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 CLYBOURNE PARK, MEASURE FOR MEASURE, GOOD OL’ GIRLS, HARD TIMES, 4PLAY and BLIND.
Bruce Norris, a former actor (I saw him several times at Circle Rep), has fast become one of our finest playwrights. All of his plays premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Co. and one, The Pain and the Itch, was a critical and popular success in 2006 at Playwrights Horizons, and I chose it for my annual Best New Playwrights Anthology. If you thought The Pain and the Itch was terrific, wait ‘til you get a load of his latest, Clybourne Park, which has just opened at Playwrights Horizons and which has already been extended.
Remember the Younger family from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun? They have bought a house in an all-white Chicago neighborhood, and a member of that neighborhood’s homeowners association, Karl Lindner, visits them to try and persuade them not to go through with this. Norris has set his play in that neighborhood, in the home that the Youngers have bought. In this first act, Lindner visits the sellers, Russ and Bev, to plead with them not to sell their house to a black family. Russ will not succumb to Lindner’s arguments, not because he is all that hot to promote racial justice but because he is going more than slightly bonkers living in the house where his son has recently killed himself.
The second act flash-forwards fifty years. Clybourne Park is now, predictably, an all-black neighborhood. As blacks moved in, whites moved out. Now, a white family has moved into the house, and plans to renovate it into a “McMansion” – which might lead to “gentrification” – i.e., more white families moving into the neighborhood, thus driving up property values and pricing out black families who live there. A black man and his wife visit the white couple to plead with them not to go thorough with their plans.
Jeremy Shamos and Annie Parisse play Lindner and his wife in the first act, and the white couple in the second. Both are extraordinary, as is FrankWood, who plays Russ. In fact, all the actors are wonderful, under Pam MacKinnon’s fine direction.
Don’t miss this one!
Theatre for a New Audience has a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure at the Duke Theatre. The play is generally lumped together with Shakespeare’s comedies, but it is also known as a “problem play,” an appellation I have never fully understood. Anyway, director Arin Arbus has taken a somber approach to the play, emphasizing its angry satire of Puritan hypocrisy but undercutting the comedy.
Jefferson Mays plays Duke Vincentio, who takes a sabbatical from his power to pass in disguise amongst his people in order to learn what is really going on in Venice. He lives his trusted aide Angelo in charge, who proceeds to actually enforce the laws to their letter and turns Venice into a puritanical totalitarian dictatorship.
Mays is terrific as the Duke, and creepy Rocco Sisto is perfectly cast as Angelo. After that, the cast is some good, some not so good. Elizabeth Waterston is OK as Isabella, the novice nun who tried to save her brother Claudio, condemned to death for committing fornication, but she is vocally rather weak. Alfredo Nasciso plays the lowlife Lucio as a goodfella, which means he is just not funny, in a sardonic role which ought to provide much mirth.
I would say, do check out Measure for Measure, though. It is a solid, if uninspired, production of a play we rarely get to see; and Mays, one of our finest stage actors, is superb.
Good Ol’ Girls, a new musical produced by Roundabout in the Black Box, is an odd hybrid of spirited New Country songs and confessional stories. The stories are adapted by Paul Ferguson from material by Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle. The songs are by Matraca Berg and Marshall Chapman, a team of top Nashville songwriters. The show tries hard to be sort of a combination of the caustic wit of A … My Name is Alice (which premiered in this very space years and years ago) and the down-home bonhomie of Pump Boys and Dinettes, but it just winds up being something of a downer.
The songs are terrific, but the stories are all narrative monologues, and the evening just comes to a crashing halt whenever they start up. If they were funny, they might work; but these stories are almost all about very unhappy ladies. They are mostly bummers.
The other problem is the performers, none of whom are real country singers. Which makes the whole evening sound rather bogus. You could skip this one.
Pearl Theatre Co., now in residence at City Center State II, has a brilliant production up and running of Stephen Jeffreys’ dramatization of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. This seems to me an excellent choice, given the hard times we are currently experiencing.
The intrepid cast of six, under J. R. Sullivan’s inventive direction, play what seems like a cast of thousands in this story about the denizens of an industrial village in the north of England. There are the haves and the have-nots, caught in the grip repressive laws designed to keep them poor and subservient, and Dickens has a lot to say about the Industrial Age’s belief that the only things that matters are facts and figures. The novel, and the play, are an Ode to Joy, and to basic human compassion.
The cast is uniformly wonderful. I enjoyed particularly Pearl veterans Bradford Cover, as a rapacious, soulless industrialist, T.J. Edwards as a local school teacher who believes only in the truth of facts and Sean McCall as his rebellious ne’er-do-well son.
This one’s a don’t-miss!
I also enjoyed the new Flying Karamazov Brothers’ goof at the Minetta Lane, called 4Play. Paul Magid, the sole original member of the group, a tall, pony-tailed Groucho of a guy, is still throwing them pins as well as he ever did, joined by three young guys who fill in ably for those Brothers now departed.
4Play is a hilarious mix of world-class juggling, goofy dancing and deliberately awful jokes. The little kids in the audience the night I attended the show loved it. These are some wild and crazy guys!
Craig Wright’s new play, Blind, is a modern adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos. We are in the boudoir of Oedipus and Jocasta. Thebes is going to hell outside. Plagues, starvation, civil unrest – the works. Jocasta wants them to get the hell outta Dodge; Oedipus wants to stay.
Since both characters know from the get-go that “the Gods” have brought all this misfortune on Thebes because Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother, this play lacks the climax of a tragic recognition, and is just mostly wheel-spinning until the King and Queen decide to have torrid sex on the floor, during which she blinds him and he strangles her. Kinky!
Wright’s language is in ineffective mix of the stately and the vulgar, and more than one time this leads to unintended laughs. Mostly, the two actors scream at each other. Of the two, Veanne Cox fares the best. Ordinarily cast in wry comic roles, here she displays the vocal chops and emotional depth of a fine dramatic actress. The Oedipus just comes off as a rather uninteresting juvenile.
I have often wished the Dramatists Guild would declare an Official Moratorium and modern adaptations of Greek tragedies. They never seem to work, mostly because these ancient plays have little in common with what we consider to be effective drama. Even our most abstract plays basically employ psychological realism in characterization.
Craig Wright is usually a wonderful writer, whose plays I have very much enjoyed in the past, but Blind is one of the most insufferable plays I have seen this season.
CLYBOURNE PARK. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com 212-279-4200
MEASURE FOR MEASURE. Duke Theatre, 229 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.dukeon42.org 646-223-3010
GOOD OL’ GIRLS. Black Box Theatre, Harold & Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre., 111 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: www.theatremania.com 866-811-4111
HARD TIMES. City Center Stage II, 151 W. 55th St.
4PLAY. Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com 212-307-4100
BLIND. Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, 224 Waverly Pl.
TICKETS: www.smarttix.com 212-868-4444