Here’s your chance to get up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about BROKE-OLOGY, THE EMPEROR JONES, BYE BYE BIRDIE, SUCH THINGS HAPPEN ONLY IN BOOKS, SUPERIOR DONUTS and MEMPHIS.

As you can see by the above list, I have been quite busy, catching up with show after show. As usual, I have mostly good things to say about all of them. What can I say? I’m easy.

Nathan Louis Jackson’s Broke-ology, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, is a compelling drama about a black family in St. Louis. The mom, Sonia, passed away 12 years ago, and dear old Dad, William, has had to raise his two sons by himself. They are now young men. Malcolm went away to college in Connecticut, but he is now working for the Environmental Protection Agency office in St. Louis; Ennis stayed home, works in a restaurant, and is about to become a father. William suffers from multiple sclerosis, and his condition is deteriorating. Malcolm wants to go back to Connecticut, where he has a great opportunity to work with his mentor from college; but Ennis, who plans to marry the mother of his child, wants him to stay in St. Louis to help him care for their father.

Meanwhile William, in his less lucid moments, has hallucinations in which Sonia appears. Finally, Malcolm has to make a choice: take the job in Connecticut or give up his dream and stay home with Dad.

Beautifully-directed by Thomas Kail, Broke-ology features a first-rate cast. Wendell Pierce is quite moving as William and Francois Battiste and Alano Miller are superb as the two sons. Crystal A. Dickerson is lovely as the phantom mom. The play has been derided in some quarters for being too sentimental, as well as for being too “television.” To the former, I say that there is nothing wrong with sentimental if it is done well, as it is here, and when the sentiment is so desperately needed. Here’s a play about a black father who is willing to do anything to help his sons. Anything. To the latter criticism I say: there are live actors on a stage, playing for a live audience. So it’s NOT TELEVISION.

Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones is rarely revived, largely because much of it is written in darky-dialect and because it, unlike, Broke-ology, does not exactly present a positive image of a black man. You can in effect send it up, as the Wooster Group did when they presented the play with a white woman in black-face as Brutus Jones, or you can take the play on its own terms and go for broke, which is what Ciarán O’Reilly has done at Irish Rep. To do this, you have to have a Commanding Presence playing the title role, and O’Reilly has a doozy in John Douglas Thompson, an acclaimed classical actor who elevates, to tragic stature, the role of the escaped convict who makes his way to Africa to become a corrupt, rapacious dictator but who overstays his welcome too long and finds himself hunted through the jungle by his former subjects.

O’Reilly’s production is magnificently expressionistic, employing Taymor-like puppetry and brilliant sound and lighting design. Brian Nelson did the lighting, and Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson the sound. Both are just incredible. As is Thompson. Expect this performance to be multi-honored next spring at awards time.

If you believe the reviews, Robert Longbottom’s production of Bye Birdie Birdie, presented by Roundabout at Henry Miller’s Theatre, is a train wreck and the leading candidate for Bomb of the Year. So, is it the turkey they’re saying it is? No, say I.

It’s a charming show, done in a cartoon-y way which I quite enjoyed. John Stamos has been derided for Not Being Dick Van Dyke, which is unfair. He is delightful as the nerdy Albert, as is Gina Gershon as his lady love, Rosie, who has been derided for Not Being Chita Rivera. Ridiculous, and again unfair. She makes a luscious, winsome Rosie. Both are supposedly weak, vocally. Untrue. True, they’re not Patinkin and Lupone; but who needs powerhouse voices in a show like this? Bill Irwin has been cast as the dad, and derided for his over the top performance. In a cartoon like this, if you have a Bill Irwin, folks, you have to use him – and Irwin does not disappoint. His clowning at the end of Act I when the family appears on the Ed Sullivan Show is priceless. Also excellent are the two teens playing Kim and Hugo (Allie Trimm and Matt Doyle) as are Jane Houdyshell, as Albert’s battleaxe of a mother, and Nolan Girard Funk as Birdie, who stops the show more than once.

The audience at the performance I attended loved the show, even though most were probably Roundabout subscribers who were there because they already had tickets anyway. I didn’t see any ditchees after the intermission. If you’re up for a goofy evening, you might enjoy this show.

Thornton Wilder, best known for classics American plays such as Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, was also a gifted miniaturist who wrote many short plays during his career which have also become classics, such as The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Long Christmas Dinner, and even more which were pretty much forgotten until they were recently unearthed by Wilder’s nephew and executor. Keen Company is currently presenting a bill of five of these “lost” plays under the collective title Such Things Only Happen in Books. While these short plays do not rise to the level of Wilder’s greatest work, still they are all theatrically inventive and most enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the titular play, about a complacent novelist unaware of the real story happening under his very eyes, and “Cement Hands,” wherein an avuncular uncle warns his niece that the “perfect man” she is about to marry – he’s rich, he’s handsome — is a nit-picking cheapskate.

As usual, Keen’s production is terrific, under the able hands of co-directors Carl Forsman and Jonathan Silverstein. A most enjoyable evening.

Don’t go to Tracey Letts’ Superior Donuts, at the Music Box Theatre, expecting to see anything like his earlier plays. Killer Joe and Bug were dark and disturbing – even shocking – and his Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County was a vicious family drama. Superior Donuts shows a kinder, gentler Letts. While it does not pack the punch of his other plays, it does offer substantial pleasures.

It’s about an elderly owner of a donut shop in a deteriorating Chicago neighborhood. Arthur, a draft-dodging radical in the long-lost 60’s, is now he’s in his 60’s and has pretty much given up on life. He gets by, he makes do – until he hires an eager-beaver young black man to help out in his shop. Franco is a go-getter, who talks his way into a job and then tries to persuade Arthur to spruce it up, offer poetry readings, etc. He also urges Arthur to go out with a flirty beat cop who has been dropping hints that she’s interested just about every day. The complication comes with the arrival of Franco’s bookie, to whom he owes an impossible sum of money. If he doesn’t pay up, the usual terrible things will happen to him.

My only problem with the play is that Letts constantly interrupts it with long narrative monologues in which Arthur tells the audience about his family, about the 60s, etc. These would work just fine in a novel; but in a play they seem intrusive and unnecessary. Michael McKean and John Michael Hill are terrific as Arthur and Franco, respectively, and the supporting cast is good, too.

Memphis, the new musical at the Shubert Theatre is, like Bye Bye Birdie, set in the 1950’s. A Memphis white kid is crazy about black music, and makes it his mission to bring it into the “mainstream” – i.e., white America. He succeeds, but the beat then goes on without him.

I had a great time at Memphis; but I have to admit that it sugarcoats the story of the fight for racial integration in the music business and in the “real world.” It skips over an important step in this process: Elvis. Book writer Joe DiPietro would have us believe that white kids would start hoppin’ and boppin’ to proto-soul music because of a cool radio DJ. It was, in fact, Elvis who took what was then known as “race music” and made it acceptable to white folks. He paved the way. It wasn’t until the early to mid-60s, when Barry Gordy came along with Motown, that “white” radio started playing black music. Dreamgirls deals with this subject in a much more serious, and truthful, way than does Memphis, which takes a more fairy-tale approach that says more about the Age of Obama than it does about the Age of Elvis.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I must say that Christopher Ashley’s direction is just wonderful. Sergio Trujillo, whose choreography for last season’s unfairly-maligned Guys and Dolls was most under-appreciated, really shines here. And what a cast! There are at least two, maybe more, “a star is born” performances coming from Chad Kimball, as the proselytizing DJ Huey, and from Montego Glover as Felicia, an aspiring Tina Turner-esque singer who Huey promotes to stardom and with whom he falls in love.

Memphis is not to be missed – even though it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

BROKE-OLOGY. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
THE EMPEROR JONES. Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St.
TICKETS: 212-727-2737.
BYE BYE BIRDIE. Henry Miller’s Theatre. 124 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
SUCH THINGS ONLY HAPPEN IN BOOKS. Clurman Theatre, 416 W.
42nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200.
SUPERIOR DONUTS. Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
MEMPHIS. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th 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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