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 Starry Messenger, Race, A Little Night Music, Misalliance and Sister’s Christmas Catechism.

The early buzz and Kenneth Lonergan’s new play The Starry Messenger, at the Acorn Theatre, was that it was gong to be a disaster. Then it opened for the critics and got mostly favorable reviews. Mostly, but not all. This seems to be happening a lot lately. Take a look at the reviews for the film version of “Nine.” Some say it’s a mess; others, a masterpiece. Well, The Starry Messenger is neither mess nor masterpiece.

The story concerns a namby-pamby astronomy professor named Mark who teaches night classes at the Hayden Planetarium. He is played, of course, by Matthew Broderick, who does namby-pamby like no one else and who seems to have become our generation’s Wally Cox. Mark is a perfectly nice middle-aged man who realizes that life is passing him by, so he does what many men do at his stage of life – he has an affair with, of course, a much younger woman. Although much of Lonergan’s dialogue is witty and perceptive, I found it difficult to care much about Mark’s problems; and, at almost three hours, this play seems like an hour too long. Broderick is fine, though, as Mark. Jay Smith Cameron is under-employed as Mark’s terminally loquacious wife.

I guess I had sort of a namby-pamby response to this play. I neither liked nor disliked it. I wouldn’t say it’s one you’ll regret having missed.

David Mamet’s Race (at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre), on the other hand, is a don’t-miss. We appear to believe that the Great Divide between black and white people has finally been bridged in the Age of Obama. Mamet, that curmudgeon, demonstrates in his new play how this just ain’t so.

We are in the office of a posh law firm. An extremely wealthy white man, also something of a celebrity, has been accused of raping a young black woman in a hotel room, and two law partners are trying to decide whether or not to take his case. One partner is white; the other, black. Also on hand is a young female associate in the firm, who is black – and who inadvertently (we think) forces her partners to take the case when she takes the client’s retainer check and notifies the court that her firm are the attorneys of record. What ensues is a crash course on how race scrambles justice in court, and about how perception, rather than truth, is what is most important as a jury decides a case.

Many will find this play very unsettling, because many would prefer to believe in the fantasy that, now, all is forgiven between the races in this country. As for me, I think this is Mamet’s most brilliant play in years, and right up there with American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the Plow. Mamet has done a fine job of directing his play, and the cast is perfect. James Spader and David Alan Grier are the brilliantly cynical law partners, Richard Thomas is the naïve accused rapist and Kerry Washington is the young associate who just might be something other that what she seems.

This one’s a don’t-miss, if you like plays which provoke and challenge you.

Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music was the first Broadway show I ever saw. I was a callow college student who had a somewhat cynical attitude about Broadway. I guess you could say that A Little Night Music was The Play That Changed My Life. After seeing it and, I must admit, several other wonderful plays and musicals on Broadway at that time, I decided that somehow, I had to find a niche for myself in the NY theatre. Which, fortunately, I did.

I have seen three productions of the show since my first encounter with it, but none was as entrancing as Trevor Nunn’s production, currently at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Nunn has reconceived the show on a smaller-scale, using a chamber group rather than a full orchestra. Heavy on the harp, light on lush strings. This worked just fine by me. His cast is wonderful. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a luscious tigress of a Desiree, easily the best I have ever seen in this role – including Glynis Johns, who originated it. Brit Alexander Hanson, imported from Nunn’s staging of the work last year in London, is a charming Fredrik, and Ramona Mallory and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka are charmingly adolescent as Anne and Henrik. And then, of course, there’s living legend Angela Lansbury, whose Madame Arnfeldt is a wonderfully caustic old bag.

A Little Night Music is the best musical revival on Broadway since Ragtime (which, sadly starless, is hanging on by the wispiest of threads). Both shows are a don’t-miss.

It is always a pleasure to see a play by George Bernard Shaw, even one I have seen several times, like Misalliance, which is currently up and running at City Center Stage II, where the Pearl Theatre Co. is now comfortably in residence.

This is one of Shaw’s plays about, among other things, what was known then as The Woman Question. Its heroine is Hypatia, the pampered daughter of a wealthy underwear magnate, engaged to be married to an impossibly pansy man whom everyone calls Bunny because, as she says, she must marry somebody. What other alternative does she have? Then, out of the blue as it were, an aeroplane crashes on the estate and out of it climb, unscathed, a dashing aviator and a Polish trapeze artist, a female who turns everything topsy-turvy. She lives an independent, go where I like and do what I want to do life, without having to ask any man’s permission. What ensues is a wonderful consideration of morality, sex and love.

The production has been ably directed by Jeff Steitzer, whose cast is as good as any I have seen in this play. I particularly enjoyed Lee Stark as Hypatia, Dan Daily as the underwear manufacturer/pater familias John Tarleton and Sean McCall as a distraught young man with a gun determined to revenge his wronged mother by shooting Tarleton.
Daily sounds uncannily like Philip Bosco, whom I once saw in the role. Close your eyes and you’ll swear it’s Phil.

If you love Shaw, this Misalliance is not to be missed.

I was most amused by Maripat Donovan’s Sister’s Christmas Catechism, at Downstairs at Sofia’s, a charming piece of Christmas fluff wherein we are part of a catechism class preparing for the church’s annual Nativity Tableau, led by a cheerful though sometimes caustic nun. This is something of a sequel to Late Night Catechism, which ran for several years off Broadway, and is almost as funny. In this one, Sister enlists audience members to take on the various roles in the Nativity Story – and, she solves the mystery of what happened to the gold one of the magi brought.

It’s all great fun – particularly if you’re Catholic, as was my jolly companion. I was disappointed not to see Ms. Donovan as Sister (she did the role the first two weeks of the run) but her replacement, Kathryn Gallagher, was very funny.

Sorry to be telling you about this show so late. It was great fun.

Alas, closed.
RACE. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: 212-239-6200.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St.
TICKETS: 212-239-6200.
MISALLIANCE. City Center Stage II, 151 W. 55th St.
TICKETS: 212-581-1212
Alas, closed.