“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 THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, MATILDA, MOTOWN, JEKYLL AND HYDE, THE NANCE, THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES, F#%KING UP EVERYTHING, THE DANCE OF DEATH, GOLDOR $ MYTHYKA, COLLAPSE, FINKS and SLEEPING ROUGH.

The Testament of Mary, Colm Torbin’s monodrama starring Fiona Shaw, posits that Jesus’ mom was a bitter, frightened, angry woman, appalled that her son grew up to be a crank and a leader of other cranks. Torbin does not pay much attention to Gospel chronology. Here, Lazarus is raised from the dead in Cana (instead of Bethany, where the Bible says this happened), dug up from his grave, which displays an astounding ignorance of Jewish burial practices at the time, then Mom’s son (she refuses to utter his name for some reason) maybe changes water into wine at the wedding. Or maybe not. His Mom thinks this is highly spurious. The miracle at Cana was Christ’s first miracle: Lazarus, one of his last. At Cana, Mary’s son tells her he’s the son of God – which is news to her. Finally, it turns out the Resurrection was a bad dream Mary had. She told it to some other people, and the rest is history. Lord, have mercy.

Deborah Warner’s staging has Fiona Shaw staggering around the stage, overturning tables and chairs willy-nilly, taking out cigarettes which she doesn’t smoke, swigging from what appears to be a bottle of vodka and – holy moly! – even stripping butt-naked at one point to splash around in a small pool. Occasionally, the back wall of the stage opens up slowly, for no discernible reason, while faint, eerie, almost inaudible music plays.

As a Christian, I found this appalling, one of the worst things I have ever seen. If you’re an atheist or an agnostic, I expect you’ll merely find it boring.

The reviews are in, and Matilda, at the Shubert Theatre, appears to be this season’s Big One. The book, by Dennis Kelly, is based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl about an indefatigable little girl who won’t be deterred by the Parents and Schoolmistress From Hell from getting an education. Everyone great in the show – most especially, Bertie Carvel as the horrible schoolmistress.

My problem with the show: many of the songs are very fast in tempo. When they’re sung by the kids (much of the time), in thick English working class accents, they’re pretty much unintelligible. I thought it was just me – but everyone sitting around me had the same problem. They should project the lyrics above the proscenium, like the New York City Opera.

Matilda is an overblown kiddie show. It’s OK – but I’ve seen better this season, including a few which did not find favor with most critics.

Motown, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, is a jukebox musical which employs at least 50 Motown hits as it tells the story of the company’s founder, Berry Gordy, Jr. Since the book is written by Gordy, it’s pretty much a hagiographic portrait of the man. All the performers do terrific impersonations of the Real Thing. Charl Brown sounds exactly like Smokey Robinson, and Raymond Luke, Jr. stops the show as young Michael Jackson.

I grew up loving Motown songs, so for me it was a wonderful trip down memory lane, somewhat rueful, though, when I thought about the crap that passes for pop music nowadays.

Jekyll and Hyde is back, at the Marquis Theatre, and has gotten predictably terrible reviews. For some reason I can’t fathom, the critics loathe Frank Wildhorn, its composer, and are determined to prevent him from stinking up Broadway. As for me, I think his score is magnificent, full of soaring melodies, and it’s beautifully sung by the likes of Constantine Maroulis, in the title role, and Deborah Cox as the doomed whore, Lucy.

Jekyll and Hyde is not the dog you’ve read about.

Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance, at the Lyceum Theatre, stars Nathan Lane as a two-bit burlesque performer named Chauncey Miles who specializes in “Nance” characters – flamboyant homosexuals spewing out outrageous double entendres. When not performing, Chauncey hangs out in an automat in the Village, a popular gay hangout, where he meets a young man from Buffalo and takes him in. Meanwhile, Mayor LaGuardia is cracking down on lewd entertainments – but Chauncey, a staunch Republican, refuses to see the handwriting on the wall until it’s too late.

Lane is magnificent as Chauncey, but there is also wonderful work from the likes of Lewis J. Stadlen as his baggy-pants partner in comedy and from Jonny Orsini as the young drifter who makes the mistake of falling for Chauncey.

The Nance is one of the best plays of the season, and not to be missed.

I also liked Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties, at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, a drama about a well-to-do woman named Julie who loses her husband, her son but not her grace and charm. Lynne Meadow has done a fine job of directing, and Judith Light steals the show as Julie’s bitter sister in law, Faye. Jessica Hecht has received praise for her portrayal of Julie, but I felt she was just a little too affected, too perfect. She hardly seemed human.

Still, The Assembled Parties is a solid, well-written, well-acted play – definitely worth your time.

F#%King Up Everything at the Elektra Theatre, is a musical by David Eric Davis and Sam Forman about young Brooklyn hipsters, a little like Avenue Q but not as good. The central characters are two buddies. One’s the studly lead singer in a rock band; the other’s a kiddie-show puppeteer. All the performers are very engaging, though not exactly the best of singers. But the show won me over, and I wound up having a good time.

I have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to the Red Bull Theatre’s production of Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, as I usually find Strindberg rather wearisome; but director Joseph Hardy has mined every ounce of humor in the dour Scandinavian’s play, finding in its two central characters, Edgar and Alice, a married couple who enjoy tormenting each other, prototypes of George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Daniel Davis and Laila Robins are sensational.

Even if your first thought is, “Oh God, not Strindberg,” check this one out.

Lynn Rosen’s Goldor $ Mythyka, which has just closed at the New Ohio Theatre, was classic New Georges, a women’s theatre company which likes to produce “the weirder the better” kinds of plays. Cohen’s was about a man and a woman who go on a crime spree dressed as video-game-type characters, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Shana Gold’s direction was just-right, and Garret Neergaard and Jenny Seastone Stern were great as Our Two Anti-Heroes.

Keep an eye out for New Georges. They do fascinating, challenging work – and they do it well.

Allison Moore’s Collapse, produced by the Women’s Project at City Center Stage II, is a fascinating play about a woman named Susan whose marriage is collapsing due to the PTSD her husband is experiencing as a result of almost dying in the Minnesota bridge collapse. Nadia Bowers is terrific as Susan. Also wonderful are Hannah Cabell as Susan’s basket-case of a sister and Elliot Vilar as a sexaholic Susan meets.

I loved this play!

Also good is Joe Gilford’s Finks, at Ensemble Studio Theatre, which has just received a Drama Desk nomination for Best Play, a dark comedy about the dark days of the black llist which focuses on a nightclub comic named Mickey Dobbs who’s essentially apolitical but who falls for an actress/lefty named Natalie who drags him into pinko-ism.
Giovanna Sardelli, the director, has done an astounding job of making Gilford’s play work in EST’s tiny black box of a space, and Aaron Serofsky and Miriam Silverman are outstanding as Mickey and Natalie.

This one’s a don’t-miss.

As was Page 73’s production of Kara Manning’s Sleeping Rough at the Wild Project, which has just closed, wherein the always-excellent Kellie Overbey played a woman whose son has been killed in Afghanistan. Overbey was terrific, as was Quentin Maré as her ex-husband and Renate Friedman as her daughter.

Much of Sleeping Rough is comprised of narrative monologues. Ordinarily, I am not a fan of this kind of playwriting, but Manning’s writing is so touching and all the performances so engaging that I was won over.

THE TESTAMENT OF MARY. Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
MATILDA. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
MOTOWN. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000
JEKYLL AND HYDE Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000
THE NANCE. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
F#%KING UP EVERYTHING. Elekta Theatre, 673 8th Ave.
TICKETS: www.ovationtix.com
THE DANCE OF DEATH. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.
TICKETS: 212-352-3101
GOLDOR $ MYTHYKA. New Ohio Theatre. Alas, closed.
COLLAPSE. City Center Stage II, 424 W. 55th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
FINKS. Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W. 52nd St.
TICKETS: www.ovationtix.com
SLEEPING ROUGH. Wild Project. 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