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New York, New York: Part 2

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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.

Jim Norton feasts on Richard with an impish glee, nearly stealing the show from David Morse, who gives an epic performance worthy of a tortured O'Neill drunk as Sharky, and Ciar·n Hinds, a most dapper devil. Providing additional comic relief as slovenly neighbor Ivan Curry is a marvelous Conleth Hill. So ingeniously constructed is McPherson's whisky parable that a running joke at Ivan's expense turns out to be Sharky's saving grace.

November (***1/2) -- So what's the result when an irresistible comic collides with immovable realist? Surprisingly, when the comedian is Nathan Lane and the playwright is David Mamet, it's Mamet who blinks, yielding up to Lane one dream of an election year role, hot-wired with punchlines.

Mamet, in an uninhibited satiric mode, deftly shields himself from libel in crafting Lane's character. Clearly, from the clueless references to Iraq and Iran -- not to mention his historically low standing in job approval polls -- the model for incumbent President Charles Smith is that prince of incompetence, Bush 43.

But this unprincipled dimwit isn't a lame duck. Smith is running for re-election now, and as the calendar eases into November, Mamet and Lane gleefully demonstrate that there is absolutely nothing that the leader of the Free World won't do to sweeten his soured legacy, replenish a horribly depleted campaign war chest, or if all else fails, cash out.

Yes, everything is for sale at the Oval Office -- at hyper-inflated prices -- including the time-honored tradition of Thanksgiving turkey. Mamet hasn't been this trendy since Madonna starred in his Speed-the-Plow nearly 20 years ago. Granted, this detour into Turkey pardoning spares rabid fundamentalists and ivory tower liberals from the lashes they deserve. But here Mamet is proving himself more adroit than even our most masterful politicians in skirting truly divisive issues.

For Lane, the comeback arc is much shorter, bringing him close to the pinnacle of worship he reached in The Producers. Among his supporting cast here, Ethan Phillips is particularly tasty as "A Representative of the National Association of Turkey By-Products Manufacturers," but this is Lane's meal. After the glowing reviews that have already greeted opening night -- we saw a preview performance -- the price of turkey is soaring on 47th Street at the Ethel Barrymore.

The Homecoming (***1/4) -- Aside from his famed elusiveness and nebulosity, there are other substantial reasons not to love Harold Pinter and his distinctive brand of absurdism. Stage director Daniel Sullivan and leading man Ian McShane tackle them boldly, providing us with ample reason to give Pinter a second chance.

McShane has a knack for making repellent, despicable characters into delights, a gift that Sullivan induces the other depraved, debauched characters onstage to share. Makes sense. Max, the aging lowlife Londoner portrayed by McShane, is the father of nearly all the evil and corruption we see.

Some trio of sons Max has fathered! In order of appearance, there's Lenny (Ral Esparza), an embittered, street-smart underachiever. The dimwitted Joey (Gareth Saxe) is another gem, driven by appetite with only a limited aptitude for boxing. Another predator -- and another loser.

In walks the prodigal, Teddy (James Frain), and his wife Ruth (Eve Best). After a protracted absence, Teddy returns in triumph, a doctor of philosophy and the father of three. He is philosophically far above Joey's base carnality and Lenny's cunning greed, and his Ruth -- now there is one cool, seductive piece of work.

Like Seafarer, we seem to be watching a poker game as the final act unfolds, with each family member putting progressively more calculated dominion on the table. The ingenuity of Pinter's denouement is that, in the end, everybody wins, leaving us with much to ponder on the subjects of gender roles and sexual politics. What a family!

Odd man out here is Max's respectable, humdrum brother, Sam, brilliantly portrayed by Michael McKean (Lenny from Laverne & Shirley lives!). It is his fate that underscores Pinter's mordant point: the real losers in life are those who don't grab for what they want.

Rock 'n' Roll (***) -- In a leaner year, I'd probably rate Tom Stoppard's semi-autobiographical meditation on pop culture and politics a half star higher. After all, his exploration of rock's role in bringing democracy to the Czech Republic is more engaging than Michael Frayn's docudrama, Democracy, chronicling the tribulations of Willy Brandt. Although Stoppard doesn't nearly whip up the intellectual excitement generated by Copenhagen, his tactics hold out the promise for a broader human response.

We encounter Jan, a Czech native (like Stoppard himself) with a fervent belief in pop culture's relevance in shaping political history. Wisely, Stoppard engages us in Jan's passion for rock, his struggles with the repressive pre-Havel Czech regime, and his abiding friendship with Esme, a young woman he meets during his student days at Cambridge.

Esme's father, Max, is Jan's intellectual sparring partner, one of the last true believers in the original tenets of Communism. While Rufus Sewell makes us love Jan for his brilliance and naivete, Brian Coxe may be achieving a far more Herculean task in rousing our affection for the stubborn, eccentric, and wrongheaded Max, though Stoppard texturizes him nicely with loves and trials of his own. Quite a coup here also for Sinead Cusack, who plays both their true loves!

What critics fail to realize in comparing Stoppard with Frayn on our historical odyssey from 1967 to 1990 -- when the Rolling Stones perform in Prague -- is the kinship of Rock 'n' Roll with Wendy Wasserstein's equally intellectual and domestic Heidi Chronicles. Regrettably, we don't see any of the free-spirited rock musicians nor the jackboots who torment them. While we listen to Stoppard's playlist between scenes, from Syd Barrett and Bob Dylan to the Beach Boys and the Stones, slides showing us the discographical data fill a screen that drops over the stage. All too often, we're watching index cards instead of drama.

Broadway Musicals

Curtains (***1/2) -- Besprinkled with all the snarky smarts and wicked savvy of Kander and Ebb, Curtains is about the joys of putting together a Broadway musical and the thrills of solving a mystery while tracking down a serial killer. Teamed with the duo who gave us Chicago is nonpareil musical mystery writer Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Thumbs), so we deftly zigzag between genres. In the theater realm, we get the inevitable cliches of backstage romance and creating a musical comedy. Abruptly, shifting to murder mystery mode, cue in shock and surprise.

Why would any of this be hilarious? Because the murdered leading lady sang excruciatingly off-key! David Hyde Pierce stars as Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, a Boston shamus who attempts to turn Robbin' Hood, a fourth-rate rip-off of Oklahoma, into a Broadway smash while catching the killer -- and getting the girl.

Amid a blizzard of puns and quips, Kander and Ebb do some prodigious ripping off of their own, shamelessly plundering Guys and Dolls, Cabaret, 42nd Street and (inevitably) their own Chicago. The showstopper is Debra Monk as producer's wife Carmen Bernstein, giving her artsy daughter the lowdown in "It's a Business." Jason Danielly unsheathes a sensational singing voice as the lovelorn composer of Robbin', while Edward Hibbert is a comic delight as its effeminate British director.

Curtains may get even better when Broadway's go-to ingenue, Erin Davie, replaces Jill Paice on Feb. 17 as the girl Frank gets. The magical stagecraft of their duet, "A Tough Act to Follow," already lives up to its title.

Xanadu (***1/4) -- The 1980 movie, starring Olivia Newton-John, was a flashy nuclear disaster, so why would anybody want to turn Xanadu into a Broadway musical? To create a travesty equally colossal, of course, and to trample joyously on the meager remnants of Newton-John's credibility as an actress.

Kerry Butler does a merciless imitation of N-J for starters, portraying the goddess Clio, preeminent among the nine ancient Greek muses, as she floats down to earth, disguised as Kira (with a bad Australian accent), to aid sidewalk artist Sonny in his quest for roller-disco glory. Yes, it's that stupid a premise, and Cheyenne Jackson makes Sonny a perfect match for Kira's vapidity.

It gets better. Or stupider -- take your pick. Tony Roberts is implicated in this fat turkey, first as the comprised impresario who can bankroll Sonny's dumb dream and later as Zeus, the god who will punish Clio for her transgressions. These transgressions, chiefly falling for a stupid (albeit hunky) human, are engineered by the greatest comedy team since Adam and Eve, namely muses Melpomene and Calliope.

I'm not sure that even the 2008 Tony Award ceremonies will decisively determine whether Mary Testa as Mel or Jackie Hoffman as Cal is funnier. Between them, they have a stranglehold on whatever award they compete for. The stakes really rise when the nine muses desecrate Olivia's trademark "Have You Never Been Mellow?" -- joined by Medusa, Polyphemus and a rather swishy centaur. Hilarious.

Legally Blonde (**1/2) -- If you can latch onto truly fine, deeply discounted tickets, my verdict on this immaculately executed adaptation of the 2001 Reece Witherspoon comedy is guilty. As in guilty pleasure. Nearly everything works in this feel-good show that speaks up for fashionable blondes who adore pink with the same principled eloquence that Hairspray lavished upon minorities and tubby teens. The comedy in Heather Hach's book works nicely, and I found my buttons effectively pressed when Elle Woods succeeded against the odds at Harvard Law School; showing up her predatory prof in the process. I admired how the theme of women's solidarity perked slowly, smartly, and unpredictably to the surface.

Yes, I was dazzled by the dopey stagecraft of the opening number at UCLA, "Omigod You Guys," with Elle's sorority sisters sliding down firehouse poles -- and getting dressed to go before they hit the ground! A seat at Legally Blonde also gets you an excuse to ogle at the architectural excess of the Palace Theatre and marvel at the total cluelessness of the tourist hordes. "Where is the orchestra?" somebody behind me inquired -- after the conductor was introduced.

Clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes, Blonde was overlong for one klatch of suburban sophisticates we overheard at intermission. Maybe Hach and her musical team, Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, work a little too hard to tease the hairdresser role of Paulette (Orfeh as the punk pretender) into a legitimate subplot, so yes, I would have cut "Ireland" and its reprise out of Act 1. And shouldn't the perky star of Legally Blonde, Laura Bell Bundy, be naturally blonde?

I doubt those were the quibbles troubling the suburbanite jury, decked out in rhinestone eye-glasses, who were huddling in the aisle. To me, they were part of the show -- and a plus. Long live showbiz!

Off-Broadway

Dai (Enough) (***1/2) -- The concept alone should hook you. Ten people in a Tel Aviv café reveal their quirks, their cares, their politics and their souls -- each interrupted in mid-sentence by the bomb blast that ends their lives, detonated by a suicidal terrorist. Bronx-born Irene Bahr, who served a stint in the Israeli army, wrote all these monologues, immersing herself in the minds of Israelis and Europeans of both genders before giving the last anguished words to an Arab.

No less remarkable, Bahr performs all 11 monologues with an eye for the characters' mannerisms that is as sharp as her ear is to their various accents. The cellphone-toting American Jew, Alma Lynn (mother of Cassidy Dylan), is particularly devastating. Each time the bomb goes off, and we hear the chaotic aftermath, Bahr is chameleonically changing clothes and characters on the dimmed stage. As often as that bomb interrupts the monologues, we never get used to its savage, senseless brutality. (Through March 2.)

Die Mommie Die (***1/4) -- Charles Busch, the extraordinary transvestite playwright, has created a delicious vehicle for himself as he portrays ruthless Angela Arden, the aging superstar who will stop at nothing to revive her fading fortunes. Clearly, Busch's fans worship his every moue and snarl, yet the stage diva delivers far more than his own imperial presence.

His Highness has intricately plotted this comedy thriller, packaging additional twists after we're already satisfied. Along the way, the humor is broad and raunchy, featuring Chris Hoch as Tony Parker, a hyperconfident gigolo with an 11-inch dong. Angela's sugar daddy, film mogul Sol Sussman, gets a wonderful rendition from Bob Ari. Sol can't quite see that his darling son Lance might be gay -- even after he's played Ado Annie in Oklahoma! -- but he does receive ample compensation for wife Angela's infidelity via daughter Edith's hearty hellos (and the stray lapdance).

Yes, the queen who once gave us Vampire Lesbians of Sodom has graced his loyal subjects with another bawdy winner. (Through Feb. 17.)

The Glorious Ones (***1/4) -- Reviewed in last week's Lincoln Center roundup. (Closed on Jan. 6.)

The Screwtape Letters (***) -- Ordinarily, one-person shows stretch my patience, but this adaptation of C.S. Lewis's epistolary novel, by director Jeffrey Fiske and his protagonist Max McLean, was a sinfully delicious exception. After scaling to an upper floor at a church converted to St. Clement's Theatre, we look down on a wondrously appalling vision of hell, where His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape has his efficient little office.

McLean veers deftly between the various Screwtapes we encounter in his letters. Generally, he is avuncular in his correspondence with his unseen acolyte Wormwood as this junior temptor strives here on earth to recruit his first soul to the netherworld. Yet as Wormwood's fortunes shift -- along with his own -- Screwtape may rage, shrivel into unctuous servility, or reveal his primal cannibalistic core.

Greatly enriching this infernal treat was Karen Eleanor Wight as Toadpipe, Screwtape's eternally silent personal secretary. Slithering on the floor to transcribe her master's dictation, slinking up a pole to post it, Toadpipe was a constant undertow of evil even when Screwtape himself was his most charming and provocative -- a Cirque du Soleil imp turned into nightmare. During those delicious instances when she bared her teeth, we realized that the servile Toadpipe was also a carnivore, hungrily dependent on her master's scraps. (Closed on Jan. 6.)


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