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 BLACK TIE, WHAT THE PUBLIC WANTS, THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, APPLE COVE, NEWSICAL, THE MAN WHO ATE MICHAEL ROCKEFELLER and THE WHIPPING MAN.
A. R. Gurney made his reputation with his satiric depictions of the mores of WASP America, in plays such as The Dining Room. In his latest, Black Tie at Primary Stages, Gurney has returned to these roots. We are in a rather tacky hotel in the Adirondacks, where a middle-aged man named Curtis is preparing for his son’s wedding. Curtis gets a lot of advice about how to stage a proper wedding from his father, a dapper man in a tuxedo who, it turns out, is a ghost.
There’s nothing earth-shaking in this play – it’s “merely” a genial and very witty comedy poking fun at the old ways vs. the new. Mark Lamos’ direction is pitch-perfect, as are all the performances – particularly, those of Gregg Edelman as Curtis, Carolyn McCormick as his frazzled wife Mimi, and Daniel Davis as the ghostly Dear Old Dad.
I hear the play is sold out for its originally-announced run but that Primary Stages has extended one week – so there may be tickets. Go – you’ll have a great time.
The Mint Theatre has another fine production of a forgotten play on their boards, Arnold Bennett’s What the Public Wants, a comedy about a forerunner of Rupert Murdoch who runs a string of what would now be considered “tabloid” newspapers. This may be what the dumbed-down public wants – but is it journalism?
I wouldn’t say that the Mint’s production makes a case for this play as a Lost Classic; but it is undeniably relevant to our own dumbed-down times, is well-constructed and engaging, and features a slew of fine performances under Matthew Arbour’s fine direction. My faves were Rob Breckenridge as the media mogul and Mark Vietor as his quizzical, skeptical brother; but all the performances are, as is usual at the Mint, Mighty Fine.
Like the Mint, Red Bull Theatre specializes in productions of forgotten old plays. Whereas the Mint’s plays largely come from the early years of the 20th Century, though, Red Bull’s come from the early years of the 17th. Red Bull has been around for a while, but I had never seen any of their productions until I went over to St. Clement’s to see The Witch of Edmonton, a collaboration, it is believed, between Thomas Dekker, John Ford and William Rowley originally produced in 1621.
The plays tells the dual stories of the persecution for witchcraft of an old woman, and of a young man who is forced to marry a woman for economic reasons, though he loves another. Both come to a bad end, and both stories are dark and disturbing, about the darker side of human nature, which was common in plays of that era. One of the fascinating aspects of the play is the presence onstage of the Devil, in the shape of a dog, who manipulates both stories with evil intent.
The production, directed by Red Bull’s Artistic Director Jesse Berger, is astounding, and features a large cast of wonderful actors, most of whom are classically-trained. My faves were Charlayne Woodard as the old witch lady and Derek Smith as the Devil Dog.
I’ll say this: I do not plan to miss another Red Bull production. Don’t miss this one.
The Women’s Project has finally gotten their season going with a wild satire by Lynn Rosen called Apple Cove, at the Julia Miles Theatre, which lampoons the new comformity of people who live in “gated” communities. Giovanna Sardelli’s production starts broad and gets broader, but the actors go with it and make it enjoyable even though the play is I think rather silly. If you’re in the mood for silly, though, this one’s for you.
Newsical, at the Kirk Theatre is also pretty silly. It’s a musical review which riffs on current events. It’s kinda like the Capital Steps, though not quite as inventive or funny; but the performers are great fun to watch and the singing is terrific. Rick Crom’s book, music and lyrics are fun, and Mark Waldrop’s direction witty and wild.
Jeff Cohen’s The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller, at ArcLight, definitely falls into the category of Not The Same Old Thing. It imagines what might have happened to the young son of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who disappeared without a trace in Papua New Guinea. Cohen dramatizes the story from the natives’ point of view. His central character, Designing Man, is the tribe’s resident artist, who accepts a commission from Rockefeller is create wood carvings which the young anthropologist plans to bring back to New York to display in a museum he is building.
Cohen handles the dialogue between the various members of the Asmat tribe in a wonderfully anachronistic, contemporary-slangy way, and all the actors are amazing, absolutely convincing as these primitive people. Alfred Preisser’s direction is amazing, too.
If you’re in the mood for Something Completely Different, check this one out.
I also loved Matthew Lopez’ gripping The Whipping Man at Manhattan Theatre Club. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is one of the best plays of the season.
It takes place in a burnt-out house near Richmond, just at the end of the Civil War. An injured soldier named Caleb staggers in, and we find that he is the son of the owner of the house. Everyone’s gone except for a slave named Simon, who quickly ascertains that Caleb’s leg is gangrenous and needs to be amputated, which he does with the help of another former slave named John who shows up out of the blue.
This is not your usual southern family. Since the whites are Jewish, the slaves are too, and one of the high points of the play is at the end, when Simon officiates at a makeshift seder.
There are big surprises in the play, which Lopez handles brilliantly, and which pack quite a whallop. Doug Hughes, the director, is at the top of his game and the three actors, André Braugher (Simon), Jay Wilkison (Caleb) and André Holland (John) are all excellent.
This one’s a don’t-miss.
BLACK TIE. Primary Stage, 59 E. 59th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200
WHAT THE PUBLIC WANTS. Mint Theatre Co., 311 W. 43rd St.
THE WITCH OF EDMONTON. Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St.
APPLE COVE. Women’s Project @ Julia Miles Theatre, 424 W. 55th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
NEWSICAL. Kirk Theatre, 416 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
THE MAN WHO ATE MICHAEL ROCKEFELLER. ArcLight Theatre, 152 W. 71st St.
TICKETS: www.smarttix.com or 212-868-4444
THE WHIPPING MAN. Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 W. 55th St.
“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