Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on HANDS ON A HARDBODY, KINKY BOOTS, LUCKY GUY, HIT THE WALL, OLD HATS, RIDE THE TIGER, and the HUMANA FESTIVAL.

As I write this, Hands on a Hardbody has just closed at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, an official floperoo. This musical, with a book by Doug Wright and country-inflected songs by Trey Anastasio (of Phish) and Amanda Green, was based on a documentary film about a contest held by a struggling Texas car dealership which required the contestants to stand for days beside a brand new truck with at least one hand on it. The last one left gets the truck.

This was a static concept which was comprised mostly of exposition, as we learn about the hopes and dreams of each contestant. There was nothing much that director Neil Pepe or choreographer could do about this. But it featured terrific performances by a cast which included Hunter Foster and Keith Carradine, and several wonderful songs. What did it in? Well, a lot of it has to do with the mad rush to the Tony Awards, as shows were opening seemingly every day, and Hands on a Hardbody just had too much competition. And, the reviews were not good enough to entice enough Broadway theatregoers into buying tickets – and the ones who did apparently didn’t generate sufficient word-or-mouth the keep it going. Here’s why the critics and audiences were lukewarm, I think: every one of the characters voted for George W. Bush, Rick Perry and Ted Cruz. Probably, many of them signed the petition for Texas to secede from the United States after President Obama was reelected. In other words, here’s a show about red state morons which was trying to make it in the bluest city in the bluest of blue states, singing the soul music of the Tea Party, country music. Hands on a Hardbody was doomed before it ever opened; which is a shame because there was a lot that was good about it. It’s now the latest in a long line of country music shows which have flopped on Broadway.

Kinky Boots at the Hirschfeld Theatre, on the other hand, appears to be a huge hit. Drag queens go over much better in NYC than country bumpkins, I guess. It, too, is based on a film, this one about a British shoe manufacturer whose factory is going under until he meets a drag performer who gives him the idea that there might be a market niche for shoes for drag queens. He hires the drag performer to design a line of gaudy boots, and then the question is, will he pull off this daring new business strategy?

Harvey Fierstein’s book is, as you might expect, equal parts camp and cheery sentiment, and Cyndi Lauper’s songs are theatrical and wonderful. Jerry Mitchell does double duty as both director and choreographer, and both direction and choreography are terrific.

Billy Sands stands out as the drag queen, Lola, but there are fabulous performances as well from Stark Sands, as the reluctant young factory owner, and Annaleigh Ashford, as a young factory worker who has a crush on her boss.

I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t like Kinky Boots – unless he’s from Texas and thinks the country is going to Hell in a handbasket.

The late Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy, at the Broadhurst Theatre, is also a hot ticket, largely because of the presence in the cast of Tom Hanks. It’s about tabloid journalist Mike McLary, who broke the Abner Louima case, won the Pulitzer Prize and then died of cancer. It is largely comprised of stories about McLary (the play’s original title), given theatrical zing by one of the great directorial geniuses in the American Theatre, George C. Wolfe.

How is Tom Hanks? Well, he’s a great actor – and his performance here demonstrates that. I think, though, that for the play to be optimally effective you have to care about the world of tabloid journalism. You have to think that these scoop-hungry ink-stained wretches are heroes. You have to be a Post or Daily News reader who would be bored out of his gourd if he ever read the times. Lucky Guy is ultimately more than just about a “heroic” journalist – it’s about the coarsening of American culture. Which it takes to be a good thing. Not me.

Ike Holter’s Hit the Wall, which is closing soon at the Barrow Street Theatre, is an import from Steppenwolf about gay culture in New York at the time of the Stonewall riot which culminates in the riot itself. It is touching and intensely theatrical, inventively directed by Eric Hoff, and features several superb performances. Sadly, it hasn’t been able to catch on, but definitely try to see it before it closes.

Ten years or so ago, the great clown Bill Irwin announced that he was retiring from physical clowning. Fortunately, he has had a change of heart, and has reunited with his partner in foolery, David Shiner, for one last evening of shtick, Old Hats, at Signature. The show is hilarious. Between bits, there are goofy songs written and sung by the very babealicious Nellie McKay, which add considerably to the fun. Go. Irwin and Shiner are unlikely to pass this way again.

I travelled up to the Long Wharf Theatre to see a new play by William Mastrosimone called Ride the Tiger, which offers an alternative history to the official story of the Kennedy assassination. Apparently, Mastrosimone, who was writing a mini-series for CBS about rank Sinatra, hung out with Frank Sinatra shortly before he died. Sinatra. who knew he was at the end of the line and no longer cared who he pissed off, told Mastrosimone that the Kennedy assassination was mob hit. Ride the Tiger is about the why and how. It’s absolutely fascinating, and highly credible; and Gordon Edelstein’s production is brilliant.

I know you’re probably not going to mission up to New Haven; but if live in the area check this one out. If there’s any justice (which all too often there isn’t) this one should “come in.” It certainly deserves to – just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.

Finally, I also journeyed afield to attend this year’s Humana Festival at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, the first festival whose lineup was chosen by new Artistic Director Les Waters. Waters is best known for his brilliant staging of plays by Sarah Ruhl and Caryl Chruchill, so I expected him to take the Festival in their direction. Imagine my surprise when the first two plays I saw, The Delling Shore by Sam Marks and Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, turned out to be classic examples of American realism such as used to be ubiquitous at ATL but which have been rarely seen in recent Festivals. The Delling Shore was about two writers, friends since college. One’s successful; one’s not. Appropriate was about an Arkansas family’s fight over who gets what (if there’s anything left) from the sale of the family manse. Very August: Osage County and just about as compelling. This seemed to be the Big One at this year’s festival, and I wouldn’t be surprised if New York theatregoers get to see it in the near future. Jeff Augustin’s Cry Old Country was set in Haiti during the Duvalier dictatorship and was about an artist struggling to stay under the government’s radar, and a young man determined to build a boat in order to escape the repression and horrible poverty in his country.

Finally, there was Will Eno’s Gnit, the last play I saw, directed by Waters, a loose adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which was clever in an annoying sort of way. Eno’s the sort of writer who impresses literary managers, dramaturgs and The Times’ The Ish, because his work is so unique and different; but everyone else sits through his plays scratching the heads and going “what?” I found the play impossibly precious and, ultimately just silly, though well-acted and directed, as were all the Humana plays.

All in all, I was impressed by Waters’ stewardship of the Humana Festival, and look forward to next year’s edition.

HANDS ON A HARDBODY. Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Alas, closed
KINKY BOOTS. Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
LUCKY GUY. Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
HIT THE WALL. Barrow St. Theatre, 27 Barrow St.
TICKETS: 212-868-4444
OLD HATS. Signature Theatre Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: 212-244-7529
RIDE THE TIGER. Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, CT.
TICKETS: www.longwharf.org
HUMANA FESTIVAL. Go to www.actorstheatre.org in the fall for information about
next year’s Festival.

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.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

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

— Theodore Roosevelt

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