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

Share