“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 MOULIN ROUGE, THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM, and THE WIVES and Sam Bobrick.

I am reporting to you belatedly on the above, which I saw last month. My computer went belly-up but I am finally up and running with a new one. After many years of its running on www.smithandkraus.com, I am moving my column over to www.applausebooks.com,

the new website of Applause Theatre & Cinema books, which be operational this week. Applause is a much larger operation than was Smith & Kraus, with significantly more web traffic.

Moulin Rouge, at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, is a spectacular version of the Baz Luhrman film about a dying chanteuse named Satine in Belle Epoque Paris and the two men who love her. Karen Olivo is phenomenal as Satine (though I have to say, she’s not as consumptive as the book calls for – well, what do you expect, this is musical comedy and who wants to see the leading lady coughing all night?). I thought she had left the business after her last Broadway outing in West Side Story, but if that’s true, I’m glad she changed her mind.

As in the Luhrman film, the score consists of over 80 contemporary pop songs, many of them mere snippets, all sung energetically by a wonderful cast, which includes Aaron Tveit as an impoverished songwriter, Tam Mutu as a wealthy British aristocrat and Danny Burstein as the owner of the eponymous nightclub, which is going under. If Satine chooses the villainous Baron, she can save the club; but she’s really in love with the songwriter. The Baron agrees to produce a musical written by the songwriter, which could save the club – but only if Satine agrees to become his mistress.

All three male leads are terrific, but I think the Main Events are the fabulous direction by Justin Timbers, the sumptuous costumes by Catherine Zuber, the sets by Derek McLane, the lighting by Justin Townsend and the wonderful choreography by Sonya Taveh. The show is a visual feast from start to finish. I expect it will be honored with several awards at season’s end.

As for Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm, translated by Christopher Hampton, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway venue), well, I just didn’t get it, nor did many of my fellow theatregoers. It’s a family drama. In the present, the patriarch and matriarch are deceased, but both are major characters because we flit back and forth between the present and the past. Ordinarily, this would have been clarified with lighting changes but here, director Jonathan Kent employs none, perhaps because none are indicated in the script, and the effect on the audience is frustrating confusion although as you would expect, the terrific performances by Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins almost make this rather tedious play watchable.

Jaclyn Backhaus’ The Wives at Playwrights Horizons, which has closed, was a time-travelling comedy about the wives and mistresses of various historical figures such as the French King Henry IV and Ernest Hemingway. It was very inventively staged by Margot Bordelon.

Backhaus is a real comer – like many young female playwrights hugely influenced by the work of Caryl Churchill without being in any way derivative. This was the first play of hers I have seen, but I look forward to seeing many more.

Playwright Sam Bobrick has passed away at the age of 87. Sam, an old friend, was a very successful TV writer in the 1960s though the 1980s, whose credits include numerous episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show, “The “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and “Saved by the Bell,” which he created. In the 1970’s he turned to writing Broadway comedies, partnering with fellow TV writer Ron Clark, such as “Norman, Is That You,” “Wally’s Café” and “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s.” Though none of these succeeded on Broadway, they have proved popular with amateur groups, always on the lookout for plays which are just plain fun – for their actors and for their audiences.

Used to be, comedies (along with thrillers) were ubiquitous in every Broadway season; but then, the Broadway critics decided that these kinds of plays belonged on television, and began deriding them as “sit-coms.” About the worst thing a critic could call a play became “television.” Fortunately, Neil Simon came along before this attitude became prevalent; but by the time Bobrick and Clarke hit Broadway they were outta luck, at least on Broadway; but fortunately comedies were (and still are) very popular with the above mentioned amateur groups.

After parting with Clark, Bobrick continued to write plays, many of which have received numerous productions, licensed by Samuel French, and was writing right up until the end.

Sam was a wonderfully cranky old coot, and I miss him.


MOULIN ROUGE. Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St.

Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000

THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM. Robert J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400.

THE WIVES. Playwrights Horizons. Alas, closed. 

“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