“On the Aisle with Larry” 16 May 2014

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date on what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on THE REALISTIC JONESES, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, HEATHERS, THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN, CASA VALENTINA, LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL, THE MOST DESERVING, ACT ONE, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH and INVENTING MARY MARTIN.

Last week, the NY Times published a rant by Charles Isherwood, expressing his chagrin that The Realistic Joneses, by his favorite playwright Will Eno, did not receive a Tony nomination, predictably with snide comments about the plays which were nominated. Click on http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/29/what-are-tonys-saying-by-ignoring-realistic-joneses/. Every playwright should have such a champion; but remember this is the same critic whose review of Eno’s Thom Paine (About Nothing) – which in my opinion (and that of many people who bought tickets because of Isherwood and then sent angry letters to The Times) — it must assuredly was, gave that awful one-man play a lengthy run.

For some reason which escapes me, Eno has become the darling not only of The Ish but of many artistic directors and literary managers around the country. Such is the power of The Times, I guess. As for The Realistic Joneses, currently on view at the Lyceum Theatre, it’s not as inscrutable as some of his other plays. Some of it is actually rather funny, loaded as it is with weird non-sequiturs. As the play wears on, though, and as the audience realizes that there’s no real plot and it’s not headed anywhere, the laughs taper off. It’s about two couples, neighbors – one middle aged and one young, who hang out and chit chat. Turns out, both men have the same rare disease. Then it ends (which is not to say it has an ending). I didn’t find it very credible, either. This is the future of the American drama?

The Times (Brantley) panned Bullets Over Broadway, at the St. James Theatre. Again: don’t always believe what you read in The Times. This is a first rate musical adaptation of Woody Allen’s film, with a book by Allen and songs from the period which have been expertly integrated into the book, seeming at times like they could have been written for it. I assume you know the film so I won’t summarize the plot. All you need to know is that it features wonderful direction and choreography by the great Susan Stroman, witty costumes by William Ivey Long and terrific performances by the likes of Marin Mazzie as Helen Sinclair, the Leading Lady, Nick Cordero as the wiseguy with a knack for what works in a play and Helene Yorke as Olive, the gangster’s moll who thinks she has acting talent.

Go – you’ll have a great time unless you’re the sort who’d rather be bored to death at The Realistic Joneses.

Heathers, at New World Stages, is a terrific musicalization by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe of the 1980’s cult classic about mean girls in high school (all named Heather), and the boy and girl who take them on (and bump them off one by one), featuring wonderful performances by Barrett Wilbert Reed and Ryan McCartan (in the Winona Ryder and Christian Slater roles), with a superb supporting cast under the expert direction of Andy Fickman.

This is one of the best Off Broadway musicals of the season, unaccountably passed over by the all awards organizations except for the Off Broadway Alliance. I highly recommend it.

Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn, at the Booth Theatre, has just closed after a short run. It took place in a Park Slope brownstone whose elderly resident, played by Estelle Parsons, refuses to go into an old folks’ home and has threatened to blow up the house and herself instead. Two of her (offstage) offspring have talked their brother (played by Stephen Spinella) into coming to NYC to try and talk some sense into Mom. The acting was excellent, but there’s no getting over the fact that there was about 30 minutes of play there and 60 minutes of wheel-spinning. It would have been far more effective Off Broadway.

Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway venue) is set in 1962 in a resort in the Catskills where straight men go for a fun weekend of pretending to be women, getting all dolled up, run by George (who goes by the name Valentina when he’s in drag) and his wife. An activist named Charlotte who is starting up transvestite “sororities” all over the country arrives for a visit and who wants George’s group to join his/her crusade. Will they or won’t they? Casa Valentina features a superb cast, headed by Anthony Page and Mare Winningham (as George and the missus), with particularly strong performances by New York stage stalwarts Reed Birney as Charlotte, Larry Pine as a judge who may be a closeted queer (gasp!) and Tom McGowan. The play shifts in focus, leaving you wondering who the central character is. We start out thinking it’s the skittish new girl, played by Gabriel Ebert; we wind up suspecting it’s Mare Winningham’s wife, who begins to question if she’s married to George or to Valentina.

No matter, though. This is a wonderful story untold before, and Fierstein handles it masterfully. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the best play as the season, as some critics have, but still it’s mighty fine and worth checking out.

Lanie Robertson’s Off Broadway hit of several seasons ago, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, has popped up at Broadway’s Circle in the Square, featuring living legend Audra McDonald as jazz great Billie Holiday performing at a dive bar in Philly near the end of her life. McDonald, an opera-quality soprano, channels Holiday’s distinctive singing style astonishingly. She’s been nominated for an award by everyone, but there’s confusion as to whether she’s in a play or a musical. I would say the latter, but the Tony nominating committee disagrees. Ah well – who cares? She’s great. I’d go to hear her sing, with the understanding that you’re not going to hear the voice that soared with “I Loves You Porgy” but the one that sang “God Bless the Child.”

Catherine Trieschmann’s The Most Deserving, which has just closed at City Center Stage II in a fine production by the Women’s Project, was about a not-for-profit organization in a small Kansas town dedicated to funding and promoting artists, led by an determined woman (played to a tee by the always-wonderful Veanne Cox) trying to keep her board in line as they try to decide who to give a grant to. Should it by the kitschmeister on the City Council which controls the group’s purse strings or the eccentric, possibly deranged black dude who makes art from found objects? Shelley Butler’s production was first rate, her cast equally so. I hope you got a chance to see this. I’m sorry if you didn’t.

Moss Hart’s Act One has long been one of my favorites in this genre – the show biz autobiography, so I was not surprised when I found myself loving James Lapine’s wonderful adaptation at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Most autobiographies focus on everything the Famous Person did once he became famous; Act One is about all Hart’s trials and tribulations as he strove towards success as a playwright, culminating in the triumphant opening night of Once in a Lifetime.

Lapine, who also directed, has assembled a superb cast headed by Tony Shalhoub and Santino Fontana. Shalhoub plays the older Moss looking back on his life, as well as his father. He also plays George S. Kaufman, Hart’s eccentric collaborator, and absolutely incarnates Kaufman as I have always imagined him – witty/sardonic, obsessive and brilliant. Santino, once of our finest young actors, compellingly plays Moss as a young man. Andrea Martin does a wonderful turn as Moss’ destitute aunt who instills in him a love of the theatre.

Love of the theatre – that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? This is one of the best plays – and productions – of the season. Don’t miss it.

John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch is back in town, in a stunning production at the Belasco Theatre directed by Michael Mayer, starring Neil Patrick Harris – that rarity, a male critics’ darling. The show is structured as a concert by a transgendered German rock singer. The Angry Inch refers not only to Hedwig’s band but to the size of his dick after a botched sex change operation.

This is Neil Patrick Harris as you never could have imagined him – all dolled up in spectacular wigs and glitter. It’s a brilliant performance and not to be missed, even though the play itself is rather rudimentary.

Inventing Mary Martin, at the York Theatre Co., is a loving tribute to the Broadway legend, a little too hagiographic for my taste but extremely well done by three engaging performers, Jason Graae, Lynn Halliday and Emily Skinner, who perform all the songs Martin made famous in her illustrious career. It has been my experience that young people know little and couldn’t care less about the theatre’s glorious past, to their detriment. Here’s your chance to find out about one of the musical theatre’s all-time greats, star of One Touch of Venus, South Pacific, I Do I Do and, of course, and dear to the heart of baby boomers like myself who never missed the annual showing of it on TV, Peter Pan.

THE REALISTIC JONESES. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com of 212-239-6200
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com of 212-239-6200
HEATHERS. New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com of 212-239-6200
THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com of 212-239-6200
CASA VALENTINA. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com of 212-239-6200
LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL. Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com of 212-239-6200
THE MOST DESERVING. City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St.
TICKETS: 212-581-1212
ACT ONE. Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com of 212-239-6200
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com of 212-239-6200
INVENTING MARY MARTIN. York Theatre Co. at St. Peter’s, 619 Lexington Ave.
TICKETS: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/929787 or 212-935-5820

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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