Archive for December, 2009

“On the Aisle with Larry” — 31 December, 2009

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 The Starry Messenger, Race, A Little Night Music, Misalliance and Sister’s Christmas Catechism.

The early buzz and Kenneth Lonergan’s new play The Starry Messenger, at the Acorn Theatre, was that it was gong to be a disaster. Then it opened for the critics and got mostly favorable reviews. Mostly, but not all. This seems to be happening a lot lately. Take a look at the reviews for the film version of “Nine.” Some say it’s a mess; others, a masterpiece. Well, The Starry Messenger is neither mess nor masterpiece.

The story concerns a namby-pamby astronomy professor named Mark who teaches night classes at the Hayden Planetarium. He is played, of course, by Matthew Broderick, who does namby-pamby like no one else and who seems to have become our generation’s Wally Cox. Mark is a perfectly nice middle-aged man who realizes that life is passing him by, so he does what many men do at his stage of life – he has an affair with, of course, a much younger woman. Although much of Lonergan’s dialogue is witty and perceptive, I found it difficult to care much about Mark’s problems; and, at almost three hours, this play seems like an hour too long. Broderick is fine, though, as Mark. Jay Smith Cameron is under-employed as Mark’s terminally loquacious wife.

I guess I had sort of a namby-pamby response to this play. I neither liked nor disliked it. I wouldn’t say it’s one you’ll regret having missed.

David Mamet’s Race (at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre), on the other hand, is a don’t-miss. We appear to believe that the Great Divide between black and white people has finally been bridged in the Age of Obama. Mamet, that curmudgeon, demonstrates in his new play how this just ain’t so.

We are in the office of a posh law firm. An extremely wealthy white man, also something of a celebrity, has been accused of raping a young black woman in a hotel room, and two law partners are trying to decide whether or not to take his case. One partner is white; the other, black. Also on hand is a young female associate in the firm, who is black – and who inadvertently (we think) forces her partners to take the case when she takes the client’s retainer check and notifies the court that her firm are the attorneys of record. What ensues is a crash course on how race scrambles justice in court, and about how perception, rather than truth, is what is most important as a jury decides a case.

Many will find this play very unsettling, because many would prefer to believe in the fantasy that, now, all is forgiven between the races in this country. As for me, I think this is Mamet’s most brilliant play in years, and right up there with American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the Plow. Mamet has done a fine job of directing his play, and the cast is perfect. James Spader and David Alan Grier are the brilliantly cynical law partners, Richard Thomas is the naïve accused rapist and Kerry Washington is the young associate who just might be something other that what she seems.

This one’s a don’t-miss, if you like plays which provoke and challenge you.

Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music was the first Broadway show I ever saw. I was a callow college student who had a somewhat cynical attitude about Broadway. I guess you could say that A Little Night Music was The Play That Changed My Life. After seeing it and, I must admit, several other wonderful plays and musicals on Broadway at that time, I decided that somehow, I had to find a niche for myself in the NY theatre. Which, fortunately, I did.

I have seen three productions of the show since my first encounter with it, but none was as entrancing as Trevor Nunn’s production, currently at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Nunn has reconceived the show on a smaller-scale, using a chamber group rather than a full orchestra. Heavy on the harp, light on lush strings. This worked just fine by me. His cast is wonderful. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a luscious tigress of a Desiree, easily the best I have ever seen in this role – including Glynis Johns, who originated it. Brit Alexander Hanson, imported from Nunn’s staging of the work last year in London, is a charming Fredrik, and Ramona Mallory and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka are charmingly adolescent as Anne and Henrik. And then, of course, there’s living legend Angela Lansbury, whose Madame Arnfeldt is a wonderfully caustic old bag.

A Little Night Music is the best musical revival on Broadway since Ragtime (which, sadly starless, is hanging on by the wispiest of threads). Both shows are a don’t-miss.

It is always a pleasure to see a play by George Bernard Shaw, even one I have seen several times, like Misalliance, which is currently up and running at City Center Stage II, where the Pearl Theatre Co. is now comfortably in residence.

This is one of Shaw’s plays about, among other things, what was known then as The Woman Question. Its heroine is Hypatia, the pampered daughter of a wealthy underwear magnate, engaged to be married to an impossibly pansy man whom everyone calls Bunny because, as she says, she must marry somebody. What other alternative does she have? Then, out of the blue as it were, an aeroplane crashes on the estate and out of it climb, unscathed, a dashing aviator and a Polish trapeze artist, a female who turns everything topsy-turvy. She lives an independent, go where I like and do what I want to do life, without having to ask any man’s permission. What ensues is a wonderful consideration of morality, sex and love.

The production has been ably directed by Jeff Steitzer, whose cast is as good as any I have seen in this play. I particularly enjoyed Lee Stark as Hypatia, Dan Daily as the underwear manufacturer/pater familias John Tarleton and Sean McCall as a distraught young man with a gun determined to revenge his wronged mother by shooting Tarleton.
Daily sounds uncannily like Philip Bosco, whom I once saw in the role. Close your eyes and you’ll swear it’s Phil.

If you love Shaw, this Misalliance is not to be missed.

I was most amused by Maripat Donovan’s Sister’s Christmas Catechism, at Downstairs at Sofia’s, a charming piece of Christmas fluff wherein we are part of a catechism class preparing for the church’s annual Nativity Tableau, led by a cheerful though sometimes caustic nun. This is something of a sequel to Late Night Catechism, which ran for several years off Broadway, and is almost as funny. In this one, Sister enlists audience members to take on the various roles in the Nativity Story – and, she solves the mystery of what happened to the gold one of the magi brought.

It’s all great fun – particularly if you’re Catholic, as was my jolly companion. I was disappointed not to see Ms. Donovan as Sister (she did the role the first two weeks of the run) but her replacement, Kathryn Gallagher, was very funny.

Sorry to be telling you about this show so late. It was great fun.

THE STARRY MESSENGER. Acorn Theatre.
Alas, closed.
RACE. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
MISALLIANCE. City Center Stage II, 151 W. 55th St.
TICKETS: 212-581-1212
SISTER’S CHRISTMAS CATECHISM. Downstairs at Sofia’s.
Alas, closed.

Share

“On the Aisle with Larry” – 15 December 2009

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 THE BROTHER/SISTER PLAYS, SO HELP ME GOD, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER and SHOLEM ALEICHEM: LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS.

The Brother/Sister Plays, currently at the Public Theater, is a trilogy by a gifted young playwright named Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is in my opinion one of the more promising of the younger generation of 20-something writers. He made quite a splash a couple of years ago at the Vineyard Theatre with Wig Out, a drama about a family of transvestites which shocked some conservos but wowed most of the critics. His new trilogy continues his development and is oneof the most exciting theatre events of this season.

I never made it to Part One, containing solely In the Red and Brown Water, but I thought Part Two was brilliant. It consists of two plays, The Brothers Size and Marcus, set in a rural Louisiana black community. The first pay is about two brothers – one, an auto mechanic (Ogun) and the other, a recently-released convict (Oshoosi). A third character is a man named Elegba who became friends with Oshoosi in prison and who just may be “sweet” on him. Marcus takes place many years later. It’s eponymous character is Elegba’s son, a teenager in the process of discovering his sexuality. Is he or is he not “sweet”?

Both plays I saw display a unique and original theatrical voice, one I am sure we will continue to hear from. They have been beautifully directed by Robert O’Hara, and the acting ensemble is just wonderful. My only quibble was the device of having the characters mouth not only their lines but also the stage directions. This is the playwright’s choice, not the director’s, as it is written into the script. I found this intrusive and unnecessary, and I hope the playwright will leave this device behind in his future work.

I have always championed the Mint Theatre’s valiant mission to rescue worthy plays from obscurity, so you will not be surprised to learn that they have another doozy up and running, this time not at their small space in W. 43rd St. but at The Lucille Lortel Theatre in Christopher St. I guess Artistic Director Jonathan Bank felt he needed a larger space for a play with a cast of fifteen, but I think his decision to produce Maurine Dallas Watkins’ So Help Me God at the Lortel was also influenced by the casting of TV star Kristen Johnson in the star part of an impossibly, hilariously egocentric star actress. The gamble of a move to a larger, more expensive theatre has paid off, as Bank’s production has gotten much-deserved raves. The raves have also come for the play, a forgotten gem by the author of the original stage play Chicago, the source of the Broadway musical. Headed to Broadway in 1929, So Help Me God fell afoul of the stock market crash, so this is its New York premiere. It’s a classic backstage comedy, in a league with Light Up the Sky and The Royal Family about a “serious” play, which would probably have been a bomb, destroyed into a successful piece of boulevard dreck by its star actress and pretentious director, as the poor playwright stands by, helpless (this was in the days before the existence of the Dramatists Guild).

Ms. Johnson is giving nothing less than a glorious star turn as the Star, Lilly Darnley, but everyone in the cast is wonderful. This terrific production should have a commercial transfer but it probably won’t, so get thee to the Lortel Theatre for some wild fun.

I also enjoyed Rebecca Gilman’s fine dramatization of Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, at the New York Theatre Workshop. The novel has been faithfully adapted, and Doug Hughes’ production is very fine.

At the heart of the play is a kindly deaf mute named Singer, played in the movie by Alan Arkin and here by Henry Stram, who rents a room with a family and becomes friendly with his landlord’s teenaged daughter, Mick, who is itching to break free into womanhood but not quite sure how to do it. This is a tragic and very poignant exploration of loneliness. Stram is terrific, but so is Cristin Milioti as Mick. She is fast becoming one of the finest actresses of her generation, and could wind up becoming the heiress to Julie Harris if TV and film don’t snatch her away.

This one, too, is a don’t-miss.

Finally, I caught Theodore Bikel in his one-man show about Sholeim Alechem, presented by the Folksbiene Theatre at the Baruch Arts Center. Sholeim Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears is an endearing evening with the great Yiddish humorist, made most endearing by Mr. Bikel who, now in his mid-eighties, still is robust of voice and body. The show is comprised of stories and songs, which Mr. Bikel sings in both Yiddish and English. Yiddish speakers will love this show, but even if you don’t know a word of Yiddish, like me, you will find the show delightful.

Recommended!

THE BROTHER/SISTER PLAYS. Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St.
TICKETS: 212-967-7555
SO HELP ME GOD. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-27904200.
THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER
. NY Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.
TICKETS: 212-460-5475
SHOLEM ALEICHEM: LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS. Baruch
Performing Arts Center. 55 Lexington Ave.
TICKETS: 646-312-5073

“Who is this guy?”

For over thirty years Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time his work on behalf of playwrights resulted in the first publication of such subsequent luminaries as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, José Rivera, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller, and Ken Ludwig, among many others; and the acquisition of musicals such as Smoke of the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice, Little Shop of Horrors and Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down. He is a now a free-lance editor, primarily for Smith and Kraus, Inc., for whom he edits annual anthologies of best plays by new playwrights and women playwrights, best ten-minute plays and best monologues and scenes for men and for women. For many years he wrote a weekly column on his adventures in the theater for two Manhattan Newspapers, the Chelsea Clinton News and The Westsider. His new column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” is a weekly feature at www.smithandkraus.com.

He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com). He has also served as literary manager or literary consultant for several theatres, such as Urban Stages and American Jewish Theatre. He is a member of both the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk. He has served many times over the years as a judge and commentator for various national play contests and lectures regularly at colleges and universities. He holds a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. from the University of Michigan.

He is currently working on a book, Masters of the Contemporary American Drama.

“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

Share

ON THE AISLE WITH LARRY 4 DECEMBER 2009

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 FINIAN’S RAINBOW, RAGTIME, FELA! and IN THE NEXT ROOM; or, THE VIBRATOR PLAY.

The current production of Finian’s Rainbow, at the St. James Theatre, started life in last season’s Encores series at City Center. The Encores productions are very bare-bones and there the emphasis is always on the score. This is why the reviews for Encores’ production were so outstanding. This is indeed, one heckuva score, with one wonderful song after another by Burton Lane (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyrics). On Broadway, though, the book comes more into focus. Said book, by Harburg and Fred Saidy, is a fairy tale with an edge. That edge deals with the ever-thorny American problem of racial prejudice. In 1947, the treatment of this issue in the show must have seemed very cutting-edge. In 2009, it just seems dated and silly. In fact, just about everything in this book tries to be cute and whimsical but winds about just being contrived and inane.

MORE

The story concerns a small town in the rural South, in a state called “Missitucky.” Everyone is under the thumb of a venal senator – the black sharecroppers most of all. Well, an Irishman arrives with his daughter. He’s the eponymous Finian, and he has stolen the leprechauns’ pot of gold, which he plans to bury in the ground. Since we are near Fort Knox, Finian reasons that the gold will grow and make him rich. I mean, really… A leprechaun named Og comes after the gold. Since its removal from Ireland, he is becoming more and more mortal as, I guess, are all the little fellas back home. It’s a crisis! Meanwhile, the evil senator is scheming to get his hands on all the local land. Finian’s daughter makes a wish – near the pot o’ gold, that the senator were black and WHOMP! He’s turned into a black guy. Well, the locals are going to burn Finian’s daughter as a witch (in 1940s America???) – but the day winds up being saved. They don’t burn her, and she gets to marry a handsome local yokel.

Director/Choreographer Warren Carlyle has staged this in a fashion absolutely true to the way it must have been staged in its original incarnation, except for his clever choice to hire a black actor (here, the always-excellent Chuck Cooper) to portray the transmogrified senator, instead of having the senator quickly blacked-up as it’s usually done. You feel as if you have time-travelled back to the Broadway of 1947, right down to the cheesy set. I think this was the right choice, because I can’t think of any other way to stage this cornball show.

All that said, the performers are quite delightful. Jim Norton makes a sly, foxy grandpa of a Finian, and Kate Baldwin is charming as his daughter, Sharon. My only quibble here is that Norton looks old enough to be Sharon’s grandfather. Ah, well – this is a typical though somewhat annoying casting convention. Cheyenne Jackson is a sweet-singing, charming hunk as local yokel Woody, and Christopher Fitzgerald is delightfully goofy as Og.

I have to say that the elderly couple seated in front of me loved this show. They had recently seen In the Next Room; or, The Vibrator Play and hated it, so this was more their cup of Irish coffee.

It has been reported that the new production of Ragtime, at the Neil Simon Theatre, is dying the death and will probably close in January. This is a terrible shame, because the show, based on E.L. Doctorow’s great novel, is a masterpiece of the American musical theatre; and this production, wonderfully directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrim Dodge, is a beautiful rendering of this story, based on E.L. Doctorow’s great novel, about America in the early 20th Century. It has a great score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), and a great book by Terrance McNally. It is astounding to me that the show hasn’t caught on.

All the performers are superb, with particular kudos to Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Stephanie Umoh as Sarah. I also enjoyed Christiane Noll as Mother, Bobby Steggert as Mother’s Younger Brother, and Robert Petkoff as Tateh.

So, you don’t have much longer to see this wonderful production of this wonderful show. Alas …

I also enjoyed Fela!, which has transferred from Off Broadway to Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre. This is the story of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti, originator of a style of music called “Afro Beat.” We are in a club in Lagos called The Shrine, which Fela built and where he performs regularly, at the last performance there before it closes. Fela announces from the start that he is leaving Nigeria, as the political situation there is hopeless. He then relates the story of his life – how he developed his musical style, how he became radicalized in America, and how he tried to change things in Nigeria, inspired by his mother, a feminist and political activist there. This is in fact an inspiring show, though way too much is narrated rather than dramatized, and Fela, a complex individual, is here canonized as a modern saint –move over, Mother Theresa –where a warts-and-all portrait would have been far more interesting.

There is also far too much wheel-spinning for my taste. A 2.5-hour evening could easily have been cut by 30 minutes. But quibbles aside, Bill T. Jones’ choreography is incredible, and Sahr Ngaujah’s performance in the title role is astounding. Also terrific is Broadway veteran Lillias White as Fela’s martyred mother. The show makes use of Fela’s music, so it is, in effect, an example of that much-maligned genre, the so-called “Jukebox Musical.” Nobody seems to have noted this. I wonder why? The music is infectious, but rather repetitive; but it is wonderfully played by an onstage band, joined often by Mr. Ngaujah on saxophone and trumpet.

Overall, I would say that Fela is definitely worth a go; but if you can only go to one, I’d choose Ragtime.

Finally, I want to trumpet Sarah Ruhl’s brilliant IN THE NEXT ROOM; or, THE VIBRATOR PLAY, produced by Lincoln Center Theatre at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. In my opinion this is the best new play of the season so far – and to my mind this has been a pretty impressive season for plays, if you count Beyond Broadway, as I do.

All of Ms. Ruhl’s other plays I have read or seen are theatrically-inventive examples of that genre so ubiquitous in the not-for-profit theatre – Anything But Realism. This new one, though, is surprisingly realistic in style. It concerns a doctor in the late 19th Century who has developed a method for treating women with “hysteria” – a general catch-all for female crazy behavior – using a miracle of modern technology, an electric device which stimulates his patients “down there.” After just a few minutes of his treatment, during which he induces in them a “paroxysm,” they leave with a smile on their face, on the road to recovery. The play works on one level as a satire of the way sex was viewed in the Victorian Age, but it is also an impassioned plea for what eventually became known as “Women’s Liberation.”

Les Waters’ production is just beautiful, and his cast is superb. Michael Cerveris is wonderful as the doctor, playing him as a sincere, earnest man who truly believes he is in the vanguard of medical science, and Laura Benanti is charming as his rather ditzy, repressed wife. In fact, all the cast is terrific. I particularly enjoyed Chandler Williams, as a male patient whom the doctor diagnoses as suffering from “male hysteria” – which is extremely rare, he tells him. His treatment for this condition is hilarious. Maria Dizzia is excellent, too, as a patient whom we watch being treated. Her paroxysms are as convincing as was Meg Ryan’s in “When Harry Met Sally,” if you know what I mean. Lord, I love a Moaner! In my opinion, they can’t be portrayed too often.

My guess is that Lincoln Center will run this play as long as there’s an audience. The question is, are most Broadway theatre-goers as prudish and conservative at that couple I met at Finian’s Rainbow, or are they up for a brilliantly staged and acted play which seeks to challenge its audience rather than soothe it?

FINIAN’S RAINBOW. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.
Tickets: www.telecharge.com 212-2390-6200.
RAGTIME. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.
Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com 2877-250-2929
FELA! Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St.
Tickets: www.telecharge.com 212-2390-6200.
IN THE NEXT ROOM; or, THE VIBRATOR PLAY. Lyceum
Theatre, 140 W. 45th St.
Tickets: www.telecharge.com. 212-2390-6200.

“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

Share

ON THE AISLE WITH LARRY — December 3, 2009

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 FINIAN’S RAINBOW, RAGTIME, FELA! and IN THE NEXT ROOM; or, THE VIBRATOR PLAY.

The current production of Finian’s Rainbow, at the St. James Theatre, started life in last season’s Encores series at City Center. The Encores productions are very bare-bones and there the emphasis is always on the score. This is why the reviews for Encores’ production were so outstanding. This is indeed, one heckuva score, with one wonderful song after another by Burton Lane (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyrics). On Broadway, though, the book comes more into focus. Said book, by Harburg and Fred Saidy, is a fairy tale with an edge. That edge deals with the ever-thorny American problem of racial prejudice. In 1947, the treatment of this issue in the show must have seemed very cutting-edge. In 2009, it just seems dated and silly. In fact, just about everything in this book tries to be cute and whimsical but winds about just being contrived and inane.

The story concerns a small town in the rural South, in a state called “Missitucky.” Everyone is under the thumb of a venal senator – the black sharecroppers most of all. Well, an Irishman arrives with his daughter. He’s the eponymous Finian, and he has stolen the leprechauns’ pot of gold, which he plans to bury in the ground. Since we are near Fort Knox, Finian reasons that the gold will grow and make him rich. I mean, really… A leprechaun named Og comes after the gold. Since its removal from Ireland, he is becoming more and more mortal as, I guess, are all the little fellas back home. It’s a crisis! Meanwhile, the evil senator is scheming to get his hands on all the local land. Finian’s daughter makes a wish – near the pot o’ gold, that the senator were black and WHOMP! He’s turned into a black guy. Well, the locals are going to burn Finian’s daughter as a witch (in 1940s America???) – but the day winds up being saved. They don’t burn her, and she gets to marry a handsome local yokel.

Director/Choreographer Warren Carlyle has staged this in a fashion absolutely true to the way it must have been staged in its original incarnation, except for his clever choice to hire a black actor (here, the always-excellent Chuck Cooper) to portray the transmogrified senator, instead of having the senator quickly blacked-up as it’s usually done. You feel as if you have time-travelled back to the Broadway of 1947, right down to the cheesy set. I think this was the right choice, because I can’t think of any other way to stage this cornball show.

All that said, the performers are quite delightful. Jim Norton makes a sly, foxy grandpa of a Finian, and Kate Baldwin is charming as his daughter, Sharon. My only quibble here is that Norton looks old enough to be Sharon’s grandfather. Ah, well – this is a typical though somewhat annoying casting convention. Cheyenne Jackson is a sweet-singing, charming hunk as local yokel Woody, and Christopher Fitzgerald is delightfully goofy as Og.

I have to say that the elderly couple seated in front of me loved this show. They had recently seen In the Next Room; or, The Vibrator Play and hated it, so this was more their cup of Irish coffee.

It has been reported that the new production of Ragtime, at the Neil Simon Theatre, is dying the death and will probably close in January. This is a terrible shame, because the show, based on E.L. Doctorow’s great novel, is a masterpiece of the American musical theatre; and this production, wonderfully directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrim Dodge, is a beautiful rendering of this story, based on E.L. Doctorow’s great novel, about America in the early 20th Century. It has a great score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), and a great book by Terrance McNally. It is astounding to me that the show hasn’t caught on.

All the performers are superb, with particular kudos to Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Stephanie Umoh as Sarah. I also enjoyed Christiane Noll as Mother, Bobby Steggert as Mother’s Younger Brother, and Robert Petkoff as Tateh.

So, you don’t have much longer to see this wonderful production of this wonderful show. Alas …

Finally, I want to trumpet Sarah Ruhl’s brilliant IN THE NEXT ROOM; or, THE VIBRATOR PLAY, produced by Lincoln Center Theatre at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. In my opinion this is the best new play of the season so far – and to my mind this has been a pretty impressive season for plays, if you count Beyond Broadway, as I do.

All of Ms. Ruhl’s other plays I have read or seen are theatrically-inventive examples of that genre so ubiquitous in the not-for-profit theatre – Anything But Realism. This new one, though, is surprisingly realistic in style. It concerns a doctor in the late 19th Century who has developed a method for treating women with “hysteria” – a general catch-all for female crazy behavior – using a miracle of modern technology, an electric device which stimulates his patients “down there.” After just a few minutes of his treatment, during which he induces in them a “paroxysm,” they leave with a smile on their face, on the road to recovery. The play works on one level as a satire of the way sex was viewed in the Victorian Age, but it is also an impassioned plea for what eventually became known as “Women’s Liberation.”

Les Waters’ production is just beautiful, and his cast is superb. Michael Cerveris is wonderful as the doctor, playing him as a sincere, earnest man who truly believes he is in the vanguard of medical science, and Laura Benanti is charming as his rather ditzy, repressed wife. In fact, all the cast is terrific. I particularly enjoyed Chandler Williams, as a male patient whom the doctor diagnoses as suffering from “male hysteria” – which is extremely rare, he tells him. His treatment for this condition is hilarious. Maria Dizzia is excellent, too, as a patient whom we watch being treated. Her paroxysms are as convincing as was Meg Ryan’s in “When Harry Met Sally,” if you know what I mean. Lord, I love a Moaner! In my opinion, they can’t be portrayed too often.

My guess is that Lincoln Center will run this play as long as there’s an audience. The question is, are most Broadway theatre-goers as prudish and conservative at that couple I met at Finian’s Rainbow, or are they up for a brilliantly staged and acted play whish seeks to challenge its audience rather than soothe it?

FINIAN’S RAINBOW. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.
Tickets: www.telecharge.com 212-2390-6200.
RAGTIME. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.
Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com 2877-250-2929
FELA! Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St.
Tickets: www.telecharge.com 212-2390-6200.
IN THE NEXT ROOM; or, THE VIBRATOR PLAY. Lyceum
Theatre, 140 W. 45th St.
Tickets: www.telecharge.com. 212-2390-6200.

“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

Share