Lawrence Harbison, our 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 COLOR PURPLE, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, RED SPEEDO, THE HUMANS, BRIGHT STAR, THE FATHER, BLACKBIRD and HEAD OF PASSES.

I am dilatory in posting my column this time around – sorry. I have been caring for my mother in Ann Arbor Michigan, which turned out to be a full time job until she passed away three weeks ago; plus, I have been teaching two playwriting classes in the Theatre Dept. at the University of Michigan, a program which is vastly superior to what it was when I was there in the early 1970’s. I am amazed at the acting talent here, and am even more amazed at the playwriting ability of several of my students.

I have been returning to NYC periodically to see Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award-eligible shows. I haven’t been able to catch as many as in previous seasons, which is frustrating for me because I am something of a theatre addict, but I had to do what I had to do. My Mom needed my help.

Of the shows I have seen which are still running, one of the best is John Doyle’s stunning production of The Color Purple, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Conventional Wisdom has it that Broadway theatregoers expect to see their money up on stage, in the form of expensive sets and costumes. Doyle confounds this by staging this musicalization of the Alice Walker novel on a unit set, with a pared down cast. Here, as is often the case, less is quite a bit more, particularly as there are three incredible performances, from Cynthia Erivo as the battered but not bowed Celie, sex on a stick with Jennifer Hudson as Shug Avery, and a performance by Danielle Brooks as Sofia which is every bit as touching as Oprah Winfrey’s was in the film.

This looks to be a shoo-in for the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival (although I haven’t yet seen SHE LOVES ME). Don’t miss it.

I also enjoyed the latest production of Fiddler on the Roof, at the Broadway Theatre, starring Danny Burstein as a very fine Tevye. Working within the confines of Jerome Robbins iconic staging, director Bartlett Sher still manages to find a lovely freshness in his cast, which also includes the ever-quirky Jessica Hecht as Golde. One fresh interpolation has Burstein appear at the beginning as a visitor from the future to Annatevka, in a red parka. When he doffs the coat, he becomes Tevye. In the end, when the villagers are forced to leave their homes, Burstsein reappears as the future guy in red, to help pull Tevye’s milk wagon. This device is partly intrusive, partly touching.

The rest of the supporting cast is first-rate. My faves were Adam Kantor as a delightfully nervous but determined Motel and Ben Rappaport as the radical gentile student, Perchik, who upends tradition most of all by marrying one of Tevye’s daughters (“Unheard of! Unthinkable!”)

This is a wonderful production of an American classic, and not to be missed.

Lucas Hnath is hot hot hot these days, fresh off his success with The Christians, which premiered at the Humana Festival, became a hit at Playwrights Horizons and has since gone on to many production nationwide. His latest, Red Speedo, which played at NY Theatre Workshop, was about a gifted swimmer named Ray who looks to be a lock to make the U.S. Olympic team until we find out that he has gotten so good so fast because he has been taking performance-enhancing drugs, something his lawyer brother wants to cover up because if it gets out, there will be no gravy train of million-dollar endorsements.

My problem with the play is the lack of awareness that all Olympic athletes have to take drug tests. In other words, no way could Ray’s drug use be covered up. If you were willing to suspend your disbelief, though, the play is a powerful indictment of what it just may take to reach the top level in any sport these days. It helps to have a brilliant performance from Alex Breaux as Ray. Breaux has a sleek swimmer’s body and a dim athlete’s mind, and should be remembered at awards time for his amazing performance. 

The Humans by Stephen Karems, at the Helen Hayes Theatre, a transfer from Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, is a warm hearted comic drama about a family reunion at Thanksgiving, set in a Chinatown duplex apartment (are there duplex apartments in Chinatown?), to which all the clan has tracked in from Scranton. Nothing much happens, but the characters are very enjoyable and the cast uniformly wonderful. My faves were the parents, played by the always-excellent Reed Birney and Jane Houdyshell.

My only real quibble is with the ending, which goes all supernatural on us. This apartment is haunted? Huh? Where did that come from?

The Humans got pretty much across-the-board excellent reviews, and appears to be the favorite for Best Play in this year’s Tony roulette, which mystifies me as the category includes The Father, King Charles III and Blackbird, both are which are in my judgement  superior to this Nice Little Play.

Bright Star (music, book & story by Steve Martin, music lyrics and story by Edie Brickell), at the Cort Theatre, is another warm-hearted feel good show. It’s set in two time periods, 1923 and 1945-46, in Appalachia. Teenager Alice falls in love with a boy, gets pregnant and is forced to give the baby up for adoption, or so she thinks. In fact, the baby is thrown off a bridge and killed (or so we think). In the future (1945), Alice is the editor of a prestigious literary journal, to which a young serviceman comes with his short stories, hoping to get them published. Hometown gal Margo is in love with him, but he’s focused on literary success. You see it coming a mile away – the would-be writer is Alice’s long-lost and presumed dead son – but what holds our interest is how she will find this out.

The wonderful music is very unusual for Broadway – it’s bluegrass, played by a terrific onstage band. I love bluegrass music, so this was right up my alley. All the performances are fabulous – particularly, that of Carmen Cusack as Alice.

We are so inundated with cynicism these days. It’s refreshing to see a feel-good show once in a while, ain’t it?

At the Samuel F. Friedman Theatre, Frank Langella is giving one of the great performances of this season, or any other season, in Florian Zeller’s The Father, translated by Christopher Hampton. He plays André, an elderly man slipping further and further into an Alzheimer’s fog. We never quite know which scenes are “reality” and which are as André sees reality, which touchingly portrays what it must be like to suffer from this terrible disease. Doug Hughes’ production of this difficult play is just plain brilliant.

The Father should be at the top of your must-see list.

As should David Harrower’s Blackbird, at the Belasco Theatre, about a middle-aged man named Ray who is confronted at his workplace by a woman whom he sexually molested years ago, when she was twelve years old. After serving time in prison, Ray has started a new life under a new identity; but Una has tracked him down and is relentless as she harangues him about what he did to her. What makes the play so powerful is that they still love each other. What do you do when the Love of Your life, your soulmate, is twelve?

Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels are harrowing as Una and Ray, under Joe Mantello’s brilliantly subtle direction. Go – you won’t ever forget these two great performances in this get-you-in-the-gut play.

Other than the fine performances, especially by Phylicia Rashad as a family matriarch, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes, at the Public Theater, was eminently miss-able. This endless drama was about what to do about Mom, who is in bad shape (bad ticker). In the second act, the house is destroyed by a storm (onstage) and everyone dies (offstage) except Mom. G. W. Mercher’s set was incredible, but the play itself was a tempest in a teapot.

I continue to be mystified as to why McCraney is considered to be one of our most important young playwrights. Yes, he’s hot hot hot; but I say he’s not not not.

THE COLOR PURPLE. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.

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

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

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

RED SPEEDO. New York Theatre Workshop. Alas, closed.

THE HUMANS. Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St.

TICKETS:  800-447-7400

BRIGHT STAR. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.

TICKETS:  800-447-7400

THE FATHER. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. 261 W. 47th St

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

BLACKBIRD. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.

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

HEAD OF PASSES. Public Theater. 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

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