As it turns out, you can stop the beat. What fundamentalist wackos and Dubya's neocons couldn't accomplish with intolerance, Wall Street has achieved with apocalyptic greed and Ponzi scheming. So Hairspray and its mildly subversive themes have disappeared from Broadway, along with Gypsy, Boeing Boeing and Young Frankenstein, all expiring on Jan. 4. Spring Awakening, the freshest, brashest new American musical of the new millennium, will be put to sleep on Jan. 18. Replacement musicals? Aside from The Story of My Life, a wee two-hander, nothing till March.
Now that the tourist hordes have departed, top ticket prices have been discreetly reduced in an effort to rekindle wintertime interest. Good seats on Broadway still go for $110 and up, so we made sure to include plenty of off-Broadway fare, with non-lethal ticket charges, in this year's roundup. We saw 16 shows over a two-week period, branching out into opera, symphony and jazz for six of those events. We'll keep a drumroll going until next week for the music action in Part 2 of our annual New York pilgrimage. This week, it's strictly the rialto.
The 39 Steps (***1/2 out of 4) -- This Alfred Hitchcock spoof was still in previews when we last looked in on Broadway, and it will take a new lease on life when it transfers from the Cort Theatre to the Helen Hayes on Jan. 21. The reasons for its survival become quickly apparent as the cast of four begins mowing through the 150 roles that the Master of Suspense imprinted on his 1935 classic. There's imaginative staging and broad physical comedy for the groundlings, along with allusions to Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, King Kong and Hitchcock himself for film buffs.
Sam Robards portrayed the prototypical Hitchcock hero, Richard Hannay, a common bloke who is involuntarily drawn into desperately dire international intrigue. Britain, the Empire, and the Free World depend on his doggedness. The fate of civilization passes into the hands of Sean Mahan when the show reopens. Francesca Fardany had already taken over the prime female roles -- a mysterious murder victim, an ultra-friendly farm wife and an implacable pursuer -- equaling the élan of her co-star.
Arnie Burton and Jeffrey Kuhn feast on the rest, completing a blizzard of costume and gender changes along the way. If they have to portray more than one person in a scene, so much the better. Improbability and sloppiness become comedy virtues in merry olde pre-war England. (Open-ended run)
Equus (***1/4) -- Stripped of his dorky Harry Potter glasses, Daniel Radcliffe isn't nearly as naked as he will become in the climactic moments of Peter Shaffer's notorious psychodrama. What's instantly recognizable is Radcliffe's prodigious acting talent as he undergoes analysis, slowly revealing how the young, diffident Alan Strang developed his own perverse stable boy ideology, leading -- with tragic inevitability -- to the blinding of six horses.
While Shaffer's play remains sensational, we aren't as shocked by onstage nakedness and perversion in 2009 as we were when this brew was first detonated on Broadway in 1973. What we accept as valid psychological practice has moved past the religious faith in purgation that seemed plausible 35 years ago, and I found myself a little more dubious of the equine passivity at the heart of Strang's atrocity.
The freshest aspect of this revival is Richard Griffiths' portrait of Dr. Martin Dysart, the ace therapist charged with the task of exorcising Alan's demons. Back in the '70s, Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton brought an agonized, self-loathing dimension to Dysart that prefigured Shaffer's greatest stage villain, the mediocre Salieri of Amadeus. Griffiths retains those self-critical vulnerabilities, but they're largely subsumed by his portly, avuncular charm. An interesting, effective trade-off, but one that might dismay theater and moviegoers with fond memories of the originals. (Through Feb. 8)
The Cripple of Inishmaan (****) -- We had a perfectly delightful production of Martin McDonough's grotesque tragicomedy back in 2001 when Actor's Theatre of Charlotte still called Spirit Square its home. But there's Charlotte perfection and there's authentic Druid Theatre Company perfection from Galway, Ireland. That's what you'll find at Atlantic Theatre, launching pad for such Broadway hits as Spring Awakening and McDonough's Beauty Queen of Leenane.
The twisted physicality of Aaron Monaghan as Cripple Billy is counterbalanced by the comedy of Kerry Condon as the capricious, sadistically slutty Slippy Helen and David Pearse as the utterly despicable town tattler, JohnnyPateenMike. Seething with pent-up menace is Andrew Connolly as BabbyBobby, the grizzled boatman.
What's clearer than ever in this production is the stultifying stupidity of everyday life in rural Ireland -- and the corrupting lure, even back in 1934, of America and its most seductive export, Hollywood. (Through March 1)
Forbidden Broadway (***3/4) -- An off-Broadway fixture since 1982, with numerous updates, Forbidden Broadway has outlived all its upmarket contemporaries and nearly every turkey it has irreverently lampooned along the way. But Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab will be the final edition, having already posted its closing notice. One last mimicry of the ailing Broadway musical scene.