Archive for January, 2011

“On the Aisle with Larry” 28 January 2011

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 OTHER DESERT CITIES, SCREENPLAY, HONEY BROWN EYES, BLOOD FROM A STONE, THE MISANTHROPE and CARNIVAL ROUND THE CENTRAL FIGURE.

For two decades, Jon Robin Baitz has been threatening to crack the A-List of playwrights. Although he has received productions of his plays at major New York theatres such as Second Stage, Roundabout and Playwrights Horizons, all of which have been pretty much well-reviewed, he has never had that breakthrough play which catapults him to that rarefied list of Major American Playwrights – until now, that is. His Other Desert Cities, currently at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre but moving to Broadway in the fall, is that play. Hallelujah!

We are in a stylish living room in Palm Springs, in the home Lyman and Polly Wyeth. Lyman was a B-List movie star before he retired, and Polly was in films too – although mostly she’s a socialite and political activist. The politics which she and her husband espouse is conservatism; they are leading lights of Hollywood Republicanism, and Lyman even served as an ambassador, appointed by their dear friend Ronnie.

Their two adult children, Trip and Brooke, have come for a visit at Christmastime. Trip’s a TV producer – he has a hit running that’s a “reality” courtroom show. Brooke, a novelist, is coming off a nervous breakdown and has written a new book – which turns out to be a memoir about her family in which she accuses her parents of causing the breakdown and suicide of her brother Henry, and in which she confronts them about their awful political views (from her point of view). Needless to say, this does not sit well with Mom and Dad, and the play becomes a knock down drag out verbal boxing match. Brooke is egged on by her mother’s sister, who was once a successful screenwriter but who has pretty much drunk away her money and her career. Polly and Lyman want Brooke to cancel publication, while Aunt Silda wants her to go full speed ahead. What will Brooke decide? The play has a shocking, surprise ending which caught me completely by surprise but which is in no way contrived or not credible, and which packs quite a punch.

Joe Mantello’s direction is first-rate and his cast is comprised of some of our finest stage actors. Stockard Channing and the marvelous Elizabeth Marvel have never been better, and there is wonderful work too from Stacy Keach (Lyman) and Thomas Sadoski as Trip. Linda Lavin is very funny but also very sad as Silda.

Other Desert Cities is one of the best new plays of this season. Expect both play and production to be multiple award-winners.

Scott Brook’s Screenplay, at 59 E 59 Theatres, is a fascinating play about three former college chums. Dean and Graham are failed screenwriters. Graham moved to London, went into finance and has become very wealthy. He returns to the States and plans to buy his way into the film business. He reunites with Dean at a party and Dean gives him a screenplay he has just written. Graham flips out over it and sees in it his ticket to the big time. He offers Dean a huge amount of money for the rights; but there’s a catch – he wants Dean to relinquish writer credit so that Graham can claim the screenplay as his work. Dean is conflicted, but he’s also poor; so he takes the dough and has to watch as the film becomes a hit, receiving on Oscar nomination. Also in the mix is Lisa, the girl they both wanted in college who is now back in both their lives and who has issues of her own.

The plot gets a little far-fetched at times but if you can buy the premise you’ll enjoy the play; and, like Other Desert Cities, it has a surprise at the end, the perfect ending to this tale of greed and desperation in La-La Land. It’s a fine production, too. The reviews haven’t been all that good. Disregard them – Screenplay is well worth seeing.

Stefanie Zadravec’s Honey Brown Eyes, at the Clurman Theatre, is a hard-edged drama about ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and its particularly gruesome effect on women. It’s strong stuff, and awfully hard to watch at times; but Erica Schmidt’s production is very well-done and all the actors are mighty fine.

Also in the category of hard-to-watch strong stuff is Tommy Nohilly’s Blood from a Stone, produced by the New Group at the Acorn Theatre. It’s about a blue collar Connecticut family which makes the Wyeths of Other Desert Cities look like the Brady Bunch. Everybody’s well on the way to wrecking his/her life. Mom and Dad hate each other. Their house is falling apart. The son Matt is a gambling addict and pathological liar who is leaving his wife and kids to take up with a women with a husband and kids.

Into this maelstrom comes Travis, the eldest son, a pill-popper who has quit his job and is stopping over before heading out, God knows where. All the roles are meaty, and all the actors are terrific; but it’s just not enough. If you’re an Ethan Hawke fan, go – he’s wonderful as Travis; but the play is a mess and even Scott Elliott’s strong direction can’t save it.

The Pearl Theatre’s production of Moliére’s The Misanthrope is a classic Pearl show – stylish sets and costumes, strong acting but no more than stolid direction. Still, it’s worth seeing – particularly for the acting of Sean McCall in the title role and Janie Brookshire as Célimène. Director Joseph Henreddy has moved the play to the reign of Louis XVI, For Some Strange Reason, but there’s nary an indication of the revolution in the wind. This allows for much more attractive costumes; but other than that it made no sense to me.

Still, if you haven’t ever seen this classic satire, you could do a lot worse that the Pearl’s take on it.

Diana Amsterdam’s Carnival Round the Central Figure, at the IRT Theatre, is a harrowing/fascinating/maddening absurdist meditation on Death. As a man lies dying on a hospital bed his wife, his friends, a televangelist with gospel choir, a psychologist and a particularly sinister nurse swirl around him, until he finally kicks the bucket.

Surprisingly, Amsterdam manages to find humor, if of the extremely mordant variety, in this ghastly situation, helped greatly by Karen Kohlhaas’ whirling/swirling, inventive direction.

OTHER DESERT CITIES. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center

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

SCREENPLAY. 59 E. 59 Theatre, 59 E. 59th St.

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

HONEY BROWN EYES. Harold Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

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

BLOOD FROM A STONE. Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

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

THE MISANTHROPE. City Center Stage II, 155 W. 55th St

TICKETS: 212- 581-1212

CARNIVAL ROUND THE CENTRAL FIGURE. IRT Theatre, 154 Christopher St.

TICKETS: 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

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“ON THE AISLE WITH LARRY” 17 January 2011

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 IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, A SMALL FIRE, PANTS ON FIRE’S METAMORHPOSIS, JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN, RESERVOIR and DRACULA.

Roundabout currently has on the boards a fine revival of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, at the American Airlines Theatre, directed by Brian Bedford and starring Mr. Bedford as that great Victorian battleaxe, Lady Bracknell. I could quibble here and there (and, in fact, I will) but this is definitely one of the best productions of the play of the many I have seen over the years.

The production has been handsomely designed by Desmond Heeley, who did both the sets and costumes; and the latter are particularly exquisite. As for the actors, they are uniformly splendid. David Furr is perfectly stuffy as John Worthing and his partner in Bunburying, Algernon Moncrieff, is played with wonderfully foppish charm by Santino Fontana. Paxton Whitehead is perfect, as usual, as Canon Chasuble. As for the ladies, Sara Topham is an enchanting kewpie doll of a Gwendolyn and Charlotte Parry a delightfully goofy Cecily who put me in mind, more than once, of a young Georgia Engel. Also wonderful is Dana Ivey’s prim and proper, though decidedly hot-to-trot, Miss Prism; though I quibble with her decision to play the small stain in the famous handbag as if it were actually “caused by the explosion of a temperance beverage” when, I think, it was a more potent brew which caused the telling stain.

And now, on to Mr. Bedford’s performance. Wisely, he foregoes camp and plays Lady Bracknell as a little more subdued than others I have seen in the role. It used to be said of actors in great roles that “he hit all his points.” Bedford hits them all, and wonderfully, with the glaring exception of the famous “handbag” line with which, inexplicably, he does nothing, merely tossing it away. I was dumbstruck. Aside from this glaring omission, though, he’s great.

This production will, I think, be much-honored at the end of the season, at awards time. Don’t miss it.

Adam Bock’s latest, A Small Fire at Playwrights Horizons, is a short drama about a woman who, inexplicably, loses her various senses one at a time, beginning with her senses of smell and taste and ending with the loss of her sight. Emily is a tough-as-nails owner of a small construction company; her husband, John, has a human resources office job but he is clearly not the main breadwinner. At home, he spends most of his time trying to mollify Emily, who treats him like crap, which means he comes across as kind of a wimp. Of course, the dynamic of this rather unhappy marriage changes as Emily, formerly a completely self-sufficient and rather heartless woman, finds herself completely dependent on her husband.

It seemed to me that Bock rather wrote himself into a corner with this play, which he chose to end with a rather distasteful sex scene (predictably, with Emily on top). This is one of those plays in which the parts are better than the whole; but there is terrific work from Michelle Pawk and Old Reliable Reed Birney as Emily and John, and good supporting work from Celia Keenan-Bolger, as their daughter, and from Victor Williams as the foreman at Emily’s business.

Although A Small Fire isn’t Bock’s best work, it is nonetheless well-worth seeing.

Pants on Fire’s Metamorphosis, at the Flea Theatre, is an import from last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival., brought over by Carol Tambor, who each year chooses the production she feels was the best of the Fringe. It’s a delightful, spoofy take on Ovid’s Metamorphosis by Peter Bramley, in collaboration with the Pants on Fire actors, done in a style which put me in mind of Emma Rice’s Kneehigh Theatre, setting the stories in wartime Britain and incorporating goofy songs which sound like ones of the period, in addition to the standard torch song “Am I Blue?” all staged simply but highly imaginatively by Brantley.

This is a wonderfully theatrical evening in the theatre. I highly recommend it.

I have never read Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, and have never even seen a production, so I had no preconceptions when I saw the current production of the play, in an adaptation by the Irish playwright Frank McGuiness, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre. The play is about a disgraced former banker, who did five years in prison for embezzlement and who has spent the past eight years in his home, estranged from his cold, angry wife, who blames him for the disgrace of the family name. Out of the blue, the wife’s sister shows up. It turns out, she is a wealthy woman who bought the Borkman home at auction after the trial and has allowed her sister, Borkman and their son to live there. It also turns out that she figured prominently in the bad choices Borkman made, and she now wants pay-back.

The play’s a little creaky in places; but still, it’s a real corker – particularly as here staged by James Macdonald on a set, by Tom Pye, which looks like a house set on a frozen pond framed by huge snow drifts of the sort with which we have been afflicted the past couple of weeks. Fiona Shaw and Lindsay Duncan are magnificent as the two warring sisters, and Alan Rickman is tragically pathetic as Borkman, who paces back and forth alone upstairs, in total denial of his crimes, hoping to think of some way to return to power.

WHY is this great play so rarely produced? Perhaps McGuinness solved whatever flaws other versions had. I don’t know. I only know that this production should be at the top of your must-see list.

Eric Henry Sanders’ Reservoir, which has just closed at the Drilling Company, was a modern take on Buchner’s Woyzeck, casting the first great anti-hero of dramatic literature as a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder. Alessandro Colla was both chilling and heartbreaking as the Woyzeck character, here named Pvt. Frank Hasek. I also enjoyed the sensitive performance by Karla Hendrick, as a psychiatrist who tries to save the doomed Hasek. Hamilton Clancy’s production was bare-bones but his work with the actors was excellent, with the exception of the actor who played a buddy of Hasek’s, also probably suffering from PTSD, who appeared to think he was in a movie, as he spoke so faintly that he was largely unintelligible.

Aside from these quibbles, though, this was a terrific production of a powerful play. Sorry you missed it.

Dracula, a revival of the John Balderstone and Hamilton Deane potboiler based on Bram Stoker’s classic chiller-diller novel, at the Little Shubert Theatre, has also closed. The reviews were pretty dreadful, and were by and large deserved. It would have taken a much more stylish and inventive approach to make this clunky old play hold the stage today, which was way beyond the ability of director Paul Alexander and his mostly inadequate cast led by Italian actor Michel Altieri, awkwardly swooping around in the title role. There were a few good moments, many of them supplied by John Buffalo Mailer as an Americanized Renfield, but for the most part this was painful to watch and is deservedly gone.

I couldn’t help but wonder, why is this gem of a theatre booked so rarely? The official explanation is that the economics of Off Broadway tanked shortly after the theatre was built. So sayeth the Shubert Organization, which built and operates the theatre. My guess is that the real reason is that the “The Shuberts” charge way too much for the use of this theatre. Apparently, they would rather it be dark than rented at a lower rate. It’s a real shame.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: 212-719-1300

A SMALL FIRE. Playwrights Horizons, 410 W. 42nd St.

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

PANTS ON FIRE’S METAMORPHOSIS. Flea Theatre, 41 White St.

TICKETS: 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111

JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN. Harvey Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn.

TICKETS: 718-636-4100

RESERVOIR. Drilling Company. Alas, closed

DRACULA. Little Shubert Theatre. Closed.

“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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