Lawrence Harbison brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS, THE NIGHT WATCHER, LET ME DOWN EASY, GOOD BOBBY, and OLEANNA.

In these strained economic times it is not surprising that three Off Broadway theatre companies are currently presenting solo shows. As it happens, all three feature women in the starring (indeed, the only) role. At the Cherry Lane Theatre, you can see Judith Ivey as advice maven Ann Landers in David Rambo’s The Lady With All the Answers; at Manhattan Theatre Club, Charlayne Woodard is supercharging the stage in her new autobiographical show, The Night Watcher; while Anna Deavere Smith is back with a new interview-play, Let Me Down Easy, at Second Stage.

The Lady With All the Answers takes place in Landers’ home in 1975. She is trying to write “the hardest column I have ever had to write” and she has a serious case of procrastinitis. While she avoids writing her column she regales us with stories about her career and reads some of the favorite letters she’s received, many of which are quite amusing – as are her replies to them. Some are very touching, too, like the anguished “What’s wrong with me?” letter she received from a gay teen. Some newspapers refused to print her reply to him, which was that nothing was wrong with him, he can’t help being gay, and he should get counseling to help him embrace his true nature instead of trying to hide it.

Eventually, we learn why tonight’s column is so hard for Our Heroine to write. After thirty years of advising her readers to stay married no matter what, she is divorcing her husband because he has fallen in love with another women (of course, half his age). Ms. Ivey is quite touching here, as well as when she goes to Viet Nam to meet wounded soldiers and promises to call their parents when she returns to the states. Of course, she calls every one, offering them comfort and encouragement.

Judith Ivey is just wonderful as Ann Landers.

And Charlayne Woodard is just wonderful as well as, well, Charlayne Woodard. Her stories in The Night Watcher, presented by Primary Stages at 59 E. 59 Theatre A, focus mostly on the decision she apparently made early on not to have children, as well as not to adopt; but instead, she became a mother figure to many children, as auntie or as godmother. What emerges, is a powerful reminder to us all of our awesome responsibility as parents, mentors, friends, towards all children.

Anna Deavere Smith has achieved extraordinary success by interviewing people and then presenting them on stage with a unifying theme. In Let Me Down Easy, that theme is death, about how to cross that final frontier with strength and dignity before going gently into that good night. While there is some raging, mostly against our health care system, the best parts of this show are quiet and contemplative. As usual, Ms. Smith plays all the roles, including Lance Armstrong.

This show might seem like something of a bummer, but it’s not. I found it quite uplifting, actually.

Good Bobby, at 59 E. 59, comes to us from a successful run in Los Angeles. It’s about a shy, insecure rich kid who grew up in the shadow of his much more accomplished and confident brothers to become, with grit and determination, Bobby Kennedy.

When we first meet Kennedy, he’s counsel to the Senate committee investigating organized labor’s involvement with organized crime. He goes on to help his brother because President and eventually, becomes a candidate for president himself. We know what happened then. Brian Lee Franklin, who wrote the play, also plays Bobby Kennedy. He is terrific in the role, but the play is also pretty good, though I thought the direction was, overall, a little lethargic, making the play run longer than it should have.

But, really, this play is well worth seeing.

The Curmudgeon Laureate of our theatre, David Mamet, is back with a revival of his cryptically-titled Oleanna, a short two-hander which ran off Broadway originally and is now having its Broadway debut at the Golden Theatre, starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles. For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s about a college professor who finds himself accused of sexual harassment by a student in one of his classes. What pisses many people off (frankly, most of them women) is that Mamet loads the deck in favor of the beleaguered male, making his student a conniving harpy. Most of Mamet’s plays are about the struggle for power, and this one’s no different. Mamet appears to be saying that men are guilty until proven innocent of being sexual aggressors and insensitive louts – but they can’t be proven innocent because it’s her word against his – and her word is the one that constitutes The Truth.

My companion (a woman) disliked the play but put it down to the acting. She felt both actors were miscast. I did not. I thought they perfectly incarnated the two that Mamet drew. My only quibble was director Doug Hughes’ decision to frame each scene with the slow raising and lowering of window blinds, accompanied by the sound of a motor which sounded strong enough to hoist the entire theatre. Huh, and double huh?

I would say, if it sounds like the subject matter of this play would piss you off, and you just can’t bring an open mind into the Golden Theatre, don’t go.

THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS. Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
THE NIGHT WATCHER. Primary Stages, 59 E. 59 St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200.
LET ME DOWN EASY. Second Stage, 307 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: 212-246-4422.
GOOD BOBBY. 59 E. 59 Theatres.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200.
OLEANNA. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.

“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

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