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 THIS, BRIEF ENCOUNTER, FASCINATING AIDA, PRINCES OF WACO and EARNEST IN LOVE.

Melissa James Gibson first hit the radar screen a few seasons back with what I take to be her first play, (sic), a title which made no sense to me. Anyway, she got a lot of traction with this play, and critics were impressed with her use of an unusual dramatic structure and “inventive language.” I myself was not impressed. I felt the play was boring and impenetrable. Imagine my surprise when I found her new play, This, at Playwrights Horizons, not only to be penetrable but actually entertaining and interesting, though I wouldn’t call it the best new play of the season, as did Mr. Ish in the NY Times.

There’s not much of a plot; but what there is is choice. The first part takes place at a party held by Marrell and Tom, a married couple with a baby, to which have been invited their friends Jane and Alan, and a French doctor named Jean-Pierre. Jane is a recent widow. Alan is a bitchy, alcoholic gay dude and JP has been invited as a potential New Guy for Jane. Later, Tom hits on Jane, his wife’s best friend, and begins an affair with her. Of course, the you-know-what hits the fan.

Ms. Gibson writes witty dialogue. She also writes in this new-fangled faux free verse style, even eschewing punctuation, which manages to come out sounding like good old fashioned Circle Rep realism. She, like Sarah Ruhl, seems to be heading in the direction of The R-Style, which must concern their “downtown” fans but which makes their work far more accessible to the rest of us.

Daniel Aukin’s direction was superb, and his cast excellent. I particularly enjoyed Julianne Nicholson’s performance as Jane. She had a lost quality which I found most appealing.

This will have closed by the time you read this. I hope you saw it, and am sorry if you missed it. Now about that title. This? Could have just as easily been “That.” Or (this). What’s up with this meaningless titling???

I appear to be one of the few people I know who has not seen the David Lean/Noël Coward film “Brief Encounter,” so I went to St. Anne’s Warehouse, which was presenting a British company called Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Emma Rice’s stage adaptation of Brief Encounter with no preconceptions. My friend Tondelayo, who loves the film, felt that Ms. Rice had deconstructed it/sent it up, almost in the manner of Ann Bogart, although she agreed with me that, unlike a typical Bogart/SITI event, the production was terrific. My companion SJ, who also loves the film, loved what Ms. Rice did with it, both as adaptor and director.

As for me, this was one brilliant piece of theatre. Whether or not it had much to do with the film.

Ms. Rice made terrific use of film, occasionally having her actors step right into the screen, which I found delightful. Her actors also performed several songs by Coward before, during and after the show, which was also delightful. And her pair of lovers, Laura and Alec (Celia Johnston and Trevor Howard in the film, Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock here), were just wonderful.

Kneehigh Theatre operates in Cornwall, but occasionally brings its production to London. Few of us ever get to Cornwall; but next time you’re in London if Kneehigh is there don’t miss them.

FASCINATING AIDA was back recently, at 59 E. 59 Theatres. I somehow missed them before, so I took this opportunity to find out what all the buzz was about. They are an all-female British comedy group which specializes in satiric songs, which they write themselves, and which were for the most part very witty. These reminded me a lot of good old Tom Lehrer-style songs. For variety, they threw in two “serious” songs both of which, for me, were the highpoints of the evening.

I assume they’ll be back. They are definitely a don’t-miss.

Robert Askins’ Princes of Waco which is, I think, still running is a rather improbable drama about a troubled teen who falls in with a middle-aged man who turns out to support himself by petty thievery. He sets the kid up, and steals his girlfriend. When the kid gets out of the slammer, he’s boiling for revenge.

There was some good writing here, and I loved the actors – particularly, Megan Tusing as the girl and Christine Farrell as a bartender who’s seen everything and doesn’t give a damn about any of it.

Finally, Irish Rep is presenting a fine production of the Anne Croswell/Lee Pockriss musical adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, Earnest in Love, which is a hit and which has been extended. Amazingly, Ms Croswell, who wrote the book, has managed to include all of Wilde’s greatest lines while managing to find space for the songs, which are wonderfully witty.

My problem with the show was only that the actors were so wonderful, I wished I could see them in The Importance of Being Earnest. Beth Fowler, in particular, is a terrific Lady Bracknell, a steely-eyed battleaxe in the manner of Judi Dench in the recent film of the play, though she doesn’t do much with the performance-defining handbag line, and Peter Maloney is the best Chasuble I have ever seen. Well, I had another problem, too. As usual, director Charlotte Moore completely ignores the small audience to the side of the stage, directing as if she were in a traditional proscenium theatre, which she is not. This was fine for those of us sitting in the main section; but those sitting off to the side spent the evening looking at the actors’ backs.

So – by all means don’t miss this charming production; but if they try to sell you a seat on the side, tell them no thanks, you want to look at the actors’ faces, not their backs.

THIS. Playwrights Horizons. Alas, closed.
BRIEF ENCOUNTER. St. Ann’s Warehouse, 39 Water St., Brooklyn.
TICKETS: Alas, all remaining performances are sold out, but a
small number of “Rush” seats are available starting
one hour before the performance. You have to get
there and stand in line.
FASCINATING AIDA. 59 E. 59. Alas, closed
PRINCES OF WACO. Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W. 52nd St.
TICKETS: www. ensemblestudiotheatre.org. 866-811-4111
EARNEST IN LOVE. Irish Repertory Theatre, 132. W. 22nd St.
TICKETS: 212-727-2737

“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

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