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 SURRENDER, GROUNDED, MACHINAL, THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER, OUTSIDE MULLINGAR, WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT, A MAN’S A MAN, DISASTER, A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER, HANDLE WITH CARE and THE NIGHT ALIVE.

The Surrender, Toni Bentley’s erotic memoir, which has now closed, got a lot of negative press. True to form, I rise to defend it.

This was a monodrama wherein the speaker, clearly Ms. Bentley, tells us how she developed an obsession with sex after her ballet career ended; and not just any kinda sex – anal sex. “Euwww,” went the critics, many of whom were women. To which I respond, why not? If Club Members go for it, why not straight women? The speaker tells us in graphic detail how she achieved a kind of emotional and spiritual transcendence through her obsession, not only with anal sex but with total surrender to her lover. “You gotta be kidding me,” went the critics. Well, here’s what I think of that: any play which features a woman who really likes to Do It is a good thing and ought to be encouraged. And I found Laura Campbell, who suffered guilt by association for her temerity to perform the role courageous, sexy and very compelling. So there.

George Brant’s Grounded, which is finishing up its run at Walkerspace, is another compelling monodrama, this one about a female fighter pilot who loves flying as much as Toni Bentley’s speaker loves sex. While on leave, she meets her soul mate in a bar and becomes pregnant by him, which requires her to take a 3-year leave from the Air Force. When she returns, she finds that fighter pilots are no longer needed, and she is assigned to operate drones from a console at a base outside Las Vegas. The Air Force has become the Chair Force, Eventually, she goes crazy. Hannah Cabell is wonderful as the pilot, and deserves to get nominated for those solo performance awards the press organizations give out at the end of the season.

Roundabout has revived Machinal, Sophie Treadwell’s expressionist drama from the 1920’s, at the American Airlines Theatre, in an astounding production directed by Lyndsey Turner, featuring Rebecca Hall as a disturbed secretary who marries the boss, a Typical Insensitive Male played full-bore by Michael Cumpsty. This is A Doll House in extremis. The Young Woman (as she is listed in the program) is supposed to represent the Plight of Woman in a Man’s World. Many women will, no doubt, nod their heads and say, “There, you see? That’s what it’s like to be a woman.” As for me, I found Treadwell’s character to be a lament for female victimhood and, therefore, insufferable.

That said, Ms. Hall is terrific in the role, assisted by an excellent supporting cast; and the technical elements, from the revolving set by Es Devlin to the nightmarish lighting by Jane Cox, are Just Plain Brilliant.

Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, at Atlantic Stage II, a film from the early 1960s, has been adapted by Roy Williams, who has updated the story to the present. The new version is about a young black man named Colin who is incarcerated for petty burglary in a juvenile detention facility. A counsellor at the prison takes an interest in Colin and encourages his passion for running, believing it to be his salvation. Sillitoe/Williams have a different take, as Colin embraces his social fate rather than trying to transcend it, becoming a representative of so many young people these days, as in, “What’s the point of even trying?” I have no sympathy for this point of view; but that said, Leah C. Gardiner’s production is outstanding, as is Sheldon Best as Colin.

John Patrick Shanley’s latest, Outside Mullingar at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is about a middle-aged man named Anthony who may or may not inherit the family farm when his Da dies. His father is reluctant to will it to him because he thinks Anthony doesn’t love the land enough. Also in the mix is a neighbor woman who has loved Anthony since she was a little girl – but Anthony is too emotionally blocked to do anything about it, mourning a failed relationship with another woman years ago. The Big Revelation at the end as to the cause of Anthony’s reluctance to commit to another woman is rather ridiculous, but Brian F. O’Byrne almost makes it credible. Debra Messing is lovely as the woman who loves him, and Peter Maloney is giving one of the finest performances of his distinguished career as the father.

Outside Mullingar is not exactly top-drawer Shanley – but it’s still worth seeing, if mostly for these three fine actors.

What’s It All About, at NY Theatre Workshop, has been extended – and rightly so. It’s a brilliant re-imagining of the music of Burt Bacharach by Kyle Riabko which taps into the zeitgeist of 20-somethings. Performed by Riabko and an incredible group of singer/musicians, it makes a strong case for Bacharach as one of the great American songwriters, and is a don’t-miss.

Bertolt Brecht’s early play A Man’s a Man has also been re-imagined, with a wonderful score by Duncan Sheik and superb, whimsical direction by Brian Kulick. For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s about a porter named Galy Gay who finds himself sucked into an absurd war waged by England against Nepal. Gibson Frazier is fine as Gay – but the best performance comes from drag performer Justin Vivian Bond, who infuses the Widow Begbick with a perfect blend of schadenfreud and sass. A Man’s a Man is not top-drawer Brecht; but still, this is rarely staged play is well worth seeing

Disaster, at St. Luke’s Theatre, is a goofy send-up by Seth Rudetsky of all those 1970s disaster movies, involving a casino ship and an earthquake immediately beneath it at a pier in the Hudson River, loaded with songs of the period. Rudetsky plays a Jeremiah whose warning about an imminent earthquake go unheeded. The performances are very broad, as you would expect, but not annoyingly so as everyone is having such a good time. My fave was Jennifer Simard as a nun with a secret gambling addiction. If you’re in the mood for silly, this would be a good choice.

An even better choice would be A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, a musical version of the film Kind Hearts and Coronets, wherein an impoverished distant relative of an aristocratic family, whose mother was disinherited when she married a commoner, realizes that he’s 8th in line to the earldom. All he has to do is bump off the 7 individuals ahead of him, which he proceeds to do with flair. All his murder victims are played with aplomb by the great actor Jefferson Mays. Bryce Pinkham reaches the top of the list of Broadway leading men with his performance as the murderer.

The direction by Darko Tresnjak is witty and most inventive and the score, by Steven Lutvak (music) and Robert L. Freedman (lyrics) features one delightful song after another. The show has received deservedly good reviews but for some reason isn’t selling very well (I think it’s the cheesy TV commercial), so you can certainly go to TKTS and get half-price seats. Do so – the show is great fun.

Handle with Care, at the Westside Theatre, is a comedy by Jason Odell Williams about a hapless deliveryman who loses a coffin being shipped back to Israel, containing the body of an elderly woman. He must explain what has happened to her granddaughter. Since she doesn’t speak any English, he enlists the help of the one Jewish person he knows, whose Hebrew consists of what he had to learn for his bar mitzah. The granny, played by Carol Lawrence, appears in flashbacks. Turns out, she came to the U.S. with her granddaughter to try to find the love of her life, who she hasn’t seen since she was a young woman.

The play is riddled with unlikely contrivances, which Karen Carpenter has directed right into, but it winds up being sentimental in a good way. When’s the last time you saw a play with a happy ending?

The Night Alive at Atlantic Theatre Co. is, like Handle with Cares very dark and edgy.
It begins when a middle-aged man named Tommy brings a girl named Aimee, who has been beaten up by her boyfriend, home to his squalid room, which he rents from an old codger named Maurice. The boyfriend, a sinister chap, shows up and mauls Tommy’s gofer, Doc. Tommy wants to blow the joint and emigrate to Europe. Will the girl go with him?

McPherson’s writing is taut and poignant, and Ciarán Hinds (Tommy), Jim Norton (Maurice) and Caoilfhion Dunne (Aimee) are just plain terrific. This one, too, is a don’t-miss.

THE SURRENDER. Harold Clurman Theatre. Alas, Closed
GROUNDED. Walkerspace, 46 Walker St.
TICKETS: www.ovationtix.com or 212-353-3101
MACHINAL. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300
OUTSIDE MULLINGAR. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER. Atlantic Stage II, 330
W. 16th St.
TICKETS: www.ovationtix.com or 212-353-3101
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT? New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.
TICKETS: 212-460-5475
A MAN’S A MAN. Classic Stage Co., 136 E. 13th St.
TICKETS: 212-677-4210
DISASTER! St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER. Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W.
48th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
HANDLE WITH CARE. Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
THE NIGHT ALIVE. Atlantic Theatre Co., 336 W. 20th St.
TICKETS: 866-811-4111

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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