn one might expect in a play about what Christopher Hitchens called “The God Delusion.” I found it very interesting, and one of the most unusual plays I have seen in quite a while.

Finally, Atlantic Theatre Co. presented a wonderful production of Caryl Churchill’s gender-bending comedy Cloud Nine, done very simply in the round on a bare stage. Men play men and women, as do women, and there’s even a white guy who plays a black house servant in the first act (and a gay cruiser in the second act), which is about a British family in Victorian colonial Africa as the natives are getting increasingly restless.

I hope you got a chance to see this fine production of one of the seminal plays of the late 20th Century.

FOOL FOR LOVE. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

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

OLD TIMES. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.roundaboutheatre.org or 212-719-1300

CLEVER LITTLE LIES. Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St.

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

THE GIN GAME. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.             TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

BARBECUE. Public Theater. Alas, closed

ECLIPSED. Public Theater, 435 Lafayette St.

TICKETS: 212-967-7555

AMAZING GRACE. Nederlander Theatre. Alas, closed

ROTHSCHILD & SONS. York Theatre Co. Alas, closed

THE CHRISTIANS. Playwrights Horizons. Alas, closed

CLOUD NINE. Atlantic Theatre Co. Alas, closed 

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

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

                                                                                      — George F. Will

 

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

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

Share