“On the Aisle with Larry”


Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on The Hard Problem, The Waverly Gallery, The Prom, Downstairs, and The Cher Show.

The Hard Problem, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, British playwright Tom Stoppard deals with the science of how the brain works and asks a lot of Big Questions – what is altruism, is coincidence really just coincidence and, ultimately, what exactly is meant by “consciousness?” It’s a lot to follow, as the ideas come at you fast and furious. Fortunately, Stoppard also manages to create compelling characters, whose stories are the hooks which grab us, even as we struggle to digest all the complex science. Chief among these characters is Hilary, a grad student who gets a dream job working at a brain science founded by a hedge fund gazillionaire named Jerry, beating out another student, Amal, a mathematics whiz who’s hired at the hedge fund to predict market fluctuations. It soon becomes clear that Hilary is a most unusual scientist, in that she actually believes in God. Hilary had a baby when she a teenager, a daughter who gave up for adoption. Jerry has a daughter at just the right age. Is this Hilary’s child? Are there such things as coincidences?

Australian actress Adelaide Clemens is terrific as Hilary, under Jack O’Brien’s slick, unobtrusive direction. The Hard Problem asks more questions than it answers, but I found it fascinating. Yes, it’s not primo Stoppard, but when you compare it to the trivial American plays our playwrights produce so often pen, it stands out and is well worth seeing.

As is The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan at the Golden Theatre, which features a brilliant performance by Elaine May, playing a wealthy elderly woman named Gladys who keeps busy by running an art gallery in the West Village. Gladys is gradually losing her marbles, much to the consternation of her grandson, who is the play’s narrator and who is touchingly played by Lucas Hedges, her daughter and the daughter’s husband, played beautifully by Joan Allen and David Cromer, and May’s depiction of this is heartbreaking, one of the greatest performances I have seen in many a moon. Also touching is Michael Cera as an artist who gets Gladys to exhibit his work, who lives in the back room because he has nowhere else to go. Gladys has a show for him, to which nobody comes.

The Waverly Gallery is not a new play, as it was originally produced off Broadway several years ago, but I expect it to be a contender for the Tony Award for Best Revival.

After seeing two weighty dramas, it was a relief to see something just plain silly and fun. Such a show is The Prom, at the Longacre Theatre, a musical comedy about a group of narcissistic actors and who decide to counteract the career-threatening bad publicity dumped on them for a flop musical about Eleanor Roosevelt which closed on opening night. They decide they need a cause to champion. They find one in a teenaged Midwestern girl whose prom has been cancelled because she wanted to bring her girlfriend.

The book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguuelin is hilariuous, and Beguelin’s lyrics the same, and Matthew Sklar’s music is delightful. The show has been wonderfully directed and choreographed by A-list director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw. As for the performers, Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashmanskas steal the show as a Broadway diva and her gay gay gay leading man. Caitlin Kinnunen is touching as the girl who just wants to go to the prom with her squeeze. Also good is Christopher Sieber as a waiter/struggling actor who went to Juilliard years ago and wants everyone to know it.

I loved loved loved The Prom. Unless you are a sourpuss, I think you will too.

Theresa Rebeck in on quite a roll this season. First there was the Roundabout of her Bernhardt/Hamlet on Broadway, featuring a wonderful performance by Janet McTeer in the titular roles. Currently running is Downstairs, produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, featuring brother and sister Tim and Tyne Daly as, well, a brother and sister. Tyne, heretofore known for playing strong women, plays a timid housewife named Irene who takes in her brother when he loses his job. Soon it becomes clear that Teddy, the brother, is not well, mentally. He is able to access an old computer though, and what he finds on it is very disturbing. When Irene’s husband Jerry comes down to the basement, we learn why she is so timid – he’s one scary guy. We never learn what is on the computer, but is it enough to get Jerry out of Irene’s life?

All three actors are superb under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s subtle direction, making Downstairs well worth seeing.

As for The Cher Show, it’s a bio-musical about the flamboyant diva, taking her from obscurity to stardom, to the bottom and then back on top again. Cher is played by three actresses and all three are sensational, though I particularly enjoyed Stephanie J. Block as the mature Cher. Jarrod Specter is perfect as Sonny Bono, and Emily Skinner very strong as Cher’s mother (she also has a nice turn as a practically calcified Lucille Ball. The costumes by Cher’s designer Bob Mackie (who also is a character in the show) are spectacular. I thought, Cher was Lady Gaga before Lady Gaga was even born.  Fans of Cher will not be disappointed.

That’s it for now. In my next column, I’ll tell you about King Kong, American Son, Network, The Lifespan of a Fact and Clueless. Then I’m taking a break for a while.

THE HARD PROBLEM. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center

Tickets: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400.

THE WAVERLY GALLERY. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400.

THE PROM. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St

Tickets: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400.

DOWNSTAIRS. Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.

Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/99682 or 212-352-3101

THE CHER SHOW. Neil Simon Theatre, 350 W. 52nd St.

Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-653-8000 

“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