Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry reports on DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, SILENCE, OLIVE AND THE BITTER HERBS, HERMAN KLINE’S MIDLIFE CRISIS, SUMMER SHORTS SERIES A and THE GREENWICH VILLAGE FOLLIES.
Death Takes a Holiday, the new musical produced by Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theatre, has apparently been kicking around a while, as original book writer Peter Stone died in 2003. Maury Yeston, who wrote the music and lyrics, has linked up with Thomas Meehan to put the finishing touches on Stone’s book, and the result is one of the loveliest, most enchanting Off Broadway musicals in recent memory.
It’s based on Alberto Cassella’s 1922 play in Italian, produced on Broadway later that decade and made into a rather famous film in 1934, and has a whimsical, fanciful premise: what if Death decided to take a break from his grisly job for a few days? Death (played by Kevin Earley, who took over the role when original star Julian Ovenden came down with a bad case of laryngitis), decides that he would like to know what it’s like to be human, so he poses as a Russian prince and comes to stay with a wealthy family at their villa in Italy. There, he meets Grazia, the beautiful daughter of Duke Vittorio, the pater familias. She is engaged to be married, but she falls for the handsome prince and breaks it off. Since Death is now human (if only for the weekend), he is now capable of love – and he falls for her. She wants to leave with him, not knowing of course that if she does, she must die. When he finally reveals to her his true identity, both lovers must decide if their love is, as it were, eternal.
Yeston’s score is sublime, with one beautiful song after another, and Stone and Meehan’s book is expertly constructed and most engaging. The performers, under Doug Hughes’ wonderful direction, are all terrific. Earley is particularly impressive. He is charming and charismatic in the title role, and he sings like a dream. This is a “Star is Born” performance.
Don’t miss Death Takes a Holiday. Bring Kleenex.
Silence! at Theatre 80, is a raunchy spoof of The Silence of the Lambs. Jenn Harris, a wonderfully gifted comedienne still waiting for that breakthrough role, sends up Jodie Foster’s performance in the film with malicious glee, and Brent Barrett pays homage, rather than sends up, Anthony Hopkins’ iconic performance as Hannibal Lecter. Director and Choreographer Christopher Gatelli’s work is very witty, and his ensemble cast, all playing multiple roles, has a lot of fun with them.
If you’re in the mood for something outrageous and raunchy, and you can’t get into The Book of Mormon, this one’s worth a visit.
At 59 E 59, Primary Stages has a new comedy by Charles Busch – only the third play he’s done in which he does not appear – called Olive and the Bitter Herbs. The “Olive” in the play is an elderly bit part and TV commercial actress who starts seeing a ghost in the mirror in her living room. Also in the play are a theatrical company manager who looks in on Olive from time to time, a gay couple and the elderly father of Olive’s co-op’s Board of Directors. All, it turns out, have a personal connection to the ghost in the mirror.
Busch’s writing is, as you would expect, very witty; but the play peters out in the second act, devolving into stories about the man in the mirror which become increasingly far-fetched. All the performances are wonderful, though. Marcia Jean Kurtz is delightfully cranky as Olive, and Julie Halston pulls out all her inimitable schtick as her friend Wendy.
Olive and the Bitter Herbs isn’t top-drawer Busch, but it supplies intermittent fun.
Josh Koenigsberg’s Herman Kline’s Midlife Crisis, at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, is an amusing comedy about a doctor who finds a bag of what he thinks is crack (it’s actually uncut cocaine) in the body of a murder victim and decides to keep it. He has just learned that he is seriously ill, and the baggie in his pocket becomes a kind of “security blanket.” Meanwhile, a young dope dealer is desperately searching for the missing coke.
Koenigsberg’s writing is fresh and assured, and the direction by Sherri Eden Barber equally so. All the performances are terrific, with special kudos to Bobby Moreno as the increasingly desperate drug dealer. This just got a pan in the Daily News. It didn’t deserve it. Herman Kline’s Midlife Crisis is well worth checking out.
As is Summer Shorts, Series A, at 59 E 59, which is much the best bill of one-acts I have seen in the 5-year history of this series. It starts off with Carrie and Francine, a comedy by Ruby Rae Spiegel about two teenaged girls. One’s determines to have sex with the honoree at a bar mitzvah, the other is determined to lose her baby fat by learning the complex art of bulimia. The play is funny and raunchy and features babe-alicious performances by Lydia Weintraub and Louise Sullivan. Next up is Triple Trouble with Love, three monologues by Christopher Durang, the first two or which are inter-locking, about a woman who only dates men she calls “hobbits” before dumping, about one of her hobbits, and about a woman with a predilection towards horrible choices in men. Alexander Dinelaris’ In This, Our Time, the only drama on the bill, is about a teenaged girl and her wayward mother. I found it touching, and beautifully acted. The piéce de resistance of the evening is Neil LaBute’s The New Testament, about an incredibly racist playwright who is adamant that the role of Jesus in his new play cannot be played by an Asian actor. Labute’s humor is outrageous as he sends up the whole issue of what has come to be called “non-traditional casting.”
Summer Shorts Series A is excellent, across the board.
I also enjoyed The Greenwich Village Follies, at Manhattan Theatre Source, a historical cavalcade of Village history with terrific songs by Doug Silver and Andrew Frank. Most are irreverently funny, but there are two “serious” songs thrown in which I found most memorable, a setting of Village poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Dream” and a heartbreaking song about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911. There are nine performers available to do this show, but only four perform at any one time. Three of the four I saw were pretty good, but the fourth, Meghan Dreyfuss, was more than good. She has a Big Voice and an engaging stage presence, and I have no doubt I’ll be seeing more of her, in bigger venues than the tiny stage of Manhattan Theatre Source.
DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. Laura Pels Theatre, 11 W. 46th St.
SILENCE! Theatre 80, 80 St. Mark’s Pl.
OLIVE AND THE BITTER HERBS. Primary Stages, 59 E. 59th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200
HERMAN KLINE’S MIDLIFE CRISIS. Samuel Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.
DISCOUNT TICKETS: Call 212-947-8844 and mention code TRHERMAN
SUMMER SHORTS SERIES A. 59 E. 59th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200
THE GREENWICH VILLAGE FOLLIES. Manhattan Theatre Source,177 Macdougal St.
For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“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
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt