Archive for May, 2010

“On the Aisle with Larry” 18 May 2010

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 FOREST, THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, THE KID, LASCIVIOUS SOMETHING and WHITE’S LIES.

Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky was the most well-known and successful playwright in Russia in his day (mid-19th Century); but nowadays he is best known, at least in this country, as a sort of precursor to Chekhov. It’s easy to see why when viewing his The Forest, currently on view at CSC.

The play takes place at a country estate, much like those in The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya. Whereas Chekhov’s characters are clearly on the cusp of social change, Ostrovsky’s are an entrenched quasi-feudal upper class, and as such are a portrait of a culture whose denizens are blissfully unaware that a tsunami is going to hit them just a few decades later.

The central character in The Forest is a wealthy land owner named Raisa, played with her usual quirky aplomb by Dianne Weist. She fancies herself a benevolent individual; but in reality she’s a skinflint. She’s taken in an impoverished young man and plans to marry him off to her niece; but in actuality she has the hots for the guy herself (I guess you could say she’s a proto-cougar), and the niece wants to marry the daughter of a wealthy neighbor but can’t because she has no dowry. Into this mix strides Raisa’s long-lost nephew who, it turns out has been reduced to being an itinerant actor, and an impoverished one at that.

The play is long on exposition, but once you get by that it is intermittently enjoyable, a light social comedy with some very fine performances.

The Screwtape Letters, at the Westside Theatre, is a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ epistolary novel about a senior member of the Devil’s staff issuing orders to his hapless nephew, a tempter-in-training who makes one rookie mistake after another in his quest to snag his first soul. Uncle Screwtape is a devilishly delightful fellow, particularly as played here by the wonderful Max McLean, until the end, when his nephew Wormwood pays the price for incompetence in the service of Our Lord Below.

This devilish take on salvation and temptation is great fun, whether or not you believe that Evil is an objective force fighting the forces of Good.

The New Group has a new musical on view at the Acorn Theatre, The Kid, based on a book by sex advice guru Dan Savage about the struggles of a gay couple to adopt a child. Eventually, they are chosen by an unwed, homeless teenaged girl; but the tension builds when there becomes a distinct possibility that she will renege.

The songs, by Andy Monroe (music) and Jeck Lechner (lyrics) service the story well, though none of them stand out on their own. The music is light, amiable, but not particularly memorable. What carries the evening is the witty/poignant book by Michael Zam, the inventive direction by Scott Elliott and the wonderful performances by the likes of Christopher Sieber and Lucas Steele as Our Heroes, the Fairy Father wannabes, and the ensemble, all of whom pay multiple roles.

This one is not a must-see; but it’s most enjoyable if you’re into the subject matter.

The Women’s Project has concluded its season with a fascinating drama, Lascivious Something, by Sheila Callaghan. We are in the impoverished Greek island home of August, an American, and Daphne, his young Greek wife. It is 1980. August, a former student activist in California in the 60’s, has dropped way, way out; when who should arrive but his former girlfriend and political partner Liza, after all these years. What does she want, and why is she here?

Ms. Callaghan employs a most unusual device several times, wherein she provides two alternative versions of a scene – the one the characters want to play, and the one they actually do play. I found this device fascinating; but I can see how some might find it annoying.

Be that as it may, director Daniella Topol’s cast if wonderful. Rob Campbell is a delightfully dissolute August and Dana Eskelson provides the right blend of determined and enigmatic as Liza. My fave, though, was Elizabeth Waterston as Daphne – sexy, strong but just a little bit vulnerable. This is a Future Star, no doubt about it.

Finally, I caught up with Ben Andron’s White’s Lies at New World Stages. I shall preface my remarks by saying that whenever I read terrible reviews for a play, this makes me curious to see it – to find out what it was that pissed ‘em off so. More often than not, I have found that the play that got slammed deserved a lot better. Also, I have lamented that pure out-and-out comedy is inevitably panned, usually unfairly. So, I was in a very positive frame of mind when I went to see White’s Lies. That lasted about 5 minutes.

This is a godawful play about a supposed high-powered divorce lawyer who beds a different woman practically every night. His mother tells him that she has terminal cancer (she comes to his office, For Some Strange Reason, to tell him this), and that her dying wish is that she have a grand child. Who should show up but an old flame from his college days who wants to hire him to handle her divorce. She hates him, has always hated him, but she figures he’s just the scumbag she needs to help her take her husband for all he’s worth. For Some Strange Reason, she brings along her daughter. Our Hero (well…) gets an idea. If the daughter will pose as his long-lost daughter who he didn’t know he had, Mom’s dying wish will be fulfilled. The Old Flame is resistant to this brilliant idea, until the lawyer offers to handle her case for free. The daughter, on the other hand, is All For It. Dad and daughter proceed to get to know each other, which inevitably (in this playwright’s world anyway), leads to sex. That’s about the time I ran out, ranting into the night.

This play is just one terrible joke and contrived situation after another. Here’s a for- instance: We are given to understand that the lawyer has a fabulous bachelor pad. We know this because his mother (played valiantly by Betty Buckley, of all people), who has constantly expressed her dismay at his many sexual conquests, says that he has such a nice apartment, she thought he might be gay. DOES THIS MAKE SENSE TO YOU??? What I wanna know is, if this guy has such a great apartment, why does he only shtup his women at his office? Could it be that they’d need another set, and then how could his nebbishy partner constantly walk in on him when he’s with his latest babe (which is an attempted running joke)?

Man, would I like to know the story of how this turkey got produced. Could it be a vanity production of some sort, or is it just that the producers – Aaron Grant, Jana Robbins, Jeremy Hackman, Craig Haffner, Karl E. Held and something called “Sneaky Pete Productions” – have Absolutely No Taste Whatsoever? And, what the heck is a class act like Betty Buckley doing in this dreck?

THE FOREST. CSC, 136 E. 13TH St.

TICKETS: 212-677-4210

THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS. Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St.

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

THE KID. Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

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

LASCIVIOUS SOMETHING. Julia Miles Theatre (Women’s Project), 424 W. 55th St.

TICKETS: 212-757-3900

WHITE’S LIES. New World Stages. Fuhgeddaboudit.

“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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“On the Aisle with Larry” 6 May 2010

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 FENCES, LEND ME A TENOR, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, PROMISES PROMISES, COLLECTED STORIES and my annual Tony Rant.

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Because of those doggone Tony Awards, Broadway openings come at us fast and furious this time of year. The lion’s share of Broadway shows open between mid-March and 1 May, in hopes of snagging Tony nominations, which they can then use to promote ticket sales while they wait to see if they win the Tony Roulette. Expect to see many closings in June, of shows whose number did not come up. 

Anyway, I usually, write about a cross-section of productions I have seen, from those on the Great White way all the way down to deepest, darkest Off Off Broadway. This week, it’s all about Broadway. 

The revival of the late August Wilson’s Fences, at the Cort Theatre, heads my list of must-sees. The original production starred James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson, a former Negro Leagues baseball star who was too old when integration finally came and who now works as a garbage man. Troy is a complex character, a deeply flawed hero with a stormy relationship with his son, born of his resentment of both his youth and his athletic ability, a man who loves his wife but who just can’t resist tomcatting around with other women (Tiger Woods, anyone?). He is brilliantly embodied in this new production of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play in a towering performance by Denzel Washington, one of our greatest actors. Washington’s performance is matched by that of Viola Davis as Troy’s wife, who consents to taking in a baby whom Troy has fathered with another woman (who dies in childbirth), but who informs her husband that from this moment on, he is a woman-less man. 

Kenny Leon’s production is flawless, and there is terrific supporting work from Wilson veteran Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s friend Jim Bono and from Chris Chalk as the son. 

Don’t miss this great production of this great American play. 

I also recommend Stanley Tucci’s production of Ken Ludwig’s farce Lend Me A Tenor, about a Cleveland opera company which is forced to improvise when their visiting star Italian tenor drops dead (or so they think) on opening night. Lend Me a Tenor was the last of a long line of classic Broadway comedies, a genre which is now pretty much dead due to critical antipathy towards comedies which seek only to amuse. It is more than just amusing – it is hilarious. 

Tony Shalhoub is a scream as the manager of the opera company, as are Anthony LaPaglia as the tenor, Tito Morelli, and Jan Maxwell as his wife, who trusts him about as much as Elin now trusts Tiger; but all the performances are wonderful. 

Lend Me a Tenor is the best comedy on Broadway (well, it’s the only pure comedy on Broadway – thank you, cultural ayatollahs). 

Sondheim on Sondheim, Roundabout’s bio-revue about you-know-who at Studio 54 is, predictably, long on reverence and short on drama (it’s a revue, after all). It’s comprised of songs from Sondheim’s many shows, interspersed with filmed vignettes of Steve talking about his work. I love SS’s music; but for me, The Man’s talking about it and his life in general was the best part of this show. 

I found James Lapine’s staging to be rather rudimentary; but all the singers are mighty fine, though I guess I expected too much of Cabaret Legend Barbara Cook who is, I think, a few years past her expiration date. I was curious that Lapine included nothing from Pacific Overtures, nor does Sondheim talk about it during the vignettes. Strange …

 If you believe some critics (and at least one notoriously catty gossip columnist), the revival of PROMISES, PROMISES at the Broadway Theatre is a turkey. Well, it’s not. The production is a very clever send-up/pastiche of 60s dance and design, and Neil Simon’s book is still hilarious. Sure it’s gag-filled. And that’s a bad thing? 

To my mind, Sean Hayes is giving the best performance by a leading performer in a musical this season as a milquetoast of a man named Chuck Baxter who, before he knows it, finds himself practically homeless as a troupe of bosses at the insurance company where he toils away in oblivion take advantage of his eagerness to please by borrowing his apartment for trysts with their bimbos, one whom turns out to be the lady of Our Hero’s dreams. Ashford’s choreography is Just Plain Wonderful, as is Kristin Chenoweth as his Lady Love, Fran.  Katie Finneran, though, steals the show as a voracious barfly who scoops up Chuck, who has gone to a bar at the beginning of the second act to drown his sorrows when he realizes that Fran is having it off with the head of personnel, Sheldrake, in his own bed. Yuck! 

Promises, Promises is far better than Finian’s Rainbow, and deserved a Tony nomination in stead of that deservedly-departed o’turkey. 

Donald Margulies has had quite a season, what with not one but two plays appearing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Biltmore) on Broadway. Time Stands Still has been deservedly nominated for several awards, including the Tony for Best Play, and now Manhattan Theatre has brought back his Collected Stories, which appeared originally Off Broadway at the Lucille Lortel (mighta been the De Lys then) about fifteen years ago, starring Uta Hagen. As I recall, Ms. Hagen gave a dark-hued performance, whereas here Linda Lavin plays it more droll, for laughs, as a creative writing professor who sees the defining moment of her personal life, her affair with the brilliant but self-destructive poet Delmore Schwartz, become fodder for a novel by her own assistant. 

At the De Lys/Lortel/Lortel/Whatever, Collected Stories packed a punch; at the Friedman, it just seems like a very attenuated one-act play, stretched to two hours. Sometimes, when plays move to Broadway, they seem magnified. Not this one. It shrunk. 

Finally, I have to say a few words about the Tony nominations. Good Lord: the incidental music in two plays was nominated for Best Original Score? And, as previously mentioned, how could Finian’s Rainbow have beaten out Promises, Promises? Overall, though, I think the nominations are fair, though like everyone else I have my list of egregious omissions, which are: 

Best Play: RACE

Best Play Revival: HAMLET and PRESENT LAUGHTER

Best Musical Revival: PROMISES, PROMISES. How could FINIAN’S    RAINBOW have beaten this out???

Best Leading Actor: Victor Garber, PRESENT LAUGHTER; Daniel Craig and Hugh  Jackman, A STEADY RAIN

Best Leading Actress: Laura Benanti, IN THE NEXT ROOM etc.

Best Featured Actor, play: Patrick Breen and Cotter Smith, NEXT FALL

Best Featured Actress, play, Connie Ray, NEXT FALL

Best Featured Actor, Musical: Quentin Earl Darrington, RAGTIME

Best Costume Design, Play: Jane Greenwood, PRESENT LAUGHTER. Can you believe  that this great designer has never won a Tony? 

In my I Agree Wholeheartedly column: kudos to the Tony nominators for not nominating Come Fly Away as “Best Musical.” You know why? It’s Not a Musical – it’s a ballet. As was Contact, which not only received a Tony Nomination but which actually won. Lord have mercy … 

FENCES. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.            TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

LEND ME A TENOR. Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.

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

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM. Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.

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

PROMISES, PROMISES. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

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

COLLECTED STORIES. Samuel J. 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

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