“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 FETCH CLAY MAKE MAN, YOU NEVER CAN TELL, WHY WE LEFT BROOKLYN, A USER’S GUIDE TO HELL FEATURING BERNARD MADOFF, THE LIFE AND SORT OF DEATH OF ERIC ARGYLE. Also, THE HILL TOWN PLAYS.

Turns out, when he was training for the second Liston fight, Muhammad Ali invited a former star movie actor from the 1930’s named Lincoln Perry to his training camp. You’ve never heard of Perry, but you might know him as his screen nom de plume, Stepin Fetchit. Turns out, “Fetchit” was nothing like the slow-witted, lazy man he played on screen, but was a highly intelligent and crafty man who was the first black actor to receive a studio contract with screen credit in Hollywood, negotiating his own contracts. Now, in the civil rights era, he is a has-been and an embarrassment to his race. Why would Ali, who has recently joined the Nation of Islam, aka the Black Muslims, want him in his camp? Well, Fetchit was good friends with the great heavyweight champ Jack Johnson, and Ali wants to punp Stepin Fetchit for information about Johnson, particularly about a supposed secret punch Johnson used to knock out his opponents. Fetchit hopes to parlay this new relationship with the famous athlete to get back into movies. This is the premise of Will Power’s, well, powerful new drama, Fetch Clay, Make Man, currently burning up the stage at New York Theatre Workshop in an extraordinary production by Des McAnuff.

Ray Fisher and K. Todd Freeman, as Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit, are astonishing – and there is strong work as well from Nikki M. James as Ali’s wife Sonji and John Earl Jelks as Brother Rashid, delegated by Elijah Muhammad of the Nation to keep an eye on his latest high-profile convert.

I think Fetch Clay, Make Man could turn out to be this season’s Big One, but it’s all up to the NY Times’ The Ish, who was there the performance I attended, and whose review should be out tomorrow. I’m sitting here with bated breath, keeping my fingers crossed and knocking on wood.

The Pearl Theatre Company is back with a delightful production of George Bernard Shaw’s comic confection, You Never Can Tell about an impoverished dentist named Valentine who falls in love with a well brought up, wealthy example of the “New Woman,” and she with him, much to her surprise and dismay. David Staller’s production is solid, though not more; but there are some wonderful performances, most notably from Sean McNall as Valentine, Amelia Pedlow as his lady love and from Zachary Spicer as a solicitor who comes in at the end to sort it all out and practically steals the show. The best performance, though, comes from Dan Daily (as it always does at the Pearl) as the very proper waiter William (whose name is actually Walter). Daily of the New York theatre’s finest classical actors, sort of a home-grown Ralph Richardson, and he really shines in this small but telling supporting role.

You Never Can Tell is not top-drawer Shaw, but minor Shaw is still head and shoulders above anybody else of his era. And this is, overall, a fine production, well worth seeing.

Matthew Freeman’s Why We Left Brooklyn, at the East 4th Street Theatre, is set at a going-away dinner party hosted at their Park Slope apartment by a couple who are – gasp! – ditching New York for Columbus, Ohio. He’s been a struggling actor for several years, and has finally given up and taken a teaching job at a high school. She’s staying behind for a while but will join him in Ohio eventually. Their friends are, to varying degrees, appalled.

This is an interesting subject, but the unfortunates are that Freeman throw in way too much, making his play way too long for something which is essentially a practically plotless dinner party conversation; and Kyle Ancowitz’ staging is very weak, as much of the dialogue is spoken “intimately” by the actors, making all too much of it unintelligible.

You could skip this one and not miss much.

You could also skip Lee Blessing’s A User’s Guide to Hell Featuring Bernard Madoff at Atlantic Stage II (though not an Atlantic Theatre Co. production), a tedious allegory which imagines Bernard Madoff in hell which, it turns out, is Manhattan. Michole Biancosino’s production is mostly just broad an silly.

Blessing is usually a fine writer, but he really misfired with this one.

Ross Dungan’s The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle, at 59 E 59, is sort of a “what hath Elevator Repair Service Wrought sort of play, wherein the actors take turns narrating the story of a lonely man who has just died, leaving behind a voluminous roman a clef based on his life, written to the woman he should have married but didn’t. I am ordinarily not a fan of this kind of theatre, but Dan Herd’s production is wonderfully inventive, and his actors superb.

This is a poignant, most unusual evening of theatre, well worth seeing.

Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre has accomplished the extraordinary feat of opening and running five plays (The Hill Town Plays) by one of their house playwrights, Lucy Thurber, simultaneously, in five different theatres. Once I have seen all five, I will tell you about them all but for now, suffice it to say that all of the ones I have seen so far are being given terrific productions, with many of the performance truly unforgettable. My fave so far is Where We’re Born, at Rattlestick’s theatre in Waverly Place. It’s the best production, and the best play – but all are well-worth seeing.

FETCH CLAY MAKE MAN. NY Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.
TICKETS: 212-460-5475
YOU NEVER CAN TELL. Pearl Theatre Co., 555 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: 212563-9261

WHY WE LEFT BROOKLYN. East 4th St. Theatre, 83 E. 4th St.
TICKETS: www.smarttix.com or 212-868-4444
II, 330 W. 16th St.
TICKETS: www.projectytheatre.org or 212-352-3101
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200
• WHERE WE’RE BORN. Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, 224 Waverly Pl.
• ASHVILLE. Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.
• SCARCITY. Cherry Lane Studio, 38 Commerce St.
• STAY. New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher St.
• KILLERS & OTHER FAMILY. Axis Theatre, 1 Sheridan Sq.
TICKETS: www.ovationtix.com or 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