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 STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, GETTIN’ THE BAND BACK TOGETHER, HEAD OVER HEELS, PRETTY WOMAN, SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ, DAYS TO COME, LESS THAN 50% and DESPERATE MEASURES.

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about Young Jean Lee, whose Straight White Men has opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre, but this is the first play of hers I have seen; so I was curious to see if she lived up to all the hype. I would say, no.

Full disclosure: I am a straight white man, so maybe I was uncomfortable with the fact that Lee makes my tribe look rather silly. Basically, this is a sitcom-style play about a family consisting of three brothers, who get together with their father every Christmas. What little plot there is consists of the attempts by two of the brothers to figure out why the third, who lives with Dear Old Dad, isn’t making much of his life.

As you enter the theatre, you are blasted by ear-splitting noise-with-a-beat. Two women, bizarrely-costumed, are going around passing out ear plugs, which work pretty well in preventing serious damage to your ears. The women then go up onstage and do an intro wherein we learn that, in fact, they are transgender, and one of them is a Native American, thus touching two important bases in our ever more politically correct theatre. They then appear throughout during scene changes. I guess they are meant to provide ironic detachment from the proceedings, as well as to make this seem as if it is not really a realistic play (which it is), realism being so out of fashion these days, at least in the not for profit theatre, where Straight White Men originated (4 years ago, at the Public Theater), but this comes across as merely silly.

While I applaud that fact that a play by an Asian American woman has made it to Broadway, I would say this one is eminently-missable.

As is Gettin’ the Band Back Together, at the Belasco Theatre for another 9 days. This is a rather vapid musical about a guy named Mitch who loses his job on Wall Street and moves back to Jersey with his mom, who is about to lose her house to foreclosure. Years ago, Mitch had a rock group which won a local battle of the Bands contest. The band which came in second was led by a slimy character who has since become very successful in real estate and, in fact, is foreclosing on Mom’s house. His one failure in life was losing out to Mitch’s group, so he challenges Mitch to, in effect, a duel. Both guys will get their bands back together. If Mitch’s group triumphs at the battle of the bands once again, the bad guy will cancel the foreclosure.

 

It was difficult for me to ascertain just who the producers felt was this show’s audience. It tries to both celebrate and poke fun at Jersey Culture, but they can’t have it both ways. That said, this is expertly directed by John Rando and features several fine performances. Most notably by Brandon Williams as the villainous Tygen Billows, a slimy character whom he plays to the hilt.

Head Over Heels, at the Hudson Theatre is an odd hybrid, a combination of a pastoral poem by Elizabethan poet Sir Phillip Sydney and songs by the 80’s rock group the Go-Go’s. The plot, involving the attempt by a poor shepherd to court a princess, is pretty inane. The shepherd poses as an Amazon, in a costume which makes him look like Wonder Woman, in order to be near her, while her older sister falls in love with a woman. There’s even a transgender goddess in the mix! Again: who’s the audience for this sort of thing? That said, like Gettin’ the Band Back Together, this show is very well done, and features fine performances throughout, but even with the Go-Gos’ fine songs, Head Over Heels comes across as pretty lame.

Lest you think I am just a dyspeptic old fart, I did see some musicals I quite enjoyed. At the head of the list is Pretty Woman, at the Nederlander Theatre, a musical-ization of the film which made Julia Roberts a star. This could have come across as tacky, but the book by the late Garry Marshall (who wrote the screenplay) and JF Lawton is superbly crafted and the direction by Jerry Mitchell (also the choreographer) is first-rate. Andy Karl imbues Edward (Richard Gere in the movie) with loads of charm and charisma, making a rather creepy character sympathetic, and Samantha Barks turns in a star-is-born performance as Vivian, the prostitute played by Julia Roberts. The songs, by Bryan Adams and Jim Valliance, are terrific, particularly as sung by performers of the caliber of Karl and Barks. Eric Anderson has a fine dual turn as Happy Man, sort of a narrator, and the concierge of the Beverly Hills hotel where much of the action takes place, and Orfeh is equally fine as the prostitute who is Vivian’s best friend.

I had a great time at Pretty Woman.

As I did at the revival of the Lieber and Stoller revue Smokey Joe’s Café at Stage 42, formerly the much under-booked Little Shubert, which features a wonderful ensemble of singer/dancers who stop the show several times with hits that just keep on comin’, such as “Dance with Me,” “Kansas City,” “Poison Ivy,” “On Broadway” and “Spanish Harlem,” staged with much aplomb by director/choreographer Joshua Bergasse.

I couldn’t help but reflect, though, on the stark contrast between pop songs then and now. Maybe I am indeed an Old Fart now, but I wonder if there will be similar revues 50 years from now of contemporary pop music, which I consider to be mostly junk.

I am surprised that in general critical comments on Days to Come, Mint Theatre’s revival of a Lillian Hellman play from the 1930s which flopped on Broadway haven’t been more positive. I found the play a fascinating artifact from a time when people were starting to realize that the game is rigged against the little guy (sound familiar?). It’s about a strike against a brush factory owed by a well-meaning but naïve man who hires replacement workers, only to find out that they are actually thugs employed by a notorious strike-breaker. There is a subplot involving the businessman’s unhappy wife and an “outside agitator” brought in by the union to help organize the strike. I think maybe that the original audience (as well as the critics) for Days to Come expected more of a Waiting for Lefty-style left-wing polemic, whereas Hellman gave credence to both sides of the labor/business divide.

Former Pearl Theatre Co., Artistic Director JT Sullivan has done a fine job of directing, and his cast is uniformly excellent. I particularly enjoyed Roderick Hill as the labor organizer, Janie Brookshire as the unhappy wife who just may be falling for him and Pearl Theatre stalwart Dan Daily, one of our finest classical actors in the Philip Bosco mold, who licks his chops with the role of the slick but slimy strike-breaker.

I enjoyed Days to Come, as did the playwright who was my companion. This is Yet Another unjustly-forgotten play unearthed by Jonathan Bank, the Mint’s Artistic Director, by a great playwright.

I caught one of the last performances at 59E59 of Gianmarco Soresi’s Less than 50%, which has now closed. Soresi, who also acted in it, crafted an unconventional almost meta-theatrical romantic comedy about a guy creating a play for himself and his girlfriend, set within the context of a stand-up comedy schtick.

Although overall I enjoyed this play and the performances by Soresi and Hannah Hale as the girlfriend and partner in comedy, ultimately it began to wear thin for me.

By contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed Desperate Measures, a wild west musical romp based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which started at the York Theatre Co. last season and has transferred to New World Stages for a (hopefully) extended run. Ne’er-do-well Johnny has been sentenced to hang for killing a man. His sister Susanna, a novice nun names Sister Mary-Jo can save hi, but only if she sleeps with Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (holy moly, whatta mouthful!). Director/choreographer Bill Castellano’s production is wonderfully witty, and the cast is first rate. New York theatre stalwart Nick Wyman is a particular delight as the lust-filled Governor.

Reportedly, this delightful show is struggling to hold on. See below as to where you can get discount tickets, then spread the word! 

Finally, we mourn the passing of three greats of the American Theatre, playwright Neil Simon, actress Carole Shelley and actor Brian Murray.

The obits for Mr. Simon mention his many Broadway successes, until the Broadway critics decided that comedy belongs on television, not the stage. What they all failed to mention was how popular Mr. Simon’s plays still are in the amateur theatre. Most community theatres have done just about all his plays over the years, and high schools often do plays of his which did not succeed on Broadway, such as THE GOOD DOCTOR, GOD’S FAVORITE and FOOLS. Although I worked for Samuel French, his publisher/licensor for many years, he never came in so I never met him. I did run into him at a performance of the most recent Broadway production of  WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? But he was pretty decrepit by then. To his credit. Mr. Simon attended the theatre regularly. In his words, he wanted to see what the competition was.

Carole Shelley had a wonderfully eccentric quality in her acting, much like that of her contemporaries Maggie Smith and Rosemary Harris. In fact, when Ms. Smith left the cast of Peter Shaffer’s LETTICE AND LOVAGE, it was Ms. Shelley who was tapped to replace her. She had a distinguished career in the classical theatre but she rarely did film or television. That’s her as one of the Pigeon sisters in the film of “The Odd Couple.” She was a true Grande Dame of the theatre, and will be sorely missed.

As will Mr. Murray, a South African actor who came over here with the RSC production of ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD and stayed, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. He started out as a leading man whose many memorable performances included Charlie Now in Hugh Leonard’s DA, but as he got older he morphed into a much in demand character actor, with memorable turns as Dogberry in TWELFTH NIGHT and the title role in the Irish Rep revival of DA. He was also a fine director, and I have fond memories of a production of Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT he directed on Broadway, with Richard Chamberlain, Judith Ivey and Geraldine Page as Madame Arcati.

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-543-4835

GETTIN’ THE BAND BACK TOGETHER. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-543-4835

HEAD OVER HEELS. Hudson Theatre, 139-141 W. 44th St.

Tickets: http://www.thehudsonbroadway.com/whatson/head-over-heels/

PRETTY WOMAN. Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-543-4835

SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ. Stage 42, 422 W.42nd St.

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-543-4835

DAYS TO COME. Beckett Theatre, 410 W.St

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-543-4835

LESS THAN 50% 59E59, 59 E. 59th St. Alas, closed.

DESPERATE MEASURES. New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St.

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-543-4835. For discount tickets, call 212 947-8844    or go to www.telechargeoffers.com. Use discount code DPLSP1

 

“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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