“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 GIANT, DEAD ACCOUNTS, THE GOOD MOTHER, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, GOLDEN CHILD, THE PIANO LESSON, THE LAST SEDER, THE ANARCHIST, CHECKERS and FIGARO.

Giant, the new musical at the Public Theater, is set to close this weekend. What a shame, because this is hands down the best new musical of the season.

The book, by Sybille Pearson, based on the novel by Edna Ferber, is gripping as it tells the story of Texas rancher Bick Bickford, his headstrong Virginian wife Leslie, and his surly ranch hand Jett (the James Dean role in the movie), spanning two decades as Texas moves from a ranching to an oil economy. Michael John LaChiusa’s score is magnificent.

Michael Greif’s direction is first rate and all the performances are superb. Brian D’Arcy James is wonderful as the complex Bick, as is Kate Baldwin as Leslie, but my two favorite performances were by Michelle Pawk, who I didn’t even recognize, as Bick’s tough-as-nails sister Luz and PJ Griffith, who somehow managed to take the iconic Dean role, Jett Rink, and make it uniquely his own.

It’s a durn shame that a work of this quality has to close.

Dead Accounts, Theresa Rebeck’s new play at the Music Box Theatre, has been much – and unfairly – maligned by the press. It’s a wonderfully-written play about a refugee from New York named Jack, a banker who has come home to Cincinnati to visit his sister and mother. Turns out, he has embezzled $27,000,000 by siphoning off inactive accounts. It’s uncertain as to whether or not his bank even knows he has done this – but his wife Jenny knows, which is why she is divorcing him.

Norbert Leo Butz is tearing up the stage as Jack, so much so that he overshadows Katie Holmes as his sister Lorna. She’s no slouch, though, and is quite good. Rounding out the cast are the always-excellent Jane Houdyshell is Jack’s mother, Josh Hamilton as a hometown friend who has had a long-time crush on Lorna, and Jane Greer, who plays Jack’s rich-bitch wife to a tee.

I’m not sure I got the ending – but up until then I was vastly entertained.

Francine Volpe’s The Good Mother, produced by the New Group at the Acorn Theatre, left me cold. Gretchen Moll plays a single mother with an autistic child. You keep thinking something dramatic is going to happen any minute, but it never does. The cast is excellent, though – particularly Ms. Moll. I just wish she was in a better play.

Roundabout’s revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, at Studio 54, is great fun. Rupert Holmes has set his musicalization of Dicken’s last – unfinished – novel as if it were being presented in and old time English music hall. After the eponymous character disappears the novel ended, so here the audience gets to vote on who done him in.

Holmes’ music is lovely, and there are several terrific performances, most notably by Jim Norton as the Master of Ceremonies, Chita Rivera as the exotic proprietress of an opium den and Stephanie J. Block as Drood. The night I saw the show, Will Chase was out, so I saw his understudy, Spencer Plachy, as the suspicious John Jasper. He was terrific – yet another proof of the incredible depth of the acting talent pool in New York.

David Henry Hwang is Signature’s playwright honoree this season, and they have mounted a terrific revival of his play Golden Child, about China on the cusp of the modern world.

The play begins with a Chinese American man interviewing his extremely elderly grandmother about the family’s history. We then travel back in time to the point when Granny was a little girl, living in a household with her successful business father, her mother and her father’s other two wives, who me she calls “aunties.” While the father is becoming modern by embracing Christianity, the wives vie against each other for power. Wife #2, played with wonderfully slick deviousness by Jennifer Lim, emerges triumphant.

Leigh Silverman’s beautiful production of this fascinating play will long live in my memory. Next up in the Hwang season: a new musical about Bruce Lee. Can’t wait!

Also at Signature, you can see a wonderful new production of the late August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson, featuring a titanic performance by Brandon J. Dirden as Boy Willie, who has the chance to buy some land down South – but only if he can persuade his sister, who lives in Pittsburgh, to sell the family heirloom piano. Ruben Santiago Hudson’s production is flawless.

Like Golden Child, this one’s a don’t-miss.

Jennifer Maisel’s The Last Seder, at Theatre Three (the space usually occupied by the Mint Theatre Co.), is a compelling drama about three sisters who return home for what may be a last Passover seder with their father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and is on his last legs.

While the acting is impressive, director Jessica Bauman’s production is, well, eccentric. The roof of the family house dominates the stage, and many scenes are staged on it. This concept just doesn’t work.

David Mamet’s The Anarchist, on its last legs at the Golden Theatre, is a short two-hander about a woman named Cathy, imprisoned for 35 years for murdering two police officers when her radical group robbed a bank. Cathy has become a born-again Christian in prison, and please with her parole office to recommend that she be released. Patti Lupone (as Cathy) and Debra Winger, as the cynical parole office, struggle gamely with Mamet’s highly obtuse script, but the whole evening feels like 20 minutes of play about 55 minutes of wheel-spinning.

Douglas McGrath’s Checkers, at the Vineyard, at Pearl Theatre Co.’s production of Figaro, an adaptation by Charles Morey of Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, have, sadly both closed. I was scheduled to see them both around Sandy-time, but had to postpone until the end of their runs. Checkers was a brilliant play about none other than Richard Nixon, focusing on his desperate attempt to avoid being dumped from the Republican presidential ticket in 1952 when he was accused of having a slush fund, money donated by wealthy businessmen, which he had used for his personal expenses. Terry Kinney’s production was amazing, as were Anthony LaPaglia as Nixon and Kathryn Erbe as his wife Pat. This is one of the best plays I have seen this season. Figaro was a delightful goof, directed wittily by Hal Brooks and featuring Pearl’s outstanding acting company.

I hope you saw both these productions; I’m sorry if you missed them.

GIANT. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
TICKETS: 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org
DEAD ACCOUNTS. Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
THE GOOD MOTHER. Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: 212-244-3380 or www.thenewgroup.org
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD. Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.
TICKETS: 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org
GOLDEN CHILD. Signature Theatre Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: 212-244-7529
THE PIANO LESSON. Signature Theatre Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: 212-244-7529
THE LAST SEDER. Theatre Three, 311 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: 212-868-4444
THE ANARCHIST. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
CHECKERS. Vineyard Theatre. Alas, closed.
FIGARO. Pearl Theatre Co. Alas, closed

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