Archive for October, 2019

“On the Aisle with Larry” 30 October 2019

“On the Aisle with Larry”

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 MOULIN ROUGE, THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM, and THE WIVES and Sam Bobrick.

I am reporting to you belatedly on the above, which I saw last month. My computer went belly-up but I am finally up and running with a new one. After many years of its running on www.smithandkraus.com, I am moving my column over to www.applausebooks.com,

the new website of Applause Theatre & Cinema books, which be operational this week. Applause is a much larger operation than was Smith & Kraus, with significantly more web traffic.

Moulin Rouge, at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, is a spectacular version of the Baz Luhrman film about a dying chanteuse named Satine in Belle Epoque Paris and the two men who love her. Karen Olivo is phenomenal as Satine (though I have to say, she’s not as consumptive as the book calls for – well, what do you expect, this is musical comedy and who wants to see the leading lady coughing all night?). I thought she had left the business after her last Broadway outing in West Side Story, but if that’s true, I’m glad she changed her mind.

As in the Luhrman film, the score consists of over 80 contemporary pop songs, many of them mere snippets, all sung energetically by a wonderful cast, which includes Aaron Tveit as an impoverished songwriter, Tam Mutu as a wealthy British aristocrat and Danny Burstein as the owner of the eponymous nightclub, which is going under. If Satine chooses the villainous Baron, she can save the club; but she’s really in love with the songwriter. The Baron agrees to produce a musical written by the songwriter, which could save the club – but only if Satine agrees to become his mistress.

All three male leads are terrific, but I think the Main Events are the fabulous direction by Justin Timbers, the sumptuous costumes by Catherine Zuber, the sets by Derek McLane, the lighting by Justin Townsend and the wonderful choreography by Sonya Taveh. The show is a visual feast from start to finish. I expect it will be honored with several awards at season’s end.

As for Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm, translated by Christopher Hampton, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway venue), well, I just didn’t get it, nor did many of my fellow theatregoers. It’s a family drama. In the present, the patriarch and matriarch are deceased, but both are major characters because we flit back and forth between the present and the past. Ordinarily, this would have been clarified with lighting changes but here, director Jonathan Kent employs none, perhaps because none are indicated in the script, and the effect on the audience is frustrating confusion although as you would expect, the terrific performances by Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins almost make this rather tedious play watchable.

Jaclyn Backhaus’ The Wives at Playwrights Horizons, which has closed, was a time-travelling comedy about the wives and mistresses of various historical figures such as the French King Henry IV and Ernest Hemingway. It was very inventively staged by Margot Bordelon.

Backhaus is a real comer – like many young female playwrights hugely influenced by the work of Caryl Churchill without being in any way derivative. This was the first play of hers I have seen, but I look forward to seeing many more.

Playwright Sam Bobrick has passed away at the age of 87. Sam, an old friend, was a very successful TV writer in the 1960s though the 1980s, whose credits include numerous episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show, “The “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and “Saved by the Bell,” which he created. In the 1970’s he turned to writing Broadway comedies, partnering with fellow TV writer Ron Clark, such as “Norman, Is That You,” “Wally’s Café” and “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s.” Though none of these succeeded on Broadway, they have proved popular with amateur groups, always on the lookout for plays which are just plain fun – for their actors and for their audiences.

Used to be, comedies (along with thrillers) were ubiquitous in every Broadway season; but then, the Broadway critics decided that these kinds of plays belonged on television, and began deriding them as “sit-coms.” About the worst thing a critic could call a play became “television.” Fortunately, Neil Simon came along before this attitude became prevalent; but by the time Bobrick and Clarke hit Broadway they were outta luck, at least on Broadway; but fortunately comedies were (and still are) very popular with the above mentioned amateur groups.

After parting with Clark, Bobrick continued to write plays, many of which have received numerous productions, licensed by Samuel French, and was writing right up until the end.

Sam was a wonderfully cranky old coot, and I miss him.

 

MOULIN ROUGE. Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St.

Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000

THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM. Robert J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

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

THE WIVES. Playwrights Horizons. Alas, closed. 

“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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“On the Aisle with Larry” October 2019

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 Betrayal, Only Yesterday, Caesar and Cleopatra, American Moor, Sea Wall/A Life, Get on Your Knees and L.O.V.E.R.

I was unfamiliar with the work of British director Jamie Lloyd, whose production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre I saw last week. Based on this production, I have to say that Lloyd has vaulted to the very top of the list of innovative  directors. Although the acting is realistic, his production is not. All three principal actors are onstage throughout. There is no set – just 3 chairs – and she employs a slow-moving turntable for much of the play. The effect is to focus on the story in a way I have never seen before.

For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s the tale of an adulterous affair between a man named Jerry and Emma, the wife of his best friend, Robert. When it begins, the affair has been over for two years and the couple has not seen each other since. It goes back in time, and the final scene is when the affair begins.

All three actors are splendid. The chemistry between Charlie Cox, as Jerry, and Zawe Ashton, as Emma, is intense. Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Robert is very poignant, particularly so as he has known about the affair for a long time but continues to consider Jerry his best friend.

This is a magnificent tour do force production, and not to be missed.

I wish you could have seen Bob Stevens’ Only Yesterday at 59E59 but, alas, it has closed. The main characters were none other than John Lennon and Paul McCartney who, while the Beatles are on tour, have to wait out a hurricane in Key West. With little to do, they discuss songs they might write, play some covers, such as “Roll Over, Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music,” and talk about their lives, as hordes of teenaged girls have gathered outside the motel they’re stuck in to scream. One of them, a bird named Shirley, has managed to crawl into the air duck, where she’s stuck, so the lads banter with Shirley and actually play a couple of songs for her. One of these, “How Do You Do It,” was not released by the Beatles in 1964, when this play takes place but by Gerry and the Pacemakers, so I thought it an odd choice. I also thought it odd that they changed a lyric in “Roll Over, Beethoven.” Other than these minor quibbles, this was a wonderful production, with superb performances by Christopher Sears as John and Tommy Crawford as Paul, as well as a nice turn by Olivia Swayze as the teen in the air duct.

Although I have read it, I have never seen a production of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, so I booked the Gingold Theatrical Group’s production at the Theatre Row Theatre. I still haven’t seen Shaw’s play. What I saw was a pared-down adaptation by director David Staller, though this is not stated in the program, which identifies the play as Caesar & Cleopatra (sic), reducing Shaw’s large cast to 7 actors, all of whom are costumed in white, so there is no visual differentiation between the Romans and the Egyptians. The play is supposed to take place in Cleopatra’s palace, which is represented by what appears to be wooden construction scaffolding. I won’t mention the names of the actors. It’s not their fault.

There are inventive directors like the aforementioned Jamie Lloyd, and then there are inept ones like David Staller. Great that he digs Shaw, but if you can’t do his plays without mauling the text – don’t do them.

The premise of American Moor at the Cherry Lane Theatre (now closed), written by and starring Keith Hamilton Cobb, was that an African American actor is auditioning for the role of Othello, for a white director who sits in the audience. His audition goes on for an hour and a half, during which he exhibits various kinds of hostile behavior, mostly having to do with being a black man in a white’s man’s world. Had Cobb dropped the audition premise and done just the rant he might have been annoying but at least he might have been credible; but no, he insists this is an audition. Nobody would hire an actor with a chip on his shoulder the size of the iceberg which sank the Titanic.

Sea Wall/A Life, at the Hudson Theatre, which has also closed, was two lengthy narrative monologues. In the first, Sea Wall by Simon Stephens, Tom Sturridge tells the tale of his daughter’s death. In A Life by Nick Payne, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn to tell us a story, this one about the birth of his daughter simultaneous with the death of his father. As both characters were pretty much hapless wimps, I got more and more annoyed by them. These are portraits of contemporary masculinity? Puh-lease …

I caught one of the final performances of comedienne Jacqueline Novak’s stand-up act, Get on Your Knees, which was mostly about blowjobs. Really. I swear to God. The women sitting around me were yukking it up. Most of the men (myself included) sat there stone-faced. Novak spends most of the show pacing back and forth with a rather nervous energy, which I guess gives it some visual variety, but which I found rather trying.

L.O.V.E.R. at the Signature Center, written by and starring Lois Robbins, is also an autobiographical one-woman show about sexual awakening, though it deals with a lot more than just sex. Robbins deals with her on again-off again relationships with various men before finally finding the Right One. She is delightful, funny and sometime poignant. Most of the audience at the performance I attended were middle-aged women and they seemed to identify with Robbins’ trials and tribulations; but I don’t think L.O.V.E.R. is only for men, because I enjoyed it, too.

In my next column, I’ll give you my thoughts on Moulin Rouge, and The Height of the Storm, all of which are still running.

Betrayal. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 800-447-7400

Only Yesterday. 59E59. Alas, closed.

Caesar and Cleopatra. Theatre Row Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

Tickets: fuhgeddaboudit

American Moor. Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St. Closed

Sea Wall/A Life. Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St. Closed

Get on Your Knees. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.

L.O.V.E.R. Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

Tickets: www.ticketcentral.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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