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 BRIEF ENCOUNTER, ALPHABETICAL ORDER, MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION, THE PITMEN PAINTERS, THE DIVINE SISTER and MICROCRISIS._______________________________________
Brief Encounter, director Emma Rice’s adaptation of the classic David Lean film (screenplay by Nöel Coward) has come to Broadway’s Studio 54 by way of Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, where it captivated audiences and critics alike last season. Ms. Rice’s production is exhilarating and ineffably beautiful, and will prove to be one of the highlights of this already promising season.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the film, it’s the story of two star-crossed lovers who meet at a train station. Laura is on her way home after a day of shopping. Alec is on his way home after a day at hospital, where he is a doctor. They are clearly Meant For Each Other; but, alas, each is married to someone else. They commence a tender love affair before realizing that, inevitably, it must end.
Ms. Rice has joined the ranks of the world’s great directors with her wittily inventive staging of this story, which involves two other romances – between the bossy woman who runs the tea room at the train station and a porter, and her assistant and a candy vendor. Into this mix Ms. Rice weaves songs by Coward, goofily sung by her cast, who accompany themselves on various musical instruments. Her actors are just plain wonderful. Hannah Yelland (Laura) and Tristan Sturrock (Alec) will break your heart.
I’m not usually given to such hyperbole, but Brief Encounter is one of the greatest evenings I have ever spent in the theatre.
Michael Frayn’s Alphabetical Order won the Evening Standard Award for Best New Comedy 35 years ago but is only just now receiving it’s New York premiere, in a charming production by the Keen Co, at the Clurman Theatre, directed by Keen’s Artistic Director Carl Forsman.
It’s set in the morgue of a provincial newspaper. In pre-Internet days, a newspaper morgue was where clippings which might be needed by reporters in order to research their stories were kept. This one looks like the Collyer brothers are in charge. Into this mess comes a young woman, recently hired by the harried librarian to try and turn chaos into some semblance of order. Which she does.
Frayn’s cast of characters are hilarious portraits of various newspaper types, all wonderfully played by Forsman’s cast. This one’s a don’t-miss.
Roundabout has a fine production of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession on view at their American Airlines Theatre, directed by Doug Hughes, with a terrific cast headed by Cherry Jones in the title role. If you don’t know the play, it’s about a young woman named Vivie, fresh out of university, who plans to make her own way in the world, which was pretty unusual, even shocking, in Shaw’s day. But what was really shocking then was the profession of her mother, who has risen from poverty to luxury by running a strong of high-class brothels in major cities throughout Europe. The basis of her income was bad enough; but what really shocked audiences in Shaw’s day was that both she and the playwright were unapologetic about it. Shaw goes so far as to argue that the business of prostitution is a logical choice for women who don’t want their lives to be dependent upon men. Kitty Warren has in effect seized the means of production and has prospered as a result. The play no longer shocks, but it does resonate today as women are finally achieving positions of power unimaginable in Shaw’s day.
Ms. Jones is, as you would expect, wonderful; but she is ably supported by a fine cast. I loved Sally Hawkins’ Vivie, who can be sort of a stick in the hands of a less capable actress. Although Ms. Hawkins’ characterization is excellent, unfortunately she simply does not have the voice to execute it fully, particularly in scenes in which she has to raise her voice. She comes off sounding shrill and, often, unintelligible. She’d make a wonderful Vivie in a film version, but here she is overmatched going up against actors such as Ms. Jones who do have the requisite vocal chops.
Still, this is a very satisfying production of a play by one of the English language theatre’s greatest playwrights, which makes it a don’t-miss in my book.
Manhattan Theatre Club has imported Lee Hall’s drama The Pitmen Painters, which wowed ‘em last season at the National Theatre of Great Britain, opening it in their Broadway space the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. You may wonder why this greatly-accalimed play is not running in a commercial Broadway production, since British plays so dominate commercial Broadway. I assume the main reason is there’s no star part. This is a true ensemble, of wonderful British character actors.
The play tells the true story of a group of miners in the 1930s who took an adult education class in Art Appreciation and became acclaimed artists themselves. Hall’s theme is about the transformative power of art, which is very moving as seen in the lives of these men. You might think this sounds dull, but it’s not. Hall has filled his play with indelible characters and leavened the proceedings with much humor.
The Pitmen Painters is a don’t-miss.
And Now For Something Completely Different. Almost as an antidote to the high-mindedness of our typical theatrical fare, Charles Busch rides to the rescue with his totally ridiculous new farce The Divine Sister, at the Soho Playhouse. The plot concerns the Mother Superior of a convent (played by Busch – who else?) trying to save her institution from going under. This is merely an excuse for Buschian hijinks, of which there are many. Busch’s supporting cast match him mug for mug and take for take. Julie Halston, as another nun, steals the show. The scenery is minimal. Ms. Halston must have eaten most of it by now.
If you’re in the mood for something Completely Silly, The Divine Sister would be a good choice.
There’s a .lot of silliness in Michael Yew’s satire Microcrisis, presented by Ma-Yi Theatre Co. at Here, particularly in Ralph B. Peña’s wildly inventive staging. This is a far cry from the silliness of a Charles Busch play, though. Yew and Peña take on the financial institutions whose shenanigans have laid us so low.
The story concerns an unscrupulous banker named Bennett who builds a vast empire which proves to be a house of cards. Sound familiar? Alfredo Narciso is astounding as this suave, totally unscrupulous con man; but there is amazing work as well from Lauren Hines as an intern who finds herself the CEO of Bennett’s operation, and from William Jackson Harper, David Gelles, Socorro Santiago and Jackie Chung as various pawns in Bennett’s various schemes.
Microcrisis is great fun and not to be missed.
BRIEF ENCOUNTER. Roundabout at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.
ALPHABETICAL ORDER. Harold Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.
Tickets: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200
MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street.
THE PITMEN PAINTERS. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250
THE DIVINE SISTER. Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St.
MICROCRISIS. Here, 145 6th Ave.
Tickets: www.here.org or 212-352-3101
“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