“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, the Playfixer, ordinarily brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but since New York Theatre is closed down for the foreseeable future, in this column Larry reports on streamed plays: CONFLICT, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, RUSSIAN TROLL FARM, and the films of THE PROM and MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. 

What a dreadful year 2020 was! No live theatre since early March. It’s possible that the theatres will reopen in May, but my guess this won’t be until September, as that is Dr. Fauci’s recommendation. I check Playbill.com daily to see if there is any news.

So, I have been streaming interesting productions, some of them via ZOOM (which, I hope, will be a thing of the past – the sooner the better). The problem with these is they are here today, gone tomorrow, and this is tomorrow. Ah, well – better this than nothing.

The invaluable Mint Theatre Co. has been streaming productions from before the pandemic hit. Their latest was Miles Malleson’s Conflict, which was one of the best productions of the many fine productions I have seen (in this case, streamed) at the Mint over the years. Malleson was an actor and translator, best known for his translations of Molière, so one might assume that Conflict would be a comedy, but it turned out to be a drama (from 1924).

The play takes place in the home of a wealthy aristocrat, Lord Bellington. A young man, Sir Ronald Clive, also wealthy, is courting his daughter, Lady Dare Bellington, who is resisting marry him because she is waiting for something unknown and wonderful to happen to her. This arrives in the person of Tom Smith, an impoverished schoolmate of Sir Ronald who hopes to borrow money from him. To get him to go away, Sir Ronald gives him a considerable amount of money. Tom uses this to get back on his feet. He joins the Labour Party and stands for Parliament. His opponent? Sir Ronald. Whereas Sir Ronald is a fatuous Tory, Tom is a firebrand champion of the working class, sort of a much younger Bernie Sanders. He inspires Lady Dare, who decides to turn her back on her class and marry him. The central character, Lady Dare, is a wonderful role and Jessie Shelton was a delight in it, matched by the impassioned Jeremy Beck as Tom.

The parallels between England in 1924 and our fractious time couldn’t be clearer and, once again, the Mint has exhumed a play most worthy of exhumation. Jenn Thompson’s direction was pitch-perfect as were the set by John McDermott and the costumes by Martha Hally.

The great actor Jefferson Mays scored a triumph in a solo performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. His was one of the most brilliant performances I have ever had the joy to see. Dickens often did readings of his classic novel. Were he to see what Mays and his director Michael Arden have done to bring it to life, I am sure he would be as astonished as I was. The multimedia projections by Lucy Mackinnon were amazing, as was the lighting by Ben Stanton and the sound design by Joshua D. Reid.

I hope, I pray, that this will become as annual event at Christmas.

I am not a fan of Zoom Theatre, which usually is a poor replacement for Real Theatre, but I have been zooming anyway, starved for the real thing. The best of these was Russian Troll Farm, by Sarah Trancher, from Theatre Works Hartford, about five Russians in an imagining of what the disinformation dept. Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg must be like, attempting to subvert the 2016 election in the U.S. After much amusing office banter of a general nature, Masha (who has just been transferred from the Fake News Department and the cynical manager, Nikolai, send out a string of tweets about a network of tunnels (bogus, of course) starting from beneath Disneyland, leading to the Mexican border, which are being used by Hillary Clinton’s nefarious minions as a conduit for her pedophile ring. Gancher managed to make this amusing and horrifying at the same time.

Director Elizabeth Williamson, helped by her co-director Jared Mezzocci, who did the multi-media design, managed to create the illusion that all five characters were in the same room better than any Zoomed play I have seen, and all the actors were first-rate.

Ordinarily, I don’t write about films but I am making an exception for two you can stream on Netflix, versions of two Broadway shows – The Prom and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

I loved The Prom when I saw it on Broadway but the film is just as good, maybe better. It’s about a narcissistic crew of Broadway actors who bomb in a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. They decide to look for a cause in order to rehabilitate their shattered reputations. They find one when they hear about a teenage girl in a small town in Indiana who has been denied permission to bring her girlfriend to her senior prom. They mission out to Indiana to lead a charge against the small-minded locals; but it is girl herself who manages to win the day (well, the night).

The cast includes Meryl Streep as a self-obsessed diva named Didi, James Corden as trés gay Barry, her co-star on the awful Eleanor: the Musical and Andrew Rannells as an out of work actor who’s been making ends meet as a bartender. Nicole Kidman shines as a chorine who has been trapped in the chorus of Chicago for 20 years. Kerry Washington is their nemesis, Mrs. Greene, the head of the local P.T.A. whose daughter, unbeknownst to her, is the mystery girlfriend. Asks Mrs. Greene, “Who are you people?” To which Rannells replies, “We’re liberals from Broadway!” Jo Ann Pellman is wonderful as the teenager who just wants to bring her girlfriend to the prom. Casey Nicholaw, who directed and choreographed the Broadway production, has here done just the dances – and they are fabulous, much better than what I saw on Broadway.

The Prom is wildly funny, but it also packs a powerful emotional punch. If you subscribe to Netflix, don’t miss it.

Also a don’t-miss: George C. Wolfe’s brilliant film of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which features stellar performances by Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and the late Chadwick Bozeman as the horn player in her backup group. Both are certain Oscar contenders.

By the way. I recently signed up for Broadway HD, where I can stream Real Theatre. Their offerings are phenomenal – plays, musicals, classics up the yin-yang. I started out with A Moon for the Misbegotten, which I saw during my visit to NYC as a tourist at Christmas-New Year’s 1973-4. This acclaimed production, directed by José Quintero, starring Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst and Ed Flanders, restored O’Neill’s great play to our national dramatic repertory. I managed to score a pair of tickets on the day of performance, which turned out to be Opening Night. This was the Olden Days, so the curtain was at 6:30. All the critics were there, but the only ones I recognized were the TV people, such as Pia Lindstrom and Ed Sullivan. Sullivan had two seats, one for himself and one for his coat. He had orange hair. I have since seen the play 4 times – but my first time is still the best, and one of the best “revivals” I have seen in a lifetime at the theatre.

Then, I moved on to An American in Paris, which I loved when I saw it on Broadway, starring Leanne Cope, a British ballet star, and Robert Fairchild, at the time a Principal Dancer with the New York City Ballet. I expected their dancing to be great; but it turned out they both are fine actors and terrific singers. The entire production is sublime.


“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