“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about OUR HOUSE, CORALINE and NEXT FALL.

The opening of a new play by Theresa Rebeck is always a cause for celebration. This is one of the American Theatre’s smartest, and funniest, playwrights. Her latest, Our House at Playwrights Horizons, does not disappoint. It’s required viewing for anyone concerned about what has been happening to news on television, and about the spread of so-called “reality television.”

Jennifer Ramirez is the hot, rising star of TV news. She anchors the morning news, but the head of programming, a manic, slimy character named Wes, has bigger plans for her. He decides to make her a feature of his network’s hottest reality show, “Our House,” unconcerned that reality TV isn’t really “news” – at least as Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkeit would have conceived it.

Between scenes involving Jennifer, Wes and the unctuous head of news Stu, we are given scenes in a real house, in which reside four people. One of them is a TV nut named Merv, who apparently does nothing but sit around the house all day watching reality TV, much to the dismay of Alice, who hates it that the TV is on 24/7 and who keeps the house books. Mel is over $4,000 behind in his contributions to the house expenses, and Alice wants the other denizens to boot him out. So, Mel comes downstairs with a gun and shoots Alice and the other woman in the house, Grigsby. “What do you want?” pleads Vince, the only unscathed resident. “I want to talk to Jennifer Ramirez,” says Mel. What ensues is a taut hostage negotiation drama, as the network sends Jennifer into the house to get the exclusive story. Of course, the network’s numbers go through the roof.

Michael Mayer’s production is flat-out brilliant, and his cast is across-the board wonderful. Christopher Evan Welch is scarily terrific as Wes, and Morena Baccarin is scarily robotic as Jennifer. Jeremy Strong, as Merv, is scary, too – because he is so likeable, albeit in a nutcase kind of way.

Our House is funny and horrifying. Don’t miss this one.

I also recommend Coraline, an MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre – particularly if you are in the mood for Something Completely Different. This is a horror yarn about a little girl who finds herself in a parallel universe on the other side of a bricked-up doorway, where she is the daughter of a sinister Other Mother and Father. Will she escape back to the safety of the real world, or will she been turned into a tortured spirit like the other children she meets in her nightmare?

David Greenspan has adapted a weird children’s novel by Nail Gaiman, and there are several very creepy songs by Stephin Merritt. Jane Houdyshell, a wonderful character actress in her 50s (that’s my guess) plays Coraline, and she makes you believe she is this little girl. David Greenspan himself plays the Other Mother, and he is as weird and sinister as you might expect.

Coraline is a weird kiddie show which can be enjoyed by adults, too.

Finally, I caught Naked Angels’ production of Artistic Director Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall, at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre (Playwrights Horizons’ upstairs space, although this is not a PH production), which reminded me a lot of the sort of play I used to see regularly at the late lamented Circle Rep, no doubt because of the presence in the cast of Circle Rep veteran Cotter Smith, who has been doing television and some film lo these past 15 years or so, and whose return to the New York stage is most welcome.

We are in a hospital waiting room with the family and friends of Luke, a young actor who has been in an accident and is in a coma. There’s his father and his step-mother, his boyfriend, his ex-boyfriend, and a female friend who runs a candle shop where he works as his day job. There are flashbacks involving Luke and the current boyfriend, a 40 year-old nebbishy sort, and these form the heart of the play’s conflict. Luke, you see, is a sincere Christian; whereas the boyfriend, Adam, is a cynical atheist. Talk about an odd couple! Adam thinks Luke is seriously wrong-headed; Luke worries that Adam is damned to hell because he doesn’t accept Christ as his savior. There is much to savor in the debate between these two men; but these scenes in the waiting room are great, too.

Patrick Breen and Patrick Heusinger and wonderful as the contentious lovers Adam and Luke, and Cotter Smith is most impressive as Luke’s Dad, a stuffy conservative type clearly unhappy with his son’s lifestyle. Connie Ray provides a lot of the comic relief as Luke’s step-mom, and there is excellent work as well here from Sean Dugan as the ex and from Maggie Corman as the candle selling, self-described fag hag. Sheryl Kaller’s direction is first-rate.

Cotter, come home for good!

OUR HOUSE. Playwrights Horizons. 416 W, 42nd St.

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

CORALINE. Lucille Lortel Theatre. 121 Christopher St.

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

NEXT FALL. Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. 416 W, 42nd St.

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

Who is this guy?”

For over thirty years Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the first publication of plays by such 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 many musicals such as Smoke on the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice, Little Shop of Horrors and Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down. He has a B. A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. in theatre from the University of Michigan. He is currently Senior Editor for Smith & Kraus, Inc., the nation’s largest theatrical trade publisher, for whom he edits annual anthologies of best plays by new playwrights, best ten-minute plays, best monologues for men and for women and best stage scenes. 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. 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 the NYC press corps and is an Outer Critics Circle member. 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 loves to hear from readers – particularly if they disagree with him. E-mail him at LHarbison1@nyc.rr.com

“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