“On the Aisle with Larry”

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 SCANDALOUS, A CHRISTMAS STORY, FOREVER DUSTY, VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, EMOTIONAL CREATURE, ANNIE, RADIANCE, FALLING, THE HEIRESS, MODERN TERRORISM, FOREVER DUSTY, A TWIST OF WATER, THE WHALE, THE TWENTY-SEVENTH MAN and SORRY.

Scandalous, the new musical at the Neil Simon Theatre, with book, lyrics and some music by Kathie Lee Gifford and most of the music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, tells the story of America’s first superstar media evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson, who rose from humble beginnings to world fame in the 20s and 30s before facing a scandal which almost brought her down.

For a show like this to work, the audience has to believe that Our Heroine is the real deal, and it has to believe in her message. This is an impossible uphill climb in a place like New York, but Gifford attempts it anyway. Instead of an evangelist, McPherspon is portrayed as a proto-self-help guru. Nobody seems to have noticed this, but there is little or no mention of Christ and Christianity. McPherson stages elaborate Biblical pageants at her church in Los Angeles (all rather silly in order to remind audiences of how much fun they had at The Book of Mormon), but these are all from the Old Testament, I guess so as not to piss off Jews and atheists, two of the larger Broadway demographics. Walt Spangler’s unit set is meant to suggest McPherson’s Angelus Church in Los Angeles. There is no Christian iconography. It looks like rows of ice pillars, which brought me in mind more than once of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

The music affords the star, Carolee Carmello, ample opportunity to crank up her amazing belt voice. She’s the main reason to go see Scandalous, though mention must also be made of Edward Watts, who plays Husbands #1 and 3 (one a good guy, one a louse). Watts has great charisma, sings wonderfully in a rich baritone and is the most beautiful man I have seen on a Broadway stage since the first time I saw Cheyenne Jackson. Whether you’re gay or straight: hubba-hubba!

I expected A Christmas Story, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, to be another cloying holiday entertainment. Boy, was I wrong! Joseph Robinette’s book is wonderfully inventive, and the songs are all a delight. In case you don’t know the movie, it’s about a little kid named Ralphie who somehow must convince his parents that a BB gun would be a great gift for him this Christmas. The intrusive voice-over narration in the movie has been replaced with an onstage narrator, played with great charm by Dan Lauria.

John Rando is one of our finest directors of comedy, and he’s pulled out all the stops here, aided by Warren Carlyle’s witty choreography. Johnny Rabe is perfect as the geeky Raphie, as are John Bolton and Erin Dilly as the parents. Stop-the-show moments are provided by Caroline O’Connor and pint-sized dynamo Luke Spring in a hilarious number in the second act about why Raphie shouldn’t get his gun, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” in which Spring has an astonishing featured tap sequence which brought the house down.

A Christmas Story rivals Chaplin as the best new musical of the season. It has a limited run, closing on 30 December, so you better get going.

Christopher Durang’s new comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, is this comic master’s funniest play in years. It’s about three siblings, all named by their academic parents for Chekhov characters. Vanya, played with wonderful aplomb by David Hyde Pierce and Sonia, played to dotty perfection by Durang veteran Kristine Nielsen, live together in the family house in Buck’s Country, which for some reason is owned solely by their older sister Masha, a famous movie star not unlike Sigourney Weaver, who plays her, who rarely visits. She’s come for a visit, in tow with her studly boyfriend Spike, a vapid hunk who’s half her age, for a costume party at a famous neighbor’s house. She’s going to go as Snow White, and she’s invited her brother and sister to come along as drawfs. Sonia stands up for herself for once in her life and decided instead to go as the Wicked Queen, whom she interprets with a very stagy, hilarious Maggie Smith accent. Vanya dresses up as Grumpy. Masha basically supports Vanya and Sonia, and she announces that she plans to sell the house. Will she or won’t she?

Nicholas Martin, not particularly known for comedy, delivers a Rando-class production.

This one’s a don’t-miss.

I also enjoyed Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creature, at the Signature Center, an evening of songs and monologues about worldwide girldom. It’s funny and poignant, and beautifully acted by an ensemble of 6 young women, under the fine directorial hand of Jo Bonney.

As for Annie, at the Palace Theatre, this was something of a disappointment. I found James Lapine’s direction to be surprisingly uninventive. I did enjoy Lilla Crawford in the title role, but was amazed to see the usually-wonderful Katie Finneran screeching her way through the role of Miss Hannigan, and she wasn’t funny – she was just mean. Still, Annie has some wonderful songs and when Annie manages to persuade Oliver Warbucks to join with FDR to do something about the Depression by introducing the New Deal, the show has whimsical contemporary topicality, because basically Warbucks is the Koch brothers pleading with the President for massive government intervention in the economy. One can only wish.

I did enjoy Cusi Cram’s Radiance, at the Labyrinth Theatre Co. We are in a dive bar in Hollywood, on an afternoon, peopled by the manager and a floozy who doubles as cocktail waitress and bookkeeper, when in walks a mysterious man in need of a drink. Turns out, he was the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane used to drop the bomb in Hiroshima. He’s in turn to appear on “This is Your Life,” but he fled the set when learned that the Hiroshima Maidens, women horribly disfigured by the blast, are also to appear. Suzanne Agins has done a fine job of directing and all her actors are terrific. My faves were Ana Reeder as the floozy and Kyle Sudduth as the tormented flier.

The critics have been laying into Labyrinth lately, pretty much ever since they moved into their new home at Westbeth. Some of this has been justified, as a couple of their play choices have been most questionable, but the carping about Radiance is not. Labyrinth has extended the run of the play, so fortunately people must not be paying any mind to the critical negativity.

Deanna Jent’s Falling, at the Minetta Lane Theatre amazed me – not so much because the play’s all that great but more because it’s a rather conventional realistic family drama which not only got produced off Broadway but actually got some pretty good reviews. Usually, they hate this kind of play. Go figure. Anyway, it’s about parents dealing with the chaos caused by their autistic teenaged son. Jent’s writing is assured but uninspired, and the same thing can be said of Lori Adams’ direction. Falling is the sort of play best seen by people whose lives have been affected by autism.

Roundabout has revived Ruth and Augustus Goetz’ The Heiress, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, largely as a vehicle for Jessica Chastain, who plays the title role, and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, who plays the fickle man Our Heroine pins her hopes on. The play itself is the sort that the Mint Theatre regularly revives, though it is far less obscure than most of their offerings. I only mention this because if it was seen at the Mint it would seem far stronger than it appears on Broadway. When Cherry Jones played the central role several years ago, she made the play seem more memorable than it was. Jessica Chastain, while perfectly fine, is no Cherry Jones.

Is this worth seeing? Sure, particularly if you’re a Downton Abbey fan, as Stevens is excellent as the false suitor. Also good is David Strathairn as the strait-laced, stern father.

About Second Stage’s Modern Terrorism, the less said the better. This was an attempted comedy about a terrorist cell in New York plotting a suicide bombing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. A comedy? Really?? Sorry – Not Funny. The actors were good, but not enough to redeem this misguided play.

Forever Dusty, at New World Stages, is a biographical musical about British pop singer Dusty Springfield, written rather clunkily by Kirsten Holly Smith and Jonathan Vankin, and directed clunkily as well by Randall Myler. Smith is terrific as Dusty Springfield, though, as is Christina Sajous, who plays a journalist who becomes Dusty’s lover.

Forever Dusty is not as bad as you’ve heard. I recommend it.

I would also have recommended Caitlin Parrish’s A Twist of Water had I gotten it together before it closed last weekend at 59 E 59. This was an import from Chicago and was about a gay man struggling to maintain his relationship with his surly adopted teenaged daughter and to rebuild his life after the death of his partner. It was also about the history of Chicago, which probably worked better in Chi-town than it did here. But the acting was first-rate. I hope you saw this. If you didn’t, I’m sorry.

Also good is Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, at Playwrights Horizons, a drama about a 600-pound man who’s been eating himself to death since the death of his partner, even as he tries to reconnect with his estranged teenaged daughter, a horrible girl who’s mean to everybody. Shuler Hensley is very strong as the big fat guy. All the actors are good, in fact.

The Twenty-Seventh Man, at the Public Theater, is a drama by Nathan Englander set in Stalinist Russia about a group of Jewish writers who have been rounded up for eventual execution as part of Stalin’s desire to eradicate Yiddish. We are in a cell with four of them – three famous writers and one young teenaged nobody. One of the writers is a Stalinist toady who believes he’s been arrested mistakenly. Some of Englander’s dialogue is a bit clunky, but the play is a riveting examination of the Russian part of the Holocaust and is quite moving. Chip Zien is particularly impressive as the toady who is asked by the man responsible for arresting him (chillingly played by Byron Jennings) to denounce the unpublished writings of the kid.

I highly recommend The Twenty-Seventh Man.

As for Richard Nelson’s Sorry, also at the Public Theater – what a disappointment. This play is the third in a series of plays about a family which gets together from time to time to talk politics. The first two were engaging, but by the time Nelson got around to this one he had nothing left to say. Sorry is almost two hours, sans interval, of uninteresting talk and is incredibly boring.

SCANDALOUS. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000 or 877-250-2929
A CHRISTMAS STORY. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000 or 877-250-2929
FOREVER DUSTY. New World Stages (Stage 5), 340 W. 50th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln
Center
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
EMOTIONAL CREATURE. Pershing Square Signature Center/Romulus Linney
Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
TICKETS: 212-244-7529
ANNIE. Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000 or 877-250-2929
RADIANCE. Labyrinth Theatre Co., Bank St. Theatre, 155 Bank St.
TICKETS: www.labtheatre.org
FALLING. Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane.
TICKETS: 800-982-2787
THE HEIRESS. American Airlines Theatre, 219 W. 48th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
MODERN TERRORISM. Second Stage. Closed.
A TWIST OF WATER 59 E 59. Closed
THE WHALE. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200
THE TWENTY-SEVENTH MAN. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
TICKETS: 212-967-7555
SORRY. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
TICKETS: 212-967-7555

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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