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 THE MOUNTAINTOP. RELATIVELY SPEAKING, PRIVATE LIVES, VENUS IN FUR, OTHER DESERT CITIES, CHINGLISH, THE LYONS, WILD ANIMALS YOU SHOULD KNOW, STANDING ON CEREMONY: THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS and ASUNCION.

Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, at the Jacobs Theatre, takes place on the night before Martin Luther King was killed, in his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. King, alone late at night, calls the front desk for some coffee, which soon is brought up by a maid. He’s lonely; she’s seemingly astounded that she is talking to the famous “Preacher King.” Yes, King half-heartedly comes on to her; but she deflects his advances and they settle in for a chat. It is emblematic of the playwright’s skill, as well as that of the two actors (Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett) that this chat sustains dramatic interest, right up to the surprising ending.

Jackson is magnificent as Dr. King; but he is more than matched by Bassett. Kenny Leon’s direction is subtle as he builds dramatic tension until the incredible ending which literally made my jaw drop. No, I’m not going to say anything more. You’ll just have to see it to believe it.

Relatively Speaking, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, is a bill of three unrelated one-act plays. The first, Talking Cure by Ethan Coen, is more of a sketch than a play, about a psychiatrist interviewing a man in prison about what he did (we never find out). When it ends, you can hear the audience go “Huh?” Elaine May’s George is Dead is better. At least it’s funny. Marlo Thomas plays an airheaded rich broad who’s just learned that he husband has died. She comes over to the apartment of a woman whose mother used to be her nanny, for advice and consolation. Why does she do this, since there’s no evidence that the two women have been in contact? In other words, it’s a playwright’s contrivance; but what makes it bearable is Thomas’ splendidly ditzy performance. The final play is Woody Allen’s intermittently amusing Honeymoon Hotel, set in a tacky honeymoon suite. A couple enters, all excited, having just left the reception. He’s older than she, but so what? Well, it turns out that he is actually the groom’s stepfather, and he and the bride fell so in love/lust at the wedding that they’ve run off together. One after another, various wedding guests show up to find out what’s going on, and our evening gets less and less funny, until it finally peters out.

It amazes me that these inane plays are on Broadway; but what amazes me even more was that they dodged a bullet. The NY Times could have quickly closed the show with a scathing review, but The Ish, well-known for his scathes, rather liked this. So, it looks like they’re going to have something of a run. Go figure …

The revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, at the Music Box, goes short on droll and long on flippancy. Since most productions I have seen of the play emphasized drollery, I enjoyed director Richard Eyre’s emphasis on Coward’s point that flippancy is what’s needed to live in this world. Except that when I think on’t, when Private Lives was first produced, the world was going to hell in a handbasket, even worse than it is now. But Coward’s characters inhabit a glamorous world of champagne, beautiful clothes and fabulous vacations. None of them appear to have any source of income. In other words, they’re the 1% that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are railing about.

Although I enjoyed this production – particularly, Kim Cattrall’s Amanda and Paul Gross’ Elyot, I have to say that Coward’s characters seem awfully callow. But if you think flippancy and glamour is just what you need right now, you’ll enjoy Private Lives.

David Ives’ Venus and Fur, which introduced Nina Arianda to New York audiences off Broadway two seasons back, has re-opened at the Friedman Theatre now that she has become a star (from her scene-stealing, unforgettably hilarious performance as Billie Dawn in last season’s revival of Born Yesterday). She is much the best reason to see this new production, although her co-star, Hugh Dancy, is no slouch.

Dancy plays a harried playwright/director who is trying to cast the female lead in an adaptation of a notoriously risqué 19th Century novel. He’s about ready to leave for the day when Arianda bursts in, and insists upon auditioning. Miraculously, she knows the script by heart, and the two of them basically do the whole play, which is about a masochist and a woman he makes into his dominatrix. It’s all very sexy and titillating; but when we find out in the end who the actress really is, the play is revealed for the hooey it is.

So: two wonderful performances, in a completely contrived play. Go anyway. You don’t want to miss these performances – particularly, Arianda’s.

You also don’t want to miss Jon Robin Baitz’ Other Desert Cities, which received outstanding reviews last season when it played at the Mitzi Newhouse and which has now transferred to Broadway’s Booth Theatre. This is a gripping, intellectually engaging drama wherein the great Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach play a wealthy retired couple who were once major players in Republican Hollywood. Their two adult children come home the holidays. Their son produces a “reality TV” show and their daughter is a writer. They had a third child, Henry, but he succumbed to drugs and suicide years ago after becoming implicated in a deadly bombing perpetrated by a radical group. The daughter, Brooke, has come though a nervous breakdown and has written a memoir of her family which basically accuses her parents of complicity in the death of Henry. Much of the play involves a debate over whether of not she should have the right to publish her book. This one has an ending which caught me completely by her surprise.

Channing and Keach are great, but so are Rachel Griffiths as Brooke and Thomas Sadosky as the brother. Judith Light plays laconic Aunt Silda with just the right amount of sarcasm.

This one’s definitely a don’t-miss.

I would say, so is David Henry Hwang’s fascinating (and very funny) Chinglish, at the Longacre Theatre, about a desperate American businessman who goes to China to try to get a contract which will save his company, there to come up against a business climate which is nothing like he has ever encountered. He receives some unexpected help from a Chinese official named Xi Yan. Will he get the contract? And what’s in it for Xi Yan?

Leigh Silverman’s direction is brilliant, and Jennifer Lim is wonderful as Xi Yan. Gary Wilmes is good as the American businessman, but it’s Lim who really shines. Also, I rarely wax poetic about a set but David Korins’ is astonishing.

Nicky Silver’s The Lyons, which has closed, was a wonderfully quirky, mordant family drama about a dysfunctional family to end all dysfunctional families. The pater familias, a nasty old coot named Ben, is dying. Basically, no longer does he give a shit about being nice to anyone, least of all to his domineering wife, Rita. His daughter is a screwed-up not-so recovered alcoholic; his son, an equally screwed up gay man who appears to have an imaginary boyfriend. Mark Brokaw’s production was hilarious, and featured an unforgettable star turn by Linda Lavin as Rita. This run was sold out and extended. It would not surprise me if the play resurfaced in a commercial production. I hope so – it deserves it.

Thomas Higgins’ Wild Animals You Should Know, an MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is about two teenaged boys who are boy scouts. Matthew is a studly, rather narcissistic straight kid; Jacob is a very gay kid who lusts after him. They are best friends. Also in the mix is Matthew’s father, a disengaged man who tries to connect with his son as an assistant scoutmaster on a camping trip. Matthew happens to find out that their scoutmaster, Rodney, is gay, and with deliberate callousness decides to out him.

Trip Cullman, one of my favorite directors, has done a wonderful job, helped enormously by a pitch perfect cast. For Some Strange Reason, most of the critics didn’t much care for this play. I think it’s a lot better than they have led you to believe, and I would call it a don’t-miss.

Also don’t-miss is Standing on Ceremony: the Gay Marriage Plays, at the Minetta Lane Theatre, a compendium of short pieces by the likes of Paul Rudnick, Adam Bock, Moisé Kaufman, Wendy MacLeod and Jordan Harrison. Some are quite funny (Rudnick’s in particular), but some are quite poignant, such as Kaufman’s London Mosquitoes, a eulogy by a man at his partner of 47 years’ funeral, delivered beautifully by Richard Thomas. The rest of the cast includes Harriet Harris, Polly Draper, Craig Bierko and Mark Consuelos – all great. The evening is done as a reading, though all the actors appear to be off book. It’s one of those events like Love, Loss and What I Wore which can be done with rotating casts, as it no doubt will be for quite some time – but try to see it with the original cast. It’s wonderful.

Jesse Eisenberg, the young actor who was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for his performance in The Social Network, demonstrates a gift for quirky comedy in Asuncion, at the Cherry Lane, which has been extended and at this writing is still running. Eisenberg plays Edgar, a slacker 20-something who lives with a former college professor named Vinny, a white dude who teaches black studies and who spends most of his time smoking weed. Edgar is a wannabe writer, but most of the time he mostly just talks about writing, rather than doing it. Edgar’s brother, Stuart, shows up one day with his bride, a Filipino woman named Asuncion, saying he needs her to stay with Edgar for a while. Edgar decides that Asuncion is a sex worker, and decides to write about her horrible life in the Philippines, and Vinny hits on her. Eventually, Stuart comes back to reclaim her.

This is a preposterously contrived premise, but Eisenberg almost pulls it off. And he’s wonderful as Edgar, as is Justin Bartha as Vinny. Asuncion is worth seeing if only for these two.

THE MOUNTAINTOP. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street.

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

RELATIVELY SPEAKING. Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street

TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000

PRIVATE LIVES. Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street

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

VENUS IN FUR. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street

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

OTHER DESERT CITIES. Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

CHINGLISH. Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street

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

THE LYONS. Vineyard Theatre. Alas, closed.

WILD ANIMALS YOU SHOULD KNOW. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121   Christopher St.

TICKETS: 212-352 3101

STANDING ON CEREMONY: THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS. Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane.

TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000

ASUNCION. Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.

TICKETS: 212-352-3101

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.com.

“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

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