On the Aisle with Larry”

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 JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA, GOOD FOR OTTO, THE LOW ROAD, KINGS, DOGS OF RWANDA, BABETTE’S FEAST and THE SIGNATURE PROJECT.

You have until this weekend to catch Jerry Springer: The Opera, a wild, profane and extremely funny send-up of “The Jerry Springer Show” produced by The New Group at the Signature Center. Produced originally in London 13 years ago. It was deemed way too raunchy for Broadway. Then The Book of Mormon happened.

The first act is pretty much a typical Springer show, full of weirdos and misfits willing to abase themselves for their 5 minutes of fame, at the end of which Springer is shot by a disgruntled ex-employee. Where could this go after that (you might ask)? The answer is, Hell, where Jerry is tormented by the Devil, played with, well, devilish glee by Will Swenson (who plays the murdering employee in the first act. I saw Matt McGrath as Springer, who took over for the run’s extension from Terrence Mann. He’s fine, but he still looks like a kid, albeit with gray in his hair. Swenson, on the other hand, is wonderful, as you might expect, and the ensemble cast is phenomenal.

Our top director of comedy, John Rando, has outdone himself here, and the book and lyrics by Richard Thomas are hilarious, and the music by Stewart Lee and Thomas is one wonderful song after another.

David Rabe’s Good for Otto, also at the Signature Center and also produced by the New Group, is set at a mental health center in the Berkshires, focusing on patients who are receiving treatment from two psychiatrists, played by Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, who must contend with their challenging patients and the mental health bureaucracy. While there is not much in the way of plot, the various character threads are very compelling, and there are wonderful performances by the likes of F. Murray Abraham, Laura Esterman and, especially, Mark Linn-Baker, who plays a middle-aged retarded man who is obsessed with his pet hamster, Otto, who may be terminally ill; and, as you might expect, Harris and Madigan are superb.

The reviews I read haven’t been very good, but I found this play very compelling.

Also terrific are two plays at the Public Theater, Bruce Norris’ The Low Road and Sarah Burgess’ Kings. The Low Road is an epic drama about American capitalism, set in the mid-18th Century, narrated by the Scottish economist Adam Smith, whose The Wealth of Nations is capitalism’s foundational text. Norris explores the many contradictions of unrestrained capitalism by focusing on the career of a poor foundling determined to succeed, willing to stop at nothing, including murder. Rarely do we get to see a play with such a large cast. Kings is about the corrosive influence of money in American Politics. It’s central character is a recently elected, crusading Congresswoman determined to change the System. Set against her are two lobbyists (one of whom decides to join he in her crusade) and a powerful business-as-usual Senator. Eisa Davis is wonderful as the Congresswoman, and the always-excellent Zach Grenier is delightfully smarmy as the Senator.

Dogs of Rwanda, a monodrama by Sean Christopher Lewis at Urban Stages, is a narrated tale wherein a man tells of his personal experience with the Rwandan genocide while he was a teenaged missionary. He’s published a book about this horrific experience and has been contacted by a survivor who has criticized him for not telling the whole story. Dan Hodge is mighty fine as Our Narrator, but there is no escaping the fact that this is a story, not a play, albeit a most compelling one.

Babette’s Feast, at Theatre at St. Clement’s, based on an Izak Dinesen short story, is a tale of the denizens of a small Norwegian town far to the north, called Berlevåg, who have little to do but worship God. Then, a refugee from the Paris Commune massacre arrives, named Babette, whose family have all been killed, sent there by a soldier who visited there long ago, because he remembers that everyone there is kind so he figures she will be safe. She is taken in by the daughters of the late Dean of the church and becomes their housekeeper for many years. Then, word comes that she has won the 15,000 francs in the French lottery. Rather than use her windfall to return to Paris, she stays in Berlevåg and decides to cook a grand feast for everyone in the town. It turns out that Babette was chef at the finest restaurant in Paris, the Café Americaine, and her feast is truly scrumptious costing every sou of the 15,000 francs.

Karen Conrood has employed a very inventive non-realistic approach, in which the actors mime the props and play both male and female roles, in Dana Botez’ all-black costumes, which look Jacobean, giving the town the look of a place that time forgot (which, in fact, it is). The actors are all superb, particularly Michelle Hurst, who invests Babette with a quiet dignity.

Finally, The Signature Project, at the Sheen Center, is a brilliant monologue by an Irish artist named Patrick Dunning, who has been travelling around the U.S. with an incredible painting incorporating hundreds of thousands of signatures, using the color spectrum we can see and all the rest of the spectrum we can’t. When he shines an ultraviolet and ultrared light on it, we see amazing things we couldn’t see with the naked eye. There is also Irish dancing and songs by his brother, who appears in the play via skype from Ireland to sing a duet with the artist.

I have to say, The Signature Project is one of the most amazing things I have seen in quite a while.

JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA. Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

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

GOOD FOR OTTO. Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

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

THE LOW ROAD. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: www.publictheater.org

KINGS. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: www.publictheater.org

DOGS OF RWANDA. Urban Stages, 259 W. 30th St.

Tickets: www.urbanstages.org

BABETTE’S FEAST. Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St.

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

THE SIGNATURE PROJECT. Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker St.

Tickets: www.signatureproject.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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