Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about THE BROTHER/SISTER PLAYS, SO HELP ME GOD, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER and SHOLEM ALEICHEM: LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS.
The Brother/Sister Plays, currently at the Public Theater, is a trilogy by a gifted young playwright named Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is in my opinion one of the more promising of the younger generation of 20-something writers. He made quite a splash a couple of years ago at the Vineyard Theatre with Wig Out, a drama about a family of transvestites which shocked some conservos but wowed most of the critics. His new trilogy continues his development and is oneof the most exciting theatre events of this season.
I never made it to Part One, containing solely In the Red and Brown Water, but I thought Part Two was brilliant. It consists of two plays, The Brothers Size and Marcus, set in a rural Louisiana black community. The first pay is about two brothers – one, an auto mechanic (Ogun) and the other, a recently-released convict (Oshoosi). A third character is a man named Elegba who became friends with Oshoosi in prison and who just may be “sweet” on him. Marcus takes place many years later. It’s eponymous character is Elegba’s son, a teenager in the process of discovering his sexuality. Is he or is he not “sweet”?
Both plays I saw display a unique and original theatrical voice, one I am sure we will continue to hear from. They have been beautifully directed by Robert O’Hara, and the acting ensemble is just wonderful. My only quibble was the device of having the characters mouth not only their lines but also the stage directions. This is the playwright’s choice, not the director’s, as it is written into the script. I found this intrusive and unnecessary, and I hope the playwright will leave this device behind in his future work.
I have always championed the Mint Theatre’s valiant mission to rescue worthy plays from obscurity, so you will not be surprised to learn that they have another doozy up and running, this time not at their small space in W. 43rd St. but at The Lucille Lortel Theatre in Christopher St. I guess Artistic Director Jonathan Bank felt he needed a larger space for a play with a cast of fifteen, but I think his decision to produce Maurine Dallas Watkins’ So Help Me God at the Lortel was also influenced by the casting of TV star Kristen Johnson in the star part of an impossibly, hilariously egocentric star actress. The gamble of a move to a larger, more expensive theatre has paid off, as Bank’s production has gotten much-deserved raves. The raves have also come for the play, a forgotten gem by the author of the original stage play Chicago, the source of the Broadway musical. Headed to Broadway in 1929, So Help Me God fell afoul of the stock market crash, so this is its New York premiere. It’s a classic backstage comedy, in a league with Light Up the Sky and The Royal Family about a “serious” play, which would probably have been a bomb, destroyed into a successful piece of boulevard dreck by its star actress and pretentious director, as the poor playwright stands by, helpless (this was in the days before the existence of the Dramatists Guild).
Ms. Johnson is giving nothing less than a glorious star turn as the Star, Lilly Darnley, but everyone in the cast is wonderful. This terrific production should have a commercial transfer but it probably won’t, so get thee to the Lortel Theatre for some wild fun.
I also enjoyed Rebecca Gilman’s fine dramatization of Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, at the New York Theatre Workshop. The novel has been faithfully adapted, and Doug Hughes’ production is very fine.
At the heart of the play is a kindly deaf mute named Singer, played in the movie by Alan Arkin and here by Henry Stram, who rents a room with a family and becomes friendly with his landlord’s teenaged daughter, Mick, who is itching to break free into womanhood but not quite sure how to do it. This is a tragic and very poignant exploration of loneliness. Stram is terrific, but so is Cristin Milioti as Mick. She is fast becoming one of the finest actresses of her generation, and could wind up becoming the heiress to Julie Harris if TV and film don’t snatch her away.
This one, too, is a don’t-miss.
Finally, I caught Theodore Bikel in his one-man show about Sholeim Alechem, presented by the Folksbiene Theatre at the Baruch Arts Center. Sholeim Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears is an endearing evening with the great Yiddish humorist, made most endearing by Mr. Bikel who, now in his mid-eighties, still is robust of voice and body. The show is comprised of stories and songs, which Mr. Bikel sings in both Yiddish and English. Yiddish speakers will love this show, but even if you don’t know a word of Yiddish, like me, you will find the show delightful.
THE BROTHER/SISTER PLAYS. Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St.
SO HELP ME GOD. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-27904200.
THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. NY Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.
SHOLEM ALEICHEM: LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS. Baruch
Performing Arts Center. 55 Lexington Ave.
“Who is this guy?”
For over thirty years Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time his work on behalf of playwrights resulted in the first publication of such subsequent luminaries as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, José Rivera, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller, and Ken Ludwig, among many others; and the acquisition of musicals such as Smoke of the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice, Little Shop of Horrors and Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down. He is a now a free-lance editor, primarily for Smith and Kraus, Inc., for whom he edits annual anthologies of best plays by new playwrights and women playwrights, best ten-minute plays and best monologues and scenes for men and for women. For many years he wrote a weekly column on his adventures in the theater for two Manhattan Newspapers, the Chelsea Clinton News and The Westsider. His new column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” is a weekly feature at www.smithandkraus.com.
He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com). He has also served as literary manager or literary consultant for several theatres, such as Urban Stages and American Jewish Theatre. He is a member of both the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk. He has served many times over the years as a judge and commentator for various national play contests and lectures regularly at colleges and universities. He holds a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. from the University of Michigan.
He is currently working on a book, Masters of the Contemporary American Drama.
“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