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 FOREST, THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, THE KID, LASCIVIOUS SOMETHING and WHITE’S LIES.

Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky was the most well-known and successful playwright in Russia in his day (mid-19th Century); but nowadays he is best known, at least in this country, as a sort of precursor to Chekhov. It’s easy to see why when viewing his The Forest, currently on view at CSC.

The play takes place at a country estate, much like those in The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya. Whereas Chekhov’s characters are clearly on the cusp of social change, Ostrovsky’s are an entrenched quasi-feudal upper class, and as such are a portrait of a culture whose denizens are blissfully unaware that a tsunami is going to hit them just a few decades later.

The central character in The Forest is a wealthy land owner named Raisa, played with her usual quirky aplomb by Dianne Weist. She fancies herself a benevolent individual; but in reality she’s a skinflint. She’s taken in an impoverished young man and plans to marry him off to her niece; but in actuality she has the hots for the guy herself (I guess you could say she’s a proto-cougar), and the niece wants to marry the daughter of a wealthy neighbor but can’t because she has no dowry. Into this mix strides Raisa’s long-lost nephew who, it turns out has been reduced to being an itinerant actor, and an impoverished one at that.

The play is long on exposition, but once you get by that it is intermittently enjoyable, a light social comedy with some very fine performances.

The Screwtape Letters, at the Westside Theatre, is a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ epistolary novel about a senior member of the Devil’s staff issuing orders to his hapless nephew, a tempter-in-training who makes one rookie mistake after another in his quest to snag his first soul. Uncle Screwtape is a devilishly delightful fellow, particularly as played here by the wonderful Max McLean, until the end, when his nephew Wormwood pays the price for incompetence in the service of Our Lord Below.

This devilish take on salvation and temptation is great fun, whether or not you believe that Evil is an objective force fighting the forces of Good.

The New Group has a new musical on view at the Acorn Theatre, The Kid, based on a book by sex advice guru Dan Savage about the struggles of a gay couple to adopt a child. Eventually, they are chosen by an unwed, homeless teenaged girl; but the tension builds when there becomes a distinct possibility that she will renege.

The songs, by Andy Monroe (music) and Jeck Lechner (lyrics) service the story well, though none of them stand out on their own. The music is light, amiable, but not particularly memorable. What carries the evening is the witty/poignant book by Michael Zam, the inventive direction by Scott Elliott and the wonderful performances by the likes of Christopher Sieber and Lucas Steele as Our Heroes, the Fairy Father wannabes, and the ensemble, all of whom pay multiple roles.

This one is not a must-see; but it’s most enjoyable if you’re into the subject matter.

The Women’s Project has concluded its season with a fascinating drama, Lascivious Something, by Sheila Callaghan. We are in the impoverished Greek island home of August, an American, and Daphne, his young Greek wife. It is 1980. August, a former student activist in California in the 60’s, has dropped way, way out; when who should arrive but his former girlfriend and political partner Liza, after all these years. What does she want, and why is she here?

Ms. Callaghan employs a most unusual device several times, wherein she provides two alternative versions of a scene – the one the characters want to play, and the one they actually do play. I found this device fascinating; but I can see how some might find it annoying.

Be that as it may, director Daniella Topol’s cast if wonderful. Rob Campbell is a delightfully dissolute August and Dana Eskelson provides the right blend of determined and enigmatic as Liza. My fave, though, was Elizabeth Waterston as Daphne – sexy, strong but just a little bit vulnerable. This is a Future Star, no doubt about it.

Finally, I caught up with Ben Andron’s White’s Lies at New World Stages. I shall preface my remarks by saying that whenever I read terrible reviews for a play, this makes me curious to see it – to find out what it was that pissed ‘em off so. More often than not, I have found that the play that got slammed deserved a lot better. Also, I have lamented that pure out-and-out comedy is inevitably panned, usually unfairly. So, I was in a very positive frame of mind when I went to see White’s Lies. That lasted about 5 minutes.

This is a godawful play about a supposed high-powered divorce lawyer who beds a different woman practically every night. His mother tells him that she has terminal cancer (she comes to his office, For Some Strange Reason, to tell him this), and that her dying wish is that she have a grand child. Who should show up but an old flame from his college days who wants to hire him to handle her divorce. She hates him, has always hated him, but she figures he’s just the scumbag she needs to help her take her husband for all he’s worth. For Some Strange Reason, she brings along her daughter. Our Hero (well…) gets an idea. If the daughter will pose as his long-lost daughter who he didn’t know he had, Mom’s dying wish will be fulfilled. The Old Flame is resistant to this brilliant idea, until the lawyer offers to handle her case for free. The daughter, on the other hand, is All For It. Dad and daughter proceed to get to know each other, which inevitably (in this playwright’s world anyway), leads to sex. That’s about the time I ran out, ranting into the night.

This play is just one terrible joke and contrived situation after another. Here’s a for- instance: We are given to understand that the lawyer has a fabulous bachelor pad. We know this because his mother (played valiantly by Betty Buckley, of all people), who has constantly expressed her dismay at his many sexual conquests, says that he has such a nice apartment, she thought he might be gay. DOES THIS MAKE SENSE TO YOU??? What I wanna know is, if this guy has such a great apartment, why does he only shtup his women at his office? Could it be that they’d need another set, and then how could his nebbishy partner constantly walk in on him when he’s with his latest babe (which is an attempted running joke)?

Man, would I like to know the story of how this turkey got produced. Could it be a vanity production of some sort, or is it just that the producers – Aaron Grant, Jana Robbins, Jeremy Hackman, Craig Haffner, Karl E. Held and something called “Sneaky Pete Productions” – have Absolutely No Taste Whatsoever? And, what the heck is a class act like Betty Buckley doing in this dreck?

THE FOREST. CSC, 136 E. 13TH St.

TICKETS: 212-677-4210

THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS. Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

THE KID. Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200

LASCIVIOUS SOMETHING. Julia Miles Theatre (Women’s Project), 424 W. 55th St.

TICKETS: 212-757-3900

WHITE’S LIES. New World Stages. Fuhgeddaboudit.

“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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