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 PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, GOOD PEOPLE, THE HALLWAY TRILOGY, SPY GARBO, CACTUS FLOWER, COMPULSION, TREASURE ISLAND, INVASION, THE DIARY OF A MADMAN, TIMON OF ATHENS, THINNER THAN WATER, A PERFECT FUTURE, WHEN I COME TO DIE, WHITE PEOPLE and BEAUTIFUL BURNOUT.
As you have noticed from the list above, I have been going to the theatre a lot lately. As a member of the Drama Desk Nominating Committee, I am obligated to see everything which qualifies for award consideration, and everyone is rushing to open before the cut-off dates of the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Tony Awards. I am booked for almost every available slot, going evenings and matinees, until the end of April. If you love the theatre, you have a lot to choose from this time of year.
Peter and the Starcatcher, at NY Theatre Workshop, in an adaptation by Rick Elice of the popular children’s novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, which imagines in a wonderfully whimsical way the antecedent events which led up to the story of Peter Pan. It’s all been put together onstage by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, whose magical direction is a thrill from start to finish. Three orphan boys are on a ship to a faraway land, where they are to be slaves of the local muckety-muck. On another ship, a young girl named Molly is travelling with her father and a sea chest whose contents are a great mystery. Turns out, it contains a magical substance which comes from falling stars, and everyone wants it, including a crew of pirates led by their delightfully wicked captain, Black Stache.
Black Stache captures and Molly and the three boys, one of whom has no name. Stache names him “Peter.” Molly and Peter manage to escape the pirates’ clutches and foil their dastardly attempt to capture the treasure chest. She makes it home to England with her father, where eventually she will give birth to a daughter named Wendy; while Peter and his two companions remain on a mysterious island, there to do battle with Black Stache and his pirates forever. Did I mention that Black Stache loses his hand trying to open the treasure chest, and it’s fed to an enormous crocodile? Of course, we’ll know Stache as the nefarious Captain Hook.
Rees and Timbers have an endless stream of theatrical tricks flowing from their sleeves, so in a very real sense they celebrate, and we celebrate with them, the magic of the theatre. Their wonderful ensemble plays multiple roles, but three stand out: Christian Borle, who plays Black Stache with a Groucho-like flair which is hilarious; Celia Keenan Bolger, whose Molly manages to be both heroic and endearing; and Adam Chanler-Borat who morphs from a scared, hapless orphan with no name into the heroic Peter Pan.
You won’t encounter a more theatrical and fun evening in the theatre this season than Peter and the Starcatcher.
The original production of Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning That Championship Season was one of the first shows I saw on Broadway, when I came here as a tourist in 1973. It knocked me out then, and it’s done it again in its current revival at the Jacobs Theatre. It’s a well-constructed piece of great American realism, the sort of play one rarely sees anymore because it’s anathema to all the major critics. Silly me – I still like a realistic play, particularly if it’s as good as this one is.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the play, it’s set in a small city in Pennsylvania not unlike Scranton, Miller’s home town, in the home of the retired coach of the local high school basketball team. Twenty years ago, the coach’s boys won the state championship. Now, four of the starting five are having a reunion to celebrate that feat. One team member is missing. I guess the scrubs weren’t invited. During a long night of heavy drinking, the men get down and dirty with each other, baring their anger and their resentment at the way their lives turned out. The shocking revelation in the end has to do with why their 5th teammate is not present.
Gregory Mosher’s direction is brilliantly invisible (as good direction in a realistic play must be), and his actors are all superb. I particularly enjoyed Brian Cox, all bullish and Teddy Roosevelt-like as the Coach, and Jason Patric as a laconic drunk. His performance was all the more poignant for me because his father was the playwright, who basically wrecked his career and his health due to his alcoholism.
I was not surprised by the rather dismissive reviews this production has received (see the first paragraph of these comments), but don’t pay any attention. Both play and production are a corker.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, fared better than That Championship Season even though it too is a realistic play (go figure), although most of the raves were for Frances McDormand’s performance. Still, there was an undercurrent of uneasiness, basically a grudging acceptance that this one is pretty good, even though it’s a realistic play.
McDormand plays a poor woman who grew up in and still lives in Southie, an economically depressed area in Boston. She has struggled all her life to support herself, a struggle made even more difficult by the fact that she has a severely retarded daughter. Her life has been nothing but bad choices and hard luck. She loses her job as a cashier in a dollar store, and can’t find another. She decides to go see an old beau who is now a successful doctor. He has nothing for her but he happens to mention that he is throwing a party at his house for some friends, and Our Heroine manages to wheedle and invitation, hoping that one of the friends might have a job for her. That’s the set-up, and what transpires from this is heart-breaking.
Frances McDormand is brilliant, but there is also excellent work here from all the other actors, under Daniel Sullivan’s fine direction.
This one’s a don’t-miss.
As is Adam Rapp’s The Hallway Trilogy at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, three 90-minute dramas all set in the hallway of a run-down apartment house. In the first play, Rosa, a young aspiring actress hopes to meet Eugene O’Neill, who she thinks lives in the building. O’Neill’s death has just been reported, but she thinks it’s a fake. The second play, Paraffin, is a slice of life play mostly centering on a drug addict and his pregnant wife. The final play, Nursing, is set far in the future. All diseases have been eradicated and a sort of disease museum has been set up in what was once the hallway of the first two plays. People can watch through a one-way glass-mirror window as a volunteer is injected with various horrific bacteria, such as plague and cholera. They then get to watch him suffer before he is injected with an antidote.
I found the final play to be farfetched and completely unbelievable; but on the plus side it does feature an amazing performance by Logan Marshall-Green as the volunteer victim. A repertory company of actors plays in all three plays (well-most are in at least two), and all are terrific. My faves were Katherine Waterston as Rosa, the aspiring actress, Green, and William Apps is the drug addict in the second play.
Spy Garbo, at 3LD Art & Technology Center, takes place in “The Limbo of History,” where two spies from World War II and Francisco Franco debate their places in history. They are all in some way connected to another spy, a double agent for both Britain and Germany, whose code name was Garbo.
The play itself is stultifying. The actors do their best, but they’re really swimming upstream. What makes the evening worthwhile are the astounding projections by Aaron Harrow, Jeff Morey and Peter Norrman. Most of the time I just tuned out the play and watched the multi-media show happening all around it.
For Some Strange Reason, Daryl Roth has revived Abe Burrows’ long-running 1960s comedy Cactus Flower at the Westside Arts. It’s a rather lame-brained farce about a womanizing dentist who tells his girlfriends right up front that he is married so they won’t want to marry him. If you can buy that ruse, I have a bridge to Brooklyn I’d like to sell you. The catch is that he really isn’t married. Anyway, he decides that he wants to marry his latest paramour, but she won’t marry him unless she gets to meet his wife – so, he has to come up with a wife. He asks his receptionist to impersonate the wife, blithely unaware that she is in love with him. The machinations get more and more unbelievable, including the conventional “Happy Ending.” Michael Bush’s direction is Just Plain Silly, and poor Max Caulfield is hopelessly miscast as the dentist.
This one is eminently missable.
Sorry it took me so long to get around to telling you about the following shows, all of which have closed.
Rinne Groff’s Compulsion at the Public Theater, which has now closed, was a fascinating play based on the true story of a writer named Meyer Levin (here called “Sid Silver”), who was instrumental in getting Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl published in the U.S. Silver has a handshake agreement with Otto Frank, Anne’s father, to dramatize the book for the stage; but he loses out when the Broadway producers decide his dramatization is not “universal” enough – i.e., it’s too Jewish – and Frank sells him out. So begins Silver’s lifelong crusade to get recognition for his contribution to bringing Anne’s story to light, and to get his own dramatization produced. The play might better be called Obsession, because Silver is truly obsessed – to the point of insanity.
Groff and director Oskar Eustis made extensive use of puppets to tell their story. Anne Frank, for instance, is very much an important character in the play, even though she is represented as a puppet, and the scenes between her and Silver achieved an extraordinary poignancy.
Mandy Patinkin would have seemed an excellent choice to play the manic madman Sid Silver, and in many of the quieter scenes, mostly with Anne, he is very touching. In his many towering-rage scenes, however, Patinkin goes well over the top, becoming bombastic beyond belief. I wished Eustis could have turned him down more than a notch or two, but I suspect that was an impossible task. Personally, I found too much of this performance wince-inducing and unwatchable, but the critics seem to have liked it so maybe it was just me.
I hope you got a chance to see Geoffrey Rush’s astounding performance in an adaptation of Gogol’s The Diarv of a Madman, wherein Rush played a crazy office drone who becomes crazier and crazier as the play goes on, eventually becoming convinced that he is the rightful King of Spain.
Acclaimed fight choreographer BH Barry’s staging of Robert Lois Stevenson’s Treasure Island, at Irondale Theatre Ensemble in Fort Greene Brooklyn was also great fun, and featuring another great pirate performance (the other being Christian Borle’s in Peter and the Starcatcher – see above), this one by Tom Hewitt as Long John Silver. Barry’s fight choreography was as phenomenal as you would expect it to be – after all, he’s the best in the world.
The Play Company has been concentrating for the past couple of seasons on presenting plays by foreign playwrights. Their latest was Invasion, by Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri, a weird mish-mosh mostly having to do with the identity of a middle eastern man named Abul Kasem, who is either a terrorist mastermind or a hapless victim of our own paranoia. At the start of the play, two actors playing moronic teens started a disruption in the audience, which carried onto the stage in a fight with the actors who were performing the “play” we were watching. It’s been a long while since I got into a really good fight, so I leapt up and rushed the stage – only to be halted by an usher who informed me that it was part of the play. Darn! I coulda called my column “On the Floor with Larry” this week! Fans of weird theatre (and there are many) would have fun much to like about Invasion. As for me, I found it insufferable, though blessedly brief.
The Public Theater offered a wonderful production, whose run was all too short, of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, a dark play about a wealthy man who finds himself broke as he has given away his fortune to his “friends,” leaches all, who desert him once he’s broke. Timon becomes a misanthropic hermit and eventually kills himself. I know: bummer. Right? What made the evening memorable was Richard Thomas’ titanic performance in the title role – but all the actors were wonderful under Barry Edelstein’s astute direction. My only quibble was the insertion by Edelstein of lines not written by Shakespeare, which is all too common in Shakespearean production both at the Public Theatre and at the Delacorte. One of the parasites says, “For 500 talents, she better get naked. Somehow, I don’t think that was written by Shakespeare.
Thinner than Water, presented by LaByrinth at the Cherry Pit, was an auspicious debut by Melissa Ross about three warring siblings who come together for their father’s funeral and basically have at each other. Mimi O’Donnell’s direction was pitch-perfect and all the actors were great. I hope you got a chance to see this. I’m sorry if you didn’t.
Daniel Hay’s A Perfect Future, briefly at the Cherry Lane Theatre, was a real rarity – a commercial off Broadway production not a transfer from somewhere else. Its failure is probably the last nail in the coffin for such productions, which makes me sad. What also makes me sad is that this play was a lot better than the reviews would have made you believe. The actors were all excellent (Donna Bullock even more so).
When I Come to Die, produced by LCT3 at the Duke Theatre, was a drama about a death row inmate who miraculously survives a lethal injection. Most of the drama is then about whether or not he is gong to be allowed to live. I felt the playwright, Nathan Louis Jackson, shilly-shallied around the real subject of his play, which was whether or not an actual miracle had occurred. Ultimately, I didn’t buy the play, but I did love Chris Chalk’s superb performance as the doomed inmate.
Neil Cuthbert’s White People, at Ensemble Studio Theatre, was a well-done but rather inconsequential family comedy about a mother trying to hold her family together. Her husband’s a drunk, her oldest son has dropped out of college and sits around all day in his pajamas writing an idiotic sci-fi novel, her younger son is brain-fried from drugs and her daughter is an “exotic dancer: who has been impregnated by the bartender at the club where she works. His name is Boo Boo. In the hands of a Chris Durang, this could have been wildly funny. Cuthbert’s approach was more conventional. Which made the play seem ultimately rather inconsequential, though the performances were all pretty good.
Finally, St. Ann’s Warehouse presented a production by the National Theatre of Scotland of Bryony Lavery’s Beautiful Burnout, which was about wannabe boxers training for what they hope might be a sot at the big time. Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett co-directed as well as co-choreographer the boxing sequences, which were amazing. I hope you got a chance to see this one.
PETER AND THE STARCATCHER. NY Theatre Workshop, 83 E. 4th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com, 212-279-4200
THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200
GOOD PEOPLE. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200
THE HALLWAY TRILOGY. Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, 224 Waverly Pl.
TICKETS: www.smarttix.com, 212-868-4444
SPY GARBO. 3LD Art & Technology Center, 80 Greenwich St.
TICKETS: 212-352-3101; 866-811-4111
CACTUS FLOWER. Westside Arts, 407 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200
Alas, the following have all closed:
COMPULSION, TREASURE ISLAND, INVASION, THE DIARY OF A MADMAN, TIMON OF ATHENS, THINNER THAN WATER, A PERFECT FUTURE, WHEN I COME TO DIE, WHITE PEOPLE and BEAUTIFUL BURNOUT.
“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