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 CIRCUMCISE ME, VENUS IN FUR, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, ROUGH SKETCH and My trip to Vermont.
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My theatergoing was quite eclectic last week, ranging from stand-up comedy (Circumcise Me) to gut-wrenching tragedy (A View from the Bridge). All in all, it was a very satisfying week. I ended it by venturing far afield, to the frozen mountains of Vermont, where I saw two terrific productions, one of a new play. We tend to believe that we in New York have a monopoly on good theatre. Not so.

Yisrael Campbell is, to say the least, one of a kind. He’s an Orthodox Jewish stand-up comedian, living in Jerusalem, who was born and raised as Christopher Campbell before he converted to the Jewish faith. He tells you how this came to pass in his hilarious stand-up act, Circumcise Me, which has been extended into mid-May at the Bleecker Street Theatre.

Searching for an alternative to a life of drinking and drugs, Campbell found it in Judaism. After taking lessons from a Reformed rabbi, he converted – which involved a ritual circumcision (just a little snip, as he was already circumcised). Reformed Judaism didn’t quite cut it for him, though, so he converted to Conservative Judaism – which involved yet another ritualized snip – only to come to the realization that to be a True Blue Jew he had to convert yet again – he had to become Orthodox. You guessed it: he had to be snipped again. He now looks like one of those guys you see selling diamonds in W. 47th St., or on the street in Crown Heights or Midwood. The hat, the long black coat, the beard, the temple curls – the works.

Campbell’s tale of how this came to pass, of how and why he followed his bliss, is hilarious. Mazel tov, Yiz – you’re one funny schlemiel.

CSC is an off Broadway company which specialized in productions of classic plays by Famous Dead Europeans. Recent FDEs include Shakespeare and Chekhov. The problem with this business model is that plays by FDEs usually have large casts, at least by present-day standards, which are expensive. With David Ives’ Venus in Fur, the company has saved its dough for the Ostrovsky play they’re doing in the spring by presenting a play with only two actors, a play within-a-play adaptation of a notorious novel from 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name the term “masochism” derives.

Rather than adapt the novel in a straightforward way, Ives has set the play in an audition room, where a director is casting the role of Vanda in his own adaptation of Venus in Fur.
He has seen scads of actresses but nobody has impressed him. He’s about to head home when a dizzy, ditsy actress arrives with a satchel full of excuses as to why she’s late. He’s tired and wants to go home but she is relentless, so finally he agrees to give her a shot. Gradually, he and she get into the play, becoming their roles; and, gradually, we begin to wonder, who is this woman? Is she just a scatter-brained actress, is she spying on the guy for his girlfriend, or is she Something Else Entirely? I love a good mystery, don’t you? And Venus in Fur is a doozy.

Walter Bobbie’s direction is just wonderful, as are the two actors, Wes Bentley and Nina Arianda, the latter of whom has the showier role so, in the true tradition of Critics’[ Darlings, she has gotten the raves. Both deserve them.

This one’s a don’t-miss.

As is Gregory Mosher’s compelling production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, at the Cort Theatre, which emerges here as Miller’s best play after Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.

The play is set in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood and focuses on a longshoreman, Eddie Carbone, who has taken in a raised his niece, Catherine. His tragedy is that he lusts after her, and this leads to his doom.

Live Schrieber, as Eddie, demonstrates once again that he is one of our finest stage actors, able to segue almost effortlessly from The title role in the Scottish Play to the provocative radio host in Talk Radio to the suave Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross to the sullen Eddie Carbone. This man, it seems, can play anything –so it’s no surprise that he is terrific in this play.

The big surprise is Scarlett Johanson, who plays Catherine beautifully, with a sweet innocence which belies her screen persona as a glam femme fatale. Jessica Hecht is solid, as she always is, as Eddie wife Beatrice, and there is fine work here too from Michael Cristofer as the lawyer Alfieri, who functions as something of a Greek Chorus, as well as from Corey Stoll and Morgan Spector as two illegal Italian immigrants, Rudolpho and Marco, staying with the Carbones. When Rudolpho and Catherine fall in love, and Eddie is faced with losing Catherine, Miller’s tragedy spurs towards its endgame.

You missed Shawn Nacol’s fascinating Rough Sketch, at 59 E. 59 Theatres, as it closed 31 January. This terrific play was about two animators at a studio which makes children’s cartoon films. Although they have worked side-by-side for several months they have never actually spoken to each other until both come in while the office is closed during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Both are oddballs, obsessive about their work. They start out with diffidence, proceed to passion and wind up fight-to-the finish enemies, as each has a different attitude about the meaning of the work they do.

Nacol’s writing was fresh, funny and full of insights, sort of like David Hare on speed, and Ian Morgan’s direction was clever and matched the script perfectly. The two actors were mighty fine. Matthew Lawler was exceptional. Tina Benko was phenomenal.

Sorry you missed this one.

Finally, I journeyed up to Burlington, Vermont at the behest of a local playwright to meet with a group of VT playwrights and see the playwright’s new play. I was surprised to find the area a hotbed of theatrical activity, most of which is at the amateur level – which is to say everyone does it for love, not for pay, and which is not to say that the quality of the work was not up to what we here would consider professional standards.

After meeting with the playwrights, telling my jokes and wowing them with my vast knowledge and Good Advice, I saw a terrific play by local playwright Maura Campbell called Rosalee Was Here, about a disturbed teenaged girl and a teacher’s valiant attempts to save her. Liz Gilbert, the teenager who played this girl, was astonishing.

The next night I went to Vermont Stage Company in Burlington to see their production of Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir, about the deluded, tone-deaf soprano Florence Foster Jenkins. This was the fourth time I had seen the play, and it has never failed to amuse me. I saw it at the York Theatre and on Broadway – both with Judy Kaye, and then at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia with Ann Crumb – and VTSC’s production was as good as any of these. In some ways, Nancy Johnson was the best Flo or all those I have seen – she certainly was the funniest – and Carl J. Danielsen was a scream as Cosme McMoon, Mrs. Foster Jenkin’ accompanist who narrates this odd tale.

NYC sharpies who denigrate “regional theatre” don’t know what they’re talking about.

CIRCUMCISE ME. Bleecker Street Theatre, 45 Bleecker St.
TICKETS: 212-260-8250
VENUS IN FUR. CSC. 136 E. 13th St.
TICKETS: 212-677-4210
A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com 212-239-6200
ROUGH SKETCH and ROSALEE WAS HERE. Alas, closed.
SOUVENIR. Vermont Stage Co., 110 Main St., Burlington, VT
TICKETS: 802-863-5966

“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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