“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. In this column, Larry reports on PICNIC, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, BETHANY, THE VANDAL, FOODACTS and CLIVE.

In the Good Old Days, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama went to a play with a strong story and compelling characters. You know, like Picnic or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, plays which subsequently became honored members of our national dramatic repertory, both of which are back on Broadway. I wonder if future audience in New York will see revivals of plays like Topdog/Underdog, Anna in the Tropics or the most recent winner, Water by the Spoonful. I tend to doubt it. I suspect that these plays won the award for reasons other than their strengths as drama, or their likelihood of standing the test of time; but I’ll just let that drop. Suffice it to say that I consider it a disgrace that truly major playwrights such as A.R. Gurney and Terrence McNally have never won the Pulitzer. Gurney’s The Dining Room, Indian Blood and Big Bill were truly worthy of the award; as were McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Some Men and Love! Valor! Compassion! Anyway, put the Pulitzer Jury in your “Go Figure” file …

I don’t think William Inge’s Picnic, produced by the Roundabout at their American Airlines Theatre, is a Deathless Classic, but it’s a strong, well-made play with characters you care about. Sam Gold’s production is mostly just OK, though – it’s weakness being the two leads, not because they are all that bad as individuals but because I just didn’t see real sexual chemistry between them. Sebastian Stan, who plays the drifter who whirls into town and wins the love of Our Heroine is a buffed hunk, but he’s wearing some weird kind of body makeup, it appears, which makes him look like he’s made of wax. The best performances come from, predictably, Elizabeth Marvel and Reed Birney, as a desperately lonely spinster schoolteacher and the businessman she’s been dating forever who just can’t bring himself to commit. Marvels’ anguished plea, “Marry me, Howard!” will long sear your heart.

Tennessee Williams Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, on the other hand, is a Deathless Classic. It’s been back on Broadway several times since I’ve been in NYC. This time around, it appears It’s here (at the Richard Rodgers Theatre) because Scarlett Johansson wanted to play Maggie. While Rob Ashford’s direction has its flaws, these don’t include Our Scarlett or her co-star, Benjamin Walker, who manages to make the ever-sullen Brick rather sympathetic. Johansson makes a heartbreaking Maggie, one of the finest I have ever seen. Also good is Irish actor Ciarán Hinds, whose Big Daddy is a different take on the role, more dark and seething with anger, than one usually sees. Debra Monk is fine as Big Mama, though my quibble about her is that Big Mama is supposed to be fat (it’s in the script), whereas Monk just looks sort of matronly. Another quibble, and this is with the director and the set designer: More than once, mention is made that Brick no longer sleeps in the same bed with Maggie, but on the sofa. Where’s the sofa??? Nowhere to be found on Christopher Oram’s set, that’s for sure. Did he and Ashford not notice this in the text?

Anyway, both these former Pulitzer Prize-winners are worth seeing. As for Water by the Spoonful? Eminently missable …

Julia Marks’ Bethany, a Women’s Project production in their new home at City Center Stage II, features “Ugly Betty” star America Ferrara as a woman named Crystal who’s at the end of her rope. She’s lost her house and custody of her daughter, Bethany, and if she doesn’t make a sale soon at the Saturn dealership where she works, she’s not going to get Bethany back. She has a possible customer, though, a motivational speaker who may or may not keep coming in to buy a car. Maybe, he’s just a weirdo; maybe he’s looking to leverage the saleswoman’s desperation into an easy lay. Meanwhile, Crystal is squatting in a foreclosed house which still has electrical power, sharing it with a very strange man who’s homeless too.

Ferrera is terrific in the play, strongly supported by a first-rate cast directed superbly by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. My faves were Ken Marks as her strange potential customer and Tobias Segal as her weird housemate.

Marks’ play is a haunting portrait of America’s middle class in steep free fall. It’s the sort of play which should win the Pulitzer …

Who knew that the wonderful actor Hamish Linklater was also a gifted playwright? Proof of this is on view at the Flea Theatre, where his The Vandal has been extended. This is a haunting three-hander. Late at night, a middle aged woman waiting at a bus stop is approached by a loquacious teenaged boy. He wants her to buy him some beer. Eventually, she caves – and learns that the kid is the beer store owner’s son. He’s a lonely widower – she’s a lonely widow.

This is one of those All Is Not What It Seems sorta plays. It’s very touching, beautifully directed by Jim Simpson and featuring three of the finest performances currently on the New York stage, from Noah Robbins (as the kid), Zach Grenier (as the store owner) and, most especially, from the always phenomenal Deirdre O’Connell.

This one’s a don’t-miss.

Foodacts, at the Lion Theatre, is an anthology of scenes from literature all having to do with food, conceived and directed by Barbara Bosch. Her direction is witty and inventive, and the acting is surprisingly strong. The intermission-less evening’s a little long, but still this is great fun.

And now, to Jonathan Marc Sherman’s Clive, at the Acorn Theatre, produced by the New Group, directed by and starring Ethan Hawke. This is a contemporary adaptation of Brecht’s Baal. Here, the central character is a singer-guitarist, the kind who turns up in East Village bars. He’s a vile man who sings like he’s parodying early Bob Dylan. Actually, he makes Dylan sound like Andrea Bocelli. He spends most of the play getting drunk, snorting coke and bedding various emo chicks, all easy lays and all played by Zoe Kazan. What this fine young actress is doing in this piece of crap mystifies me. Hawke is terrible in the title role. The other actors, playing multiple roles, struggle valiantly against the text and Hawke’s formless direction, but it’s a Lost Cause.

Clive has rocketed to the top of my Bomb of the Year list.

PICNIC. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000
BETHANY. City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St.
TICKETS: 212-581-1212
THE VANDAL. Flea Theatre, 41 White St.
TICKETS: www.ovationtix.com
FOODACTS. Lion Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.foodacts.com, www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
CLIVE. Acorn Theatre. Fuhgeddaboudit.

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