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 OR, CREATURE, THE UNDERSTUDY, THE LATE CHRISTOPHER BEAN and THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM .
As I reported last week, this is a particularly good season for Lady Playwrights. I saw three more plays by women last week, with Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room; or, The Vibrator Play coming up this weekend. I heartily recommend all three, though with a few minor quibbles.
Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, produced by the Women’s Project at their Julia Miles Theatre, is a wild romp set in Restoration England about Aphra Behn, the first commercially successful woman playwright and, in fact, the first woman to make a living from her pen. When we first meet up with her, she is in a debtors’ prison, unable to pay her debts because money promised her by the king has not materialized. Aphra has been serving him as a spy against the Dutch. Well, who should show up but King Charles himself, to tell her that he will pay her debts after all – and, of course, to try and put The Moves on her. Aphra is able to deflect his amorousness, telling him that she has decided to be a writer and asking him for a stipend to do so, which he grants. Aphra returns to her lodgings and starts to try and write a play when who should show up but the actress Nell Gwynne, dressed as a boy (she has just come from the theatre, where she specializes in “breeches parts.” Nell has the hots for Aphra, and these hots are reciprocated until a former lover of Aphra’s, and a fellow spy, shows up. He’s on the lam from the King’s men, as the King thinks he’s a double agent. Then, the King himself shows up, to give it one more shot with Aphra, who manages to fob him off on Nell. The play then becomes a rollicking, door-slamming farce, with one actor playing the King, the suspected double agent and a dotty potential patroness of Aphra’s, and one actress playing Nell and Aphra’s particularly crusty maid – all more or less at the same time.
Both play and production have been justly praised, a rare occasion when the critics seem to have gotten it right. Wendy McClellan’s production is a delight (although I think she let Andy Paris go more than a little over the top in his portrayal of Lady Davenant (the widow who may just produce Aphra’s play); but Paris is terrific in his other two roles, as is Kelly Hutchinson in hers. The best performance, though, comes from Maggie Siff as Aphra Behn. She’s a TV star with real stage chops (wonder of wonders), and she is just plain wonderful.
This one’s a don’t-miss.
As is Heidi Schreck’s Creature, produced by New Georges and Page 73 Productions at Ohio, about an English mystic in the early 15th Century, named Margery Kempe (a real historical figure), who claimed to have visions of Christ and who set out to try and become a saint, much to the consternation of her husband, as this of course meant no more sex.
Director Leigh Silverman has taken a rather too contemporary approach to this story for my taste, filtering Margery’s religious ecstacy through our skeptical eyes rather than taking it seriously through the eyes of her time. This often makes the play very funny; but I think the playwright takes the character more seriously than did the director, because she has Sofia Jean Gomez playing Margery as if she were a hysteric, sort of a Desperate Housewife. That said, I have to say that within this concept Ms. Gomez is absolutely wonderful. I also enjoyed Jeremy Shamos as a priest to whom Margery comes for advice from time to time. Margery’s role model is an ascetic woman named Juliana of Norwich, here played by Mary Louise Burke. Nobody plays dotty better than Ms. Burke, and she is hysterical here. The problem is, I think the character is more than just an eccentric nutcase. She is also a devout woman with sincere religious convictions, which Ms. Silverman and Ms. Burke settle for lampooning.
Even with all of the above quibbles, I quite enjoyed Creature.
I also enjoyed Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy, produced by Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theatre. It takes place at a rehearsal for a new understudy in a Broadway production of a lost play by none other than Franz Kafka, starring two action-movie stars – one A-List, one B-List. The understudy, Harry, played with aplomb by Justin Kirk, is to cover for the B-List dude, Jake, who is on hand with the stage manager to show him the moves. The rehearsal goes from bad to worse. To start, we learn that six years ago Harry was to marry the stage manager, Roxanne, but left her waiting at the altar and disappeared. Needless to say, this creates a lot of tension for Roxanne. Meanwhile, Harry has little but contempt for Jake, even though Jake’s latest action film grossed $67 Million it’s first weekend. Harry doesn’t seem to get that he is not there to provide any creative input, but merely to learn the blocking in case he has to go on. Also on hand, off stage, is a particularly incompetent technician up in the booth, which adds to Roxanne’s craziness.
The play is very funny, and has a lot to say about the Kafka-esque world of show business. It also has some rather irritating improbabilities. It seems that Harry is only to cover for Jake. Jake does his role, and is covering for Bruce, the A-List star who is not present at the rehearsal. In the Real World, Harry would be understudying both roles. No way would a movie star – even a B-Lister – be covering another role. Ms. Rebeck has done this, I think, because she wants to have a better possibility that Harry might actually go on. But it just doesn’t make sense. Also in the doesn’t-make-sense category is the off stage role of the techie. In the Real World, she would be fired faster than you could say “metamorphosis.” Ms. Rebeck has failed to provide a credible reason why she hasn’t been sacked, such as she’s the director’s/producer’s girlfriend or something. This device gets a lotta laffs; but, again, it doesn’t make sense. Also: When Harry arrives for the rehearsal Roxanne is surprised to see him, because the name she has on her call sheet is not his name. Turns out, Harry has recently changed his name. Here’s a guy with a lot of stage credits. It could Never Happen that such an actor would change his name, unless he has a Secret Reason for doing so – which Ms. Rebeck fails to provide. The playwright needs Harry to have a different name in order to surprise Roxanne. That’s not the right reason.
Aside from these minor quibbles, if you can suspend your disbelief regarding them you’ll have a good time at The Understudy. Julie White is a scream as Roxanne, and Justin Kirk and Mark-Paul Gosselaar are delightful as Harry and Jake.
I also enjoyed The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) production of Sidney Howard’s The Late Christopher Bean, at the Clurman Theatre in Theatre Row, a very amusing comedy from the 1930s still in print and still produced (mostly by community theatres) which appears to be getting its first NYC revival since the original production. It takes place in a small New England town, in the home of a local doctor. Several years before the play begins, the doctor gave lodging to the eponymous character, a struggling artist who died of TB, obscure and unknown. All of a sudden, people from New York start showing up on his doorstep, asking if he has any of Chris’ paintings laying around. There’s a slick guy who claims to have been his best friend, an unscrupulous art dealer and a prominent art critic. It turns out that Chris Bean’s painting are all the rage in New York, and he is being hailed as a modern master – which makes his paintings extraordinarily valuable. It’s the depths of the depression, money is tight and the doctor just could become rich – if he can come up with the paintings Chris left when he died.
Beautifully constructed, and lovingly staged and acted, The Late Christopher Bean is just plain wonderful. Veteran supporting player James Murtaugh plays the doctor, who gets progressively more consumed with greed, and with desperation, when he can’t come up with the paintings, and he is hilarious. Also good is Mary Bacon as a housemaid who loved Chris Bean; but the entire cast is terrific.
This one, too, is a don’t-miss.
On the other hand, you could stand to miss Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom, at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. It’s about three Irish sisters who live together in a house which looks, as designed by Sabine Dargent, like a bughouse ward. Two sisters are middle-aged; the third is younger. The two older sisters go on and on about the night each went to the eponymous dance hall, there each to receive her first kiss before being dumped by a callow man whom they saw having it off with another woman in the car park. From time to time, a manic, rather dimwitted fishmonger bursts in, carrying a tray of dead fish, which are deposited in a bin in the floor. He natters on and on about the goings on in the town. In other words, this play is comprised largely of lengthy narrated monologues about the past and about offstage events. The Irish, with their long tradition of story-telling, must have loved this play; whereas I think most Americans will find it extremely tiresome, even though the cast is just great.
OR. Julies Miles Theatre, 424 W. 55th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200
CREATURE. Ohio, 66 Wooster St.
THE UNDERSTUDY. Laura Pels Thatre, 111 W. 46th
TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org. 212-719-1300
THE LATE CHRISTOPHER BEAN. Beckett Theatre,
410 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200
THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM. St. Ann’s
Warehouse, 38 Water St., Brooklyn
“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