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New York, New York: Part 2



If you tingle at the thought of spending an evening with a taut drama -- in a rococo palace echoing with the sound of charismatic acting -- toss your nostalgia for the good old days in the nearest trash bin and head for Broadway. In so many ways, these are the good old days.

There is glamour and brio galore on the Great White Way this season. During a 13-day holiday swing, my wife Sue and I sampled Phylicia Rashad and Michael Cerveris tangling in Shakespeare's Cymbeline while Raul Esparza traded jabs with Deadwood meanie Ian McShane in Pinter's The Homecoming. On a couple of evenings, we merely brushed by the most celestial sensation of all -- throngs of fans leaning over police barricades outside the stage door of the Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street, waiting for the stars of Cyrano de Bergerac, Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner.

No doubt, the craftiest of these groupies had purchased discount seats down the block at the Times Square TKTS booth. Surveying the list on a Saturday night, I found 50 percent discounts for a multitude of Broadway attractions, including Cyrano de Bergerac, Mark Twain's Is He Dead, November, Rent, Rock 'n' Roll, The Seafarer and Xanadu.

A second sweep by the big board revealed even more goodies up for grabs once the holiday rush had subsided, including tickets for August: Osage County, The Farnsworth Invention, Legally Blonde and Mary Poppins.

All in all, we feasted on seven new Broadway and Off-Broadway dramas. Nothing shabby about our two comedy noshes, either. We peeped in on Nathan Lane during previews of November, snagging four tickets off the Theatre Development Fund Web site for $129. Off-Broadway, Charles Busch will be starring in his own Die Mommie Die through Feb. 17.

Musicals have been upstaged so far this season, but there's no cause for pity or panic, even if Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein isn't destined to live forever. A look at Broadway's recent record-breaking week confirmed that musicals are still raking in a healthy 85 percent of the gross.

If Xanadu isn't out-pleasured by any of the other new musicals yet to open this season, Broadway revivals of South Pacific and Sunday in the Park With George should offer ample consolation in limited engagements. Toughest ticket of the season? The five Off-Broadway performances of Applause at the New York City Center, with Christine Ebersole and up-and-coming Erin Davie facing off, Feb. 7-10.

We stepped out of Playgoer Paradise frequently enough during our annual New York pilgrimage to take in four musicals that opened in 2007, three of them still going strong in Broadway theaters. Here's my complete scorecard:

Broadway Plays

August: Osage County (***3/4 out of 4) -- Three hours long and three stories tall, there is nothing small about Tracy Letts' study of Oklahoma entropy spanning three generations of the Weston Family. A surprising about-face for Letts after his claustrophobic, paranoid Bug of 2004. Catalyst for all the familial turmoil and infighting is the disappearance and apparent suicide of patriarch Beverly Weston, whose one-time promise as a poet has dissolved in genial malaise and booze.

But there are delicious, searchingly developed roles for all 13 members of this superlative ensemble, from Bev's granddaughter Jean on up to his pill-popping widow, Violet. In between, there's a trio of sisters whose interactions are as deftly drawn as anything since Crimes of the Heart. Plotting never languishes as we get to know the core family, husbands who have married in, plus the housekeeper and the sheriff. Occasionally, there are outbreaks of temper, violence or a satisfying putdown -- with child molestation, incest and a couple of dishy secrets lurking in the wings.

We are told at the start of this long journey -- along a path halfway between the darkness of Lillian Hellman and the lemonade lightness of Beth Henley -- that this is ultimately a story about surviving. Fitting, then, that Deanna Dunagan's performance as the indomitable Violet should be the most unforgettable element of this unforgettable evening.

Cymbeline (***3/4) -- Reviewed in last week's Lincoln Center roundup. (Closed on Jan. 6.)

The Seafarer (***1/2) -- Leading the parade of imports from the British Isles is this moody, fantastical Irish piece written and directed by Conor McPherson. The transplanted National Theatre production wends its leisurely way to a poker game showdown between James "Sharky" Harkin and an antagonist from the distant past, Mr. Lockhart.

Lockhart is a shape-shifting alias for C.S. Lewis's Screwtape (see below), who might easily be called B.L. Zebub in his next earthly incarnation -- or Satan down below. So while there are four hands at the table, the Christmas Eve game a ways north of Dublin is really between Sharky and Lockhart, and the stakes are Sharky's soul.

Accents are as thick as the boggy, boozy atmosphere as Sharky fights the bottle and Beelzebub, reminding me of Beauty Queen of Leenane by McPherson's countryman Martin McDonaugh, one of my all-time favorites. The closest resemblance between the two works crops up in Sharky's blind brother Richard. He's as comically -- and irritatingly -- dependent on his brother as the fading beauty queen's mom was upon her. But at the core, he's 180 degrees more benign.

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