“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. This week, Larry tells you about Vieux Carré, Next to Normal, American Hwangap and Danny And Sylvia. I would love to know your opinion — particularly if you disagree with me! Click on “Comments.”

Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré ought to exert quite a fascination for fans of this great playwright. It hails from the latter part of his career when he had fallen out of critical favor (to say the least), and was a very notorious Broadway bomb. Still, there have been two notable productions in New York of this fascinating work, one at the WPA Theatre and now the current incarnation at Pearl Theatre Co.

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Apparently, Williams began work on this play before he achieved fame with The Glass Menagerie, when he was living in a seedy boarding house in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It is an intensely autobiographical work, even more so than The Glass Menagerie, and it contains prototypes of many of William’s great themes explored to better effect in his best work. Its central character, known here only as The Writer, is a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality even as he searches for his voice as a writer. Clearly, the characters in this play are based on people Williams knew, and individually they are indelible portraits of human flotsam and jetsam, slowly swirling down into the maelstrom of fate and bad luck.

I can assume that the play’s frank treatment of homosexuality was part of the reason it did not find favor the first time it was produced, but the main reason the play doesn’t quite work is that its structure is so episodic. Many of the individual scenes are top-drawer Williams; but the play overall has no dramatic focus.

It’s not helped much by the scene design concept, which looks extremely Off Off Broadway bare-bones. It’s just a collection of dilapidated furniture strewn about the stage, which never manages to suggest either the Quarter or this particular place therein. Part of Williams’ point is that his characters live lives of lonely, quiet desperation in cubicle-like rooms. If one cot serves as everybody’s bed, you not only confuse the audience but you undercut the claustrophobic existence of these lost souls. Was this a deliberate choice on the part of the director, Austin Pendleton, or did Pearl just plain run out of dough at the end of the season? Hard to tell. Either way, the production is a scenic jumble, redeemed only by some really fine acting from the likes of Pearl veteran Sean McCall as The Writer; George Morforgen as a dying, elderly painter; Carol Schultz as the landlady, Rachel Botchan as a good girl from up North wallowing in sexual ecstasy like Stella Kowalski with a brutish barker at a Bourbon Street strip show, and from Pamela Payton-Wright and Beth Dixon as two destitute old ladies desperately trying to preserve the tattered remnants of their gentility.

If you’re a true-blue Williams fan or a scholar, you won’t want to miss this one. If you’re just looking for a good night of theatre, this one is skippable.

The Broadway transfer of Next to Normal is, on the other hand, not to be missed. This musical about a wife and mother struggling with severe bipolar disorder and depression was small in scale at Off Broadway’s Second Stage; whereas at Broadway’s Booth Theatre it is magnified into a poignant musical tragedy.

Brilliantly directed by Michael Greif, Next to Normal features a heart-rending performance by Alice Ripley and superb supporting work from all the cast. I was bowled over by Aaron Tveit as the teenaged son who, it turns out, is a phantom in Mom’s deranged imagination, her creation of what her dead baby would look and sound like now.

The magnificent rock score by Tim Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (lyrics) will long stay in your memory. If you want just a fun night out, go to Shrek. If you’d rather see a serious musical for adults, this one’s for you.

I also enjoyed Lloyd Suh’s American Hwangap, a co-production by Ma-Yi Theatre Co. and The Play Co. at the Wild Center in the East Village, a cozy and very pleasant playhouse new to me. It has been beautifully directed by Trip Cullman, one of my favorite “downtown” directors who can’t seem to break out of downtown but who very much deserves to.

The play’s about a 60 year old Korean man who deserted his family in America years ago to return to Korea after he suffered the disgrace of losing his engineering job. He has returned at the invitation of his ex-wife for his “Hwangap,” a traditional Korean 60th birthday party, much to the chagrin of two of his three children. There’s his son Ralph, who lives in his Mom’s basement and who is determined to prolong his adolescence for as long as he can (he’s almost 30); his daughter Esther who can’t let go of her anger towards her father; and oldest son David, a successful investment banker who just doesn’t give a you-know-what.

James Saito is magnificent as the Dad, embodying a man who just plain let his life get away from him in a very moving manner. Michi Barall and Peter Kim are wonderful, too, as Esther and Ralph; and Hoon Yi is simply astounding as older brother David.

This one is a don’t-miss.

You could definitely pass on Danny and Sylvia at St. Luke’s Playhouse. This is a musical about Mrs. and Mrs. Danny Kaye, which is mostly an ego-trip for its star, Brian Childers, who sounds a little like Kaye but who is so pretty and so gay that his portrayal just seems ludicrous, unless all those rumors about Kaye and the Prince of Wales and Olivier are true. But that would be a different show. Kimberly Faye Greenberg fares better as Sylvia Fine, but hers is very much a supporting part. Pamela Hall’s direction seems rudimentary, and she has been unable to reign in Childers’ worst excesses.

Vieux Carré. Pearl Theatre Co. 80 St. Marks Pl.

TICKETS: 212-598-9802.

Next to Normal. Booth Theatre.

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

AMERICAN HWANGAP. Wild Project. 195 E. 3rd ST.

TICKETS: 212-352-3101

DANNY AND SYLVIA. Theatre at St. Luke’s.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 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

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