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 RIVER, CONSTELLATIONS, SMOKE, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT LAKES, WIESENTHAL, THE ELEPHANT MAN, I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD and NEVERMORE.

Jez Butterworth’s The River, at Circle in the Square, is a murky, atmospheric drama set in a remote fishing cabin. A man has brought his new girlfriend there and he tries to persuade her to go fishing with him in the middle of the night. She does, and he loses her, but she turns up eventually with a fish she’s caught, which he proceeds to cook. They’re really hitting it off — until that is, she finds a sketch of a woman in a red dress with her face scratched off. Uh-oh – This guy’s Trouble! She ditches him. Then we meet the woman in the red dress in a flashback as he sketches her. She ditches him too. It seems Our Hero can’t keep a girlfriend for more than a day or two. Since he’s played by Hugh Jackman, I find that extremely hard to believe, but there you have it. Jackman’s the reason this odd play is on Broadway. Even though he’s completely miscast, he is so charming and charismatic that you don’t care.

Constellations by Nick Payne, at the Samuel J. Friedman, is another murky drama, a two-character play about a couple. He’s a beekeeper; she’s a physicist. The play is written in a series of repetitive scenes, variations on what happened or what might have happened. This, I take it, is metaphor for chaos theory. I call it annoying. It’s as if what we’re seeing is a series of film “takes,” waiting for an editor to put it all together into a coherent movie. It’s artsy-fartsy in extremis, on a platform surrounded by what look like white helium-filled balloons of various sizes. What sustains it are the fine performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson. I’m not impressed by weirdly structured plays. Give me a linear story any day. But if it were traditionally-structured, it would be nothing but a boy meets girl, they fall in love, she gets cancer play. Cue the violins.

The Flea Theatre has brought back Liz Davies’ Smoke for a second run. It’s a two-hander which takes place at an S & M sex party. A man goes into the kitchen for a smoke. After a while, a young woman comes in. It’s her first time at one of these parties, whereas he’s an old hand. He works for a famous photographer; she’s a college student. It turns out, coincidence of coincidences, that she’s his boss’ daughter! Yikes! He’s a “dom;” she’s a submissive. He likes to do some really kinky things involving knives. After much getting acquainted, they get into it. You keep thinking this is going to get bloody, but mostly it’s just erotic playing, disgusting to me but enticing to many. I kept thinking there was going to be a payoff, maybe a twist that we didn’t see coming, but no. So, this has the feel of a first act. One wonders what the second act could have been. That said, the actors, Stephen Stout and Madeleine Bundy, are fantastic.

A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes by Kate Benson , at City Center Stage II in a co-production by New Georges and the Women’s Project, is yet another weird play, a comedy about a family convening for Thanksgiving dinner done as a sort of athletic event on a set which looks like a basketball court, with two announcers in a booth above doing the play-by-play. The characters have names like Trifle, Cherry Pie, Cheesecake and Republican. A disaster is averted when the family’s matriarch, Snapdragon, who’s blind, comes off the sidelines to save the gravy – but the hapless Gumbo burns the turkey. It ends with a lengthy monologue wherein Gumbo describes the Horrifying Attack of the Killer Babies.

The play starts out very intriguing but slowly runs out of steam as its cleverness wears thin. So what if it pushes the envelope? Big whoop. It’s not that I detest new styles – only when they triumph over actual substance.

Wiesenthal, a commercial production by Daryl Roth at the Acorn Theatre, heretofore the home of non-profits such at the New Group, is a one man play about famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, written and acted by Tom Dugan. We are in Wiesenthal’s office in Vienna, on the day he is retiring. ”We” are a group of students. Wiesenthal tells us the story of his life, high points of which include his surving Nazi concentration camps such as Aushwitz, his part in the capture of Adolph Eichmann and his reuniting with his wife after the war, who he thought died during the Warsaw uprising. Dugan is brilliant, and his play, though necessarily contrived as one-person plays tend to be, is very compelling. This is a story which needs to be told, and Dugan tells it most effectively.

The revival of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man at the Booth Theatre, starring film actor Bradley Cooper (currently to be seen in American Sniper), is mighty fine. You know the tale, about the horribly deformed John Merrick, saved from abuse and obscurity by a compassionate doctor. This production has been beautifully directed by Scott Ellis, and Cooper is magnificent as Merrick, carefully crafting his transformation from pathetic monster into a cultured Victorian gentleman. Also good are Alessandro Nivola as Treves, the doctor who rescues Merrick, and Patricia Clarkson as the actress Mrs. Kendall, who befriends him.

Halley Feiffer’s I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, at Atlantic Stage II, is a riveting drama about a nasty, contentious dad and his hero-worshipping daughter, who lives with him. He’s a famous playwright; she’s a young actress who’s just opened tonight in a production of The Sea Gull in which, to his outrage, she plays Masha instead of Nina, the lead. Most of the play consists of Dear Old Dad’s vitriolic rant about the theatre, as the two of them drink wine, smoke hash and eventually snort coke. His vitriol is focused particularly on the director of the production as well as the actress playing Nina, the role he thinks his daughter should have played. Eventually, he turns on his daughter, humiliating her, and she walks out. He collapses, praying to God to “Please help me.” Fast-forward 5 years. She has just opened in a one-woman play she wrote and is now a confident, self-assured, budding star. He comes backstage to congratulate her, hoping to make amends as he is now in a 12-step AA program. He is very frail, having had a stroke. Instead of patching it up with her father, she goes after him, knocking him down and pouring a bottle of wine on him. In effect, she has become him.

The play can be painful to watch, but what makes it work is the brilliant performance by Reid Birney, I think the finest of this great actor’s distinguished career; but he’s matched by Betty Gilpin, who morphs from a passive, insecure girl into a maniac. Her performance in the final scene made me think, this is another Nina Arianda.

Finally, lest you think I am totally against weird theatre, I come to praise Nevermore, at New World Stages, a bizarre musical bio-drama about Edgar Allen Poe, written, composed and directed by a brilliant Canadian named Jonathan Christenson done in “steam punk” style, which is sort of an amalgamation of Victoriana, punk and goth. The actors, all Canadians save one, are fabulous – particularly, Scott Shpeley as Poe. Shpeley incarnates Poe’s tragic life and he has a beautiful, effortless tenor voice. Bretta Shepley, who designed the production, is a Major Talent as well. Her costumes, in particular, are just plain amazing.

If you’re in a And Now For Something Completely Different sort of mood, you couldn’t do better than Nevermore. You might even encounter some of your fellow audience members all dolled up as steam punks. Wild!

THE RIVER. Circle in the Square. 235 W. 50th ST.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

CONSTELLATIONS. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

SMOKE. Flea Theatre, 41 White St.

TICKETS: www.ovationtix.com

A BEATIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF

THE GREAT LAKES. City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St.

TICKETS: 212-581-1212

WIESENTHAL. Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

THE ELEPHANT MAN. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD. Atlantic Stage II, 330 W. 16th St.

TICKETS: 866-811-4111

NEVERMORE. New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

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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