I had planned to write a review of Ratatouille: the Tik Tok Musical, the delicious online presentation that began as a 15-second video created by a fan of the Disney animated film about a rat who dreams of becoming a French chef and grew into a 60-minute show performed by a cast of Broadway regulars led by Titus Burgess and Andrew Barth Feldman that will be available online through the end of this holiday weekend. But then I read my blogger pal Jonathan Mandell's review of the show and it said literally everything I intended to say so instead of trying to find new ways to express that, I'm going to (1) urge you to read Jonathan's review, which you can do by clicking here and (2) to see the show, which is also serving as a fundraiser for The Actors Fund, which you can do by clicking here. Both are great ways to start off what we're all hoping will be a happy new year.
December 26, 2020
The challenges of this year could force producers and artistic directors to adapt in ways that will make theater better once the quarantine ends. Like maybe some of the online productions that sprouted up will continue, allowing theater to be more accessible to those who can’t get to a theater easily or who can’t afford to go or who haven’t felt comfortable once there. And maybe theaters will learn to be truly inclusive, telling all kinds of stories that showcase a multiplicity of experiences and that are told by an array of voices.
In the meantime though, there have been some things that have given me theatrical joy even in this distressing year and I want to celebrate and thank them. So on this list are five shows I saw in a theater at the beginning of the year and five I saw on my computer or TV screen later on. They are, in the order of my seeing them:
AMERICAN UTOPIA: I actually saw David Byrne’s exhilarating staged concert twice: once when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to one of its final performances at the Hudson Theatre before its scheduled close in February and then again when a filmed version started streaming on HBO in late summer. It’s kind of hard to explain why watching a dozen people of different colors and genders clad in matching gray suits play their instruments and dance around a stage could be so invigorating but each viewing made me feel so very good to be alive. An encore live production has already been scheduled for next fall but if you're an HBO subscriber, you can see the film now by clicking here.
DARLING GRENADINE: The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Daniel Zaitchik’s chamber musical about a man struggling to overcome alcoholism and the woman who loves him struggling not to be an enabler might not have muscled out bigger musicals if they’d had a chance to open but its charming performances and imaginative staging left me with a smile on my face that lingered for days.
HAMLET AT ST. ANN'S WAREHOUSE: Worn down by seeing one so-so production after another, I’d sworn off Shakespeare for a while—and especially off seeing Hamlet. But my curiosity about the notion of the British actress Ruth Negga playing the role without regard for gender drew me to St. Ann’s where Ireland’s Gate Theatre production ran through March 6. And my reward for going was being able to witness how Negga’s intelligent and unsentimental performance turned what is too often an old war-horse into the thoroughbred that the Bard meant it to be.
THE HEADLANDS: Christopher Chen’s noirish murder mystery at LCT3 was both a meditation on assimilation, identity and the stories that define all of us and a showcase for its all-Asian cast to show off the full and impressive range of their talent. And its inventive video projections not only provided the sets for the scene but established the mood of the entire piece.
THE HOT WING KING: Definitions of black masculinity were viewed through the experiences of a loving gay couple and their extended family and friends as they all prepared for a culinary competition in this deliciously funny but deeply affecting play by Katori Hall whose run at Signature Theatre was cut too short when all the city’s theaters closed March 12.
TAKE ME TO THE WORLD: A SONDHEIM 90TH CELEBRATION: The lockdown came 10 days before Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday, which was supposed to be celebrated with the opening of avant-garde director Ivo van Hove’s reinterpretation of Sondheim’s first Broadway show, West Side Story. So, led by Raúl Esparza, a group of the composer’s friends—AKA everyone who is anyone on Broadway—threw him a virtual party instead and filled it with heartfelt encomiums and one-of-a-kind performances of selections from his singular songbook. It’s the kind of event that I would have been unlikely to attend in person and so felt grateful that technology allowed me to revel in it, which you can do too by clicking here.
BILL IRWIN'S IN ZOOM: In the time-honored spirit of the show must go on, theater folks began performing online within days of the theater lockdown. Among the best of that early crop was an original 10-minute piece that Irwin put together with the help of San Diego’s The Old Globe. He and fellow funny man Christopher Fitzgerald explored and expanded the boundaries of the then-novel Zoom, demonstrating that theater no longer had to be restricted by geographical location and that even a safely-distanced production could offer up some great physical comedy. You can check it out by clicking here.
IN CAMERA: London’s The Old Vic presented this series of small-cast plays that were performed live in its empty theater for viewers who bought hefty-priced tickets that allowed them to see a specific performance on their computers at home. So far I’ve seen Three Kings, Stephen Beresford’s one-man show in which Andrew Scott gave a brilliant performance as a man coming to terms with the estranged father whose love he’s always craved, and Faith Healer, a revival of Brian Friel’s three-hander about an itinerant con man who travels around Ireland pretending—to his audiences, his long-suffering wife, devoted manager and to himself—that he can heal the afflicted. The performances by Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall left me gob smacked. You can see for yourself why if you purchase (the much cheaper) tickets for recorded encore presentations of those productions, which you can find here.
RUSSIAN TROLL FARM: This comedy, created specifically to be seen online, has been my favorite virtual theater experience so far. Working with TheaterWorks Hartford, TheaterSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas and the Brooklyn-based Civilians, playwright Sarah Gancher imagines the lives of the Russian hackers who spread false information on social media leading up to the 2016 presidential election that put Donald Trump in the White House. Like so many digital workers, hers are driven to get as many clicks as they can and the hilarity stems from watching how they—a terrific cast, by the way—do it. The show’s limited run has been extended through Jan. 14 and you can buy $20 tickets here.
MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM: Part of Denzel Washington’s effort to film all 10 of the plays in August Wilson’s "American Cycle," this Netflix production about a day in the life of the legendary blues singer was in the works way before most of us had even heard of the coronavirus or of George Floyd, whose death under the knee of a Minneapolis cop gives poignant relevance to this rumination on how Black people have been treated in this country. Reuben Santiago-Hudson massaged the script for the screen, squeezing it down to 90 minutes and adding an effective coda. George C. Wolfe directed and Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman lead an excellent cast as Rainey and Levee, the young trumpet player in her band who wants to make a different kind of music. If you have a Netflix account you can treat yourself to it by clicking here.
December 25, 2020
December 5, 2020
Christmas as we know it—the tree, the cards, the carol singing—began during the early Victorian age and perhaps no one popularized those now-familiar traditions more than did Charles Dickens with his 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol.” It famously tells the tale of the miserable and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited and reformed on Christmas Eve by three ghostly spirits. The book was an instant hit and staged adaptations immediately followed; by the next year there were at least eight different productions running in London.
Over the decades, zillions more versions have followed on both stage and screen, with Scrooge being portrayed by such diverse performers as Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, Robert Guillaume, Jim Carrey, Susan Lucci, Vanessa Williams and the cartoon characters Donald Duck and Mr. Magoo.
Last year, Broadway hosted a production led by Campbell Scott in a British panto-style version of the play originally adapted by Jack Thorne and directed by Matthew Warchus for London’s The Old Vic Theatre, which is presenting a fully-staged streamed version this year, starting Dec. 12 (click here to read more about it).
The story of Scrooge, his poorly treated clerk Bob Cratchit and Bob’s crippled but generous-hearted son Tiny Tim is now a Christmas season perennial at both big and little theaters throughout the U.S. and the U.K. (click here to read how some theater companies are currently tweaking their versions in these pandemic times.)
But from the very start when Dickens himself performed staged readings of the story, some of the most popular productions have been one-person shows in which a sole actor performs the more than 50 characters in the narrative.
It’s hard to think of a contemporary actor more suited to that task than Jefferson Mays, a Tony Award winner for his performances in the one-man show I Am My Own Wife, in which he took on some 40 characters, and for the musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, in which he played 10 members of a highly eccentric (and hilarious) family.
And Mays is again wonderful in the streamed production of A Christmas Carol directed by Michael Arden, adapted by Arden, Mays and Mays’ wife Susan Lyons and filmed under Covid precautions in an empty theater in Upper Manhattan in October.
While they’ve hewed close to the original narrative and prose, the trio has leaned into the psychology and sociology of the piece, highlighting the correlation between the way a child is treated and the man he becomes and emphasizing the ways in which the poor can be permanently crippled by the disregard of those who have money and are intent only on having more. It’s a take that Dickens, himself a progressive reformer, would have appreciated.
A master showman himself, Dickens would also have applauded Mays' performance. Ever nimble, the actor morphs easily from one character to the next with just the twitch of an eyebrow or a change in the pitch of his voice. He hits all the poignant notes of the morality tale as Scrooge acknowledges his sins but he’s a particular delight in lighter scenes such as Scrooge’s memory of a party he attended in his youth that allow the actor to kick up his heels a bit and indulge the more antic side of his wit. The jig he does with himself as both Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig is a treat in every way.
I just wish the rest of the production around him had been as dexterous. Too many of the choices distract from rather than enhance the presentation. I get that the low lighting helps set the slightly spooky mood that the story calls for but in this case, it also makes it hard to see what’s going on. Similarly, manipulating the sound of the ghosts’ voices made it hard to understand what they were saying.
And there was absolutely no need for the fuzzy video projections that play behind Mays at the party scene; his performance had already elegantly established the time and place. Meanwhile, the emo music by the pop-rock musician Sujfan Stevens not only seems anachronistic for the period but downright gloomy, even at the—177 year-old spoiler coming—happy ending.
Still, it’s hard to ruin A Christmas Carol and its moral of redemption through giving to and caring for others shines through. Tickets for this version of the tale, which will run online through Jan. 3, cost a hefty $50, plus fees that tack on another $7 (click here to get them) but the show can be viewed multiple times and part of the money will go to some 50 regional and community theaters across the country that are struggling because of the pandemic.
If that’s still too dear for your pocketbook, there are many other options, including an updated musical version called Estrella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol With A Twist produced by Abingdon Theatre Company, with tickets starting at $29.99 (click here for more information) and a streamed Primary Stages benefit reading of the Dickens' tale, directed by Theresa Rebeck and starring Raúl Esparza as Scrooge that will cost $100 for the live Dec. 16 performance but will be available for free from Dec. 17-20 (find out more about that by clicking here).
As Tiny Tim might say, God bless them everyone.
November 26, 2020
Let’s be honest: it’s been a tough year. For the world. For the nation. For the theater community. And yet, there are still things for us theater lovers to be grateful for, be it the promise of the coming anti-Covid vaccines, the results of the recent election, the fact that the actors’ unions have made peace so that more theaters around the country can stream shows for all of us to see or that the social media platform TikTok has gone Broadway with mini musical videos including a star-studded Thanksgiving special put together by James Corden (which you can see by clicking here). So I’m sending out cheers for all of that and prayers that next year all of us can gather easily with our extended families and friends. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving.
October 24, 2020
|A Zoomed scene from the staged reading of Lisa Loomer's docudrama Roe|
It hit me unexpectedly. I’d been going along for the past seven months telling myself that I didn’t really miss theater because there was no theater to miss once COVID restrictions shut down all the stages here in New York. So I just scratched my occasional theater itch by watching a few things online and reading some books about theater, including a couple of plays. But then, all of a sudden, I started missing theater with an almost physical intensity.
And that ache got me hunting for some kind of theatrical methadone, something that might substitute for the real thing and relieve the withdrawal symptoms I’d begun to feel. Most of the things I found dealt in one way or another with politics (it seems as though there’s no getting away from it nowadays) and nearly all had star-studded casts (one of the few silver linings of this quarantine period is that almost every actor is at home and available).
What follows is an account of my theatrical quest over the last week or so as I listened to audio plays, watched Zoom-style readings and even saw a few fully-recorded productions.
I started by listening to It Can’t Happen Here, an adaptation of the 1935 Sinclair Lewis novel that Berkeley Rep. turned into an audio play that some 100 other theaters around the country are co-sponsoring because its story about a populist demagogue who wins the U.S. presidency and then imposes fascist rule by suspending constitutional rights seems uncomfortably timely. Berkeley Rep’s recently-retired artistic director Tony Taccone and playwright Bennett S. Cohen did a terrific job of streamlining Lewis’s talky jeremiad (I confess I couldn’t make it through the novel) into a compelling cautionary tale. And the cast, ably directed by Lisa Peterson and led by David Strathairn as a small-town newspaper editor who joins the fight to restore democracy, was top-notch. The show runs nearly three hours and I listened straight-through. You can catch it until Nov. 8 by clicking here.
Next on my schedule was BAM’s presentation of That Kindness by Eve Ensler, who now goes by the sole letter V. As she did with The Vagina Monologues, the playwright interviewed a series of people about their experiences, in this case nurses caring for people stricken by the coronavirus, and assembled what they told her into a series of affective monologues. And she’s also assembled a fantastic crew of actors to perform them, including LaChanze, Rosie O'Donnell, Billy Porter and Marisa Tomei. Yet I’m chagrined to say that as important as the issue is, as heart-rendering as the stories told and as fine as the performances, I only made it about half way through the one-hour presentation, whose depressing tone never varied and so wore me down. But you have the chance to see if you’re more empathetic than I proved to be by clicking here through Nov. 3.
It’s too late for you to catch Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, an all-star production (really, the cast included Morgan Freeman, Katie Finneran, Vanessa Williams, Reed Birney, Phylicia Rashad, Stacy Keach, and Matthew Broderick) that was presented by the streaming series called Broadway’s Best Plays because it had a limited three-day run that ended Oct. 17. Vidal’s play about the competition for their party’s presidential nomination between a too-principled patrician and a do-anything-to-win pragmatist is one of my favorite shows about politics (click here to see a list of others I like) and I was eager to see how it would play out as a virtual work in which the performers interacted with one another entirely through Zoom. The answer: not bad. John Malkovich was an odd choice for the Adlai Stevenson-like patrician but Zachary Quinto was pitch-perfect as the Richard Nixon-like opportunist. And it was actually fun to watch how director Michael Wilson and a crackerjack team of designers created backgrounds and bits of business that attempted to make it look as though cast members shared the same spaces.
Lisa Loomer’s Roe, a docudrama about the woman behind the Supreme Court case that made abortion legal in the U.S., is a play I’ve been wanting to see since it debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016 as part of that company’s "American Revolutions" series. The mission of its plays is to “establish a shared understanding of our nation’s past while illuminating the best paths for our nation's future.” So I happily paid $15 for a ticket to see the three-day run presented by WAM Theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts. Loomer’s ambitious piece covers issues of class, race and religion and has characters breaking the fourth wall to comment on their actions or to predict their fates but the performances (actually staged readings with scripts in hand) turned out to be sadly uneven. Director Kristen van Ginhoven and scenic designer Juliana van Haubrich obviously worked hard to show how imaginative a virtual production can be but I’m still waiting for a more definitive production—and hoping it can be a live one.
If Richard Nelson’s The Apple Family Plays and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America had a love child it might be Shipwreck, the ambitious drama by Anne Washburn that she's adapted into an audio play The Public Theater is presenting as a multi-part podcast (which you can find by clicking here). Shipwreck divides it attention among a group of clueless white liberals who gather for a weekend at an old Vermont farmhouse built in 1776, Oval Office meetings that Donald Trump has with George W. Bush and former FBI director James Comey (colorblind casting has the African-American actors Philip James Brannon playing Bush and Joe Morton playing Comey) and the musings of a Midwestern farmer who defies all stereotypes. It’s talky and pretentious, but in all the right ways. It’s also one of the rare displays of culture over the past four years that doesn’t treat Trump as a buffoon or a cartoon but as someone to be seriously reckoned with. Under Saheem Ali’s lucid direction, Bill Camp’s Trump is controlled and chilling.
Even the Mint Theater Company, which specializes in works by forgotten playwrights, has climbed up on the politics bandwagon. Its new streaming series kicked off this week with a presentation of Conflict, a 1925 play by the British actor and playwright Miles Malleson that centers on the rivalry between a conservative Tory and a liberal Labour Party candidate. It should have been just what the doctor ordered for me because the Mint is streaming its full 2018 production and like most Mint shows the sets and costumes are comely and the acting classy (click here to see it for yourself). But I have to admit that although over the years I’ve enjoyed many Mint shows, including this one, they’ve always made me a bit uncomfortable too. And now as the country as a whole and the theater world in particular are wrestling with the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, I know why: nearly all the Mint shows come from the era of drawing-room plays when accents were expected to be posh and casts, with the exception of a servant role here or there, entirely white. This production tries to sidestep that by casting a woman of color as one of the toffs but I couldn’t help wondering why in its nearly 30-year history the Mint has yet to do a play by a black or brown playwright since so many of them have also been forgotten.
Finally, I watched the HBO production of David Byrne's American Utopia, movie director Spike Lee’s filmed version of the show whose Broadway run ended in February. A naturalized citizen, the Scottish-born Byrne has always been unabashed in his love for this country and astute in his critiques of it. His show, a rock concert inventively choreographed by Annie-B Parson and performed by a talented and multicultural band of musicians, is the same. One song celebrates immigration, another pays tribute to black victims killed by police and Byrne makes a direct appeal to the audience to vote in the coming election. But despite such serious topics, the vibe is uplifting and even celebratory. I left the theater feeling exhilarated when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw one of the final performances of the live run and I found myself wanting to get up and dance as I watched the streamed version (which you can see by clicking here). Plans have been announced for the show to return to Broadway next fall but for now, this is a fine substitute.
So there you have it. That’s seven shows I've seen over the last 10 days, making it seem almost like old times when I was heading out to the theater nearly every night of the week. Almost.
September 26, 2020
The first face-to-face debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is scheduled for this Tuesday, Sept. 29, and the uncertainty over the outcome of the election five weeks from now has me in a tizzy.
So, as usual, I’ve been seeking solace in theater and started putting together a list of plays and musicals that have wrestled over the years with the way we define what American democracy is.
The scuffling they depict hasn’t always been pretty but lurking beneath the skepticism, cynicism and often justified criticism is a bedrock belief that if we actually put in the work, including voting, this country can live up to its ideals.
Below are a few of those shows. As always, my theatergoing buddy Bill contributed some titles I'd overlooked and I’ve highlighted those in red. I'm scheduled to talk about some of the shows with my pals at BroadwayRadio this Sunday in a politically-themed show of our own, which will also include a discussion with actor and activist Rory O'Malley on the Broadway community's efforts to get out the vote. You can hear all of it by clicking here.
[Note: Rory O'Malley had so much great stuff to say that we decided to hold the BroadwayRadio conversation on political shows for a week. So I hope you'll tune in for that on Oct. 4, and that even before that you'll let me know of any shows you think I've missed. In the meantime, I've thought of—and added—two more shows to the list that were created by the comedian Will Ferrell and the provocateur Michael Moore.]
In the meantime, here's the list:
1776, music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards with a book by Peter Stone, 1969: If I had to choose just one show about politics it would be this brilliant musical recreation of the contentious events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, whose original production I saw from a $5 balcony seat and whose cast album I play every Fourth of July.
1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner with a book by Lerner, 1976: It’s hard to believe that a show with its pedigree could have been such a flop but this musical attempt to chronicle the first 100 years of the White House through the lens of the African-American servants who worked there lasted for just eight performances. Some of the songs were later recorded under the title “A White House Cantata” but although the show was written by two white guys, its emphasis on how U.S. presidents have dealt with the issue of race might make it ripe for a full revival now.
ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS by Robert E. Sherwood, 1938: This Pulitzer Prize winner focused on the 16th president’s life—and loves—before his fateful move into the White House and the beginning of the Civil War which would eventually lead to his death but would also help make America the country it is today. It was revived by his namesake Lincoln Center Theater back in 1993 with Sam Waterson in the title role.
ADVISE AND CONSENT by Michael Loring, 1960: Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alan Drury, this political drama centers around the nasty confirmation battle over a candidate for secretary of state that involves claims by his conservative opponents that he was once a member of the Communist Party and threats by his supporters to reveal that his leading critic may have had a then-career-killing homosexual past. Although I’ve never seen it onstage, the 1962 movie with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson is one of my all-time favorites.
ALL THE WAY by Robert Schenkkan, 2012: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions project is an ongoing series of plays designed to “establish a shared understanding of our nation’s past while illuminating the best paths for our nation's future.” Schenkkan’s play fits the bill with its focus on Lyndon Johnson’s first year in office following John Kennedy’s assassination in which the Texan butt heads with fellow southerners to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and simultaneously muscled his way to a victory in that year's presidential election.
ANGELS IN AMERICA by Tony Kushner, 1991: I know what you’re thinking: it’s AIDS and not politics that provide the engine for Kushner’s masterwork. But his gay fantasia bristles with political themes most of them centered in the character of the nefarious Roy Cohn, the chief counsel for Joseph McCarthy’s investigations of suspected communists in the 1950s; a supporter of Ronald Reagan, who was notoriously slow in his response to AIDS and a mentor to the current occupant of the White House during his early career as a shady real estate developer.
AN AMERICAN DAUGHTER by Wendy Wasserstein, 1997: As always in Wasserstein's works, the true villain is the double-standard that women face when trying to fulfill their professional ambitions. In this case the woman is a female doctor nominated to become the U.S. Surgeon General, who has to battle scandal-seeking journalists, conservatives who label her an elitist out of touch with the average woman and even feminists who think she isn't progressive enough. Critics—me included—were down on the original Lincoln Center Theater production but raves for recent revivals including one at Williamstown suggest it might be time to bring it back to New York.
ASSASSINS, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim with a book by John Weidman, 1990: Even though the original Playwrights Horizons production of this historical cavalcade of the men and women who have attempted to kill an American president drew mixed reviews, I couldn’t get its dark spin on the American dream out of my mind when I saw it. So I’m not at all surprised that over the years it’s become acknowledged as a true American classic which makes me even more sorry that the coronavirus lockdown has kept us from seeing the all-star production that had been scheduled for Classic State Company in the spring.
BARBARA FRIETCHIE by Clyde Fitch, 1899: Fitch, perhaps the most popular playwright at the turn-of-the-last century, turned a then-familiar poem into a romantic melodrama about a white Maryland woman who falls for a Union officer during the Civil War and defiantly flies the Stars and Stripes when Confederates take over her town. Audiences at the time—at least those in the north—loved the play, which was even adapted into a crowd-pleasing musical with a score by Sigmund Romberg.
BELLA BELLA by Harvey Feirstein, 2019: When Feirstein couldn’t find an actress to star in this love letter to his friend Bella Abzug, he decided to play the feminist icon himself in this solo show that premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club last fall. Abzug’s life story is interesting and Feirstein got off some funny lines but setting the show in a hotel bathroom on the night she lost her bid for the U.S. Senate is a downer, although perhaps it might play better with someone who more closely resembles the real Bella.
THE BEST MAN by Gore Vidal, 1960: As the grandson of a U.S. senator, an in-law of the Kennedys and later a (failed) office seeker himself, Vidal knew politics firsthand, and his taut look at the competition for their party’s presidential nomination between a too-principled Adlai-Stevenson-type patrician and a do-anything-to-win Richard Nixon-style pragmatist remains perhaps the best of the dramas about how American politics work and one I never pass up a chance to see onstage or screen.
BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, music and lyrics by Michael Friedman with a book by Alex Timbers, 2008: Previous depictions portrayed the nation’s seventh president as an heroic figure but this raucous musical presented the guy whose face is on the $20 bill as a brooding Emo rock star who can’t stop feeling sorry for himself and cast a cynical eye on the populism that fueled his political rise to power and the anti-Indian policies that drove Native Americans away from their ancestral homes and sullied his legacy. Fans loved the production down at The Public Theater but the show lasted just three months on Broadway.
BOTH YOUR HOUSES by Maxwell Anderson, 1933: An idealistic congressman challenges the customary favor trading that his colleagues use to get their bills passed, even though it may lead to the defeat of a measure that would bring a huge construction project to his own district in this now almost forgotten Pulitzer Prize winner that preceded the similarly themed movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" by six years.
BUILDING THE WALL by Robert Schenkkan, 2016: Upset by the prospect of a Trump presidency, Schenkkan channeled his fears and frustrations into this piece about a jail-house interview with the former head of a detention center for undocumented immigrants who is awaiting sentencing after having been convicted of an horrendous crime. Schenkkan clearly wanted to show how a well-meaning person can be persuaded to commit inhuman acts but his rushed-out play came off as just one long speech after another when my husband K and I saw it shortly after Trump’s inauguration.
THE CAKE by Bekah Brunstetter, 2017: In this gentle comedy, an evangelical baker who opposes same-sex marriage on religious grounds faces a moral dilemma when her beloved goddaughter asks her to bake a cake for her wedding to a woman. The issue of religious freedom versus equal rights for all is currently one of the most politically fraught debates in the country but Brunstetter, who has said that she wrote this with her own conservative relatives in mind, tries hard not to offend anyone and the production that played at Manhattan Theatre Club last spring seemed half-baked.
THE CITY OF CONVERSATION by Anthony Giardina, 2014: Hester Ferris, a Washington D.C. hostess long famous for her parties at which politicians from both sides of the aisle mingle and make deals, begins to see a change in the city as those with different views, including members of her own family, retreat into intolerant camps. The five-time Tony nominee Jan Maxwell gave a bravura performance as Hester in what would be her last major New York performance before her untimely death at just 61 from complications due to breast cancer.
THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller, 1953: The 17th-century Salem witch trials in which people were falsely accused and executed for witchcraft became an allegory for the McCarthy-era persecution of people suspected of being communists in Miller’s cautionary tale that has become one of his most popular plays, revived five times on Broadway (including Ivo van Hove’s unnecessarily supped-up take in 2016), four times off-Broadway (most recently Bedlam’s nicely stripped-down version last year) and countless times around the country and the world.
DOMESTICATED by Bruce Norris, 2013: Sex scandals have been a fact of life in American politics since Alexander Hamilton openly confessed to sleeping with the married Maria Reynolds shortly after he'd finished writing the Federalist Papers. Norris’ play about a contemporary political marriage in the aftermath of the husband’s infidelity featured spiky performances from Jeff Goldblum as the philanderer and Laurie Metcalf as his shamed wife when I saw it at Lincoln Center Theater, and it focused on the trade-offs each of the couple had to make for the husband’s career and was willing to make going forward.
FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, 1978: Three years before Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court and long before the liberal (and recently lost) Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the conservative Antonin Scalia became opera buddies, this drama explored the conflicts—and eventual détente—between a conservative woman appointed to the bench and the court’s leading liberal, who were played by Jane Alexander and Henry Fonda when I was lucky enough to see it.
FARRAGUT NORTH by Beau Willimon, 2008: An ambitious young campaign staffer falls prey to his own spin and the lure of power during the heat of a presidential primary in this drama written by Willimon, who was himself a young press aide during Howard Dean’s 2004 bid for the presidency. The off-Broadway run with Chris Noth and John Gallagher, Jr. ended before I could get to it and I found the 2011 movie, renamed “The Ides of March” and starring George Clooney and Ryan Gosling, to be disappointing but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for a stage revival.
FIORELLO! music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick with a book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, 1960: One of only 10 musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, this tuneful biography tells the story of how Fiorello LaGuardia took on the corrupt political machine of New York’s Tammany Hall and became the most popular mayor in the city’s history. It was also the first musical to be performed at the Encores! concert series of rarely revived shows and I got the chance to see it when it played again to mark the 20th anniversary of Encores! in 2016.
FROST/NIXON by Peter Morgan, 2006: You might not think there would be much dramatic tension in a play about the series of interviews between the British talk show host David Frost and the disgraced former president Richard Nixon since the revelations of what Nixon said about his involvement in the Watergate scandal that brought down his presidency are now common knowledge but Michael Sheen and Frank Langella were so terrific that both actors were invited to re-create their roles for the 2008 film and I’ve read that Morgan’s funny and, surprisingly, poignant script has worked just as well in subsequent stage revivals around the country.
THE GREAT SOCIETY by Robert Schenkkan 2014: Schenkkan never finds a focus for this sequel to All The Way, which looks at the final years of Lyndon Johnson’s time in the White House. Still it offers a history lesson for those who weren’t around or have forgotten that turbulent time in the nation’s history as the war in Vietnam spun out of control, people here in the U.S. rioted in the streets and, like now, many feared for the future of the Republic.
HAMILTON, music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda, 2015: There's no need to say much about this ongoing sensation which revived the reputation of an almost-forgotten Founding Father, won the Pulitzer and made Broadway hip again by, among other things, featuring a rap battle between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over the young nation's monetary policy.
HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING by Will Arbery, 2019: Conservatives take centerstage in Arbery’s unapologetic mediation on the state of the nation as viewed by a group of college friends who have gathered to celebrate the promotion of their favorite professor to the presidency of a small Catholic college in Wyoming and debate their conflicting feelings about Donald Trump, their disdain for liberals and the best way to advance the agenda that they believe will truly make America great again.
HILLARY AND CLINTON by Lucas Hnath, 2019: Hnath’s slight fantasy purports to put the 2016 campaign in a parallel universe but the results are the same: Hillary is chastised for not being likable enough; her husband broods because he’s no longer getting enough of the attention he craves and although he never makes an appearance, you know who ultimately wins. Still, it was fun to see Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow go at it in the title roles during the play’s short Broadway run and it does bear witness to an essential moment in the nation's political history.
HIZZONER by Paul Shyre, 1989: This one-man show about New York’s Fiorello LaGuardia didn’t fare as well as Fiorello! and lasted just 12 performances.
INHERIT THE WIND by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, 1955: Based on the real-life Scopes Monkey Trial in which a Tennessee high school teacher named John Scopes was tried for teaching evolution, this courtroom drama sums up the fractious mood of the country at the time of the trial in 1925, at the time of the Red Scare when the play premiered in the 1950s and of the red-state-blue-state divisions of the current political moment.
IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, 2016: Fearing a populist takeover during the Great Depression, Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel in 1935 about a demagogue who, riding a platform of patriotism and traditional values, wins the presidency and then suspends constitutional rights and imposes fascist rule backed up by paramilitary troops loyal only to him. The book was adapted into a play the following year and produced across the country by the Federal Theater Project but Taccone and Cohen created a new version that premiered at Berkeley Rep. just as the Trump campaign picked up steam.
JIMMY, music and lyrics by Bill and Patti Jacob with a book by Melville Shavelson and Morrie Ryskind, 1969: New York’s flamboyant—and corrupt—Jazz Age-era mayor, Jimmy Walker, should have made a great subject for a musical but The New York Times critic Clive Barnes dealt this one a fatal blow when his review declared that the show had three flaws: “the book, the music and the lyrics.”
KINGS by Sarah Burgess, 2016: A first term congresswoman is confronted with the harsh realities of political fundraising when she tries to resist the pressure of lobbyists in yet another gloss on the old “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” movie but this time no one comes to the rescue. I saw both a workshop with Karen Pittman and later a fuller off-Broadway production with Quincy Tyler Bernstein and was wowed each time.
MACBIRD! music and lyrics by John Duffy with a book by Barbara Garson, 1967: Its creators always insisted that their show wasn't accusing Lyndon Johnson of any complicity in the assassination of his predecessor but this brash mashup of Shakespearean satire and U.S. politics presented Johnson as an ambitious Macbeth, John Kennedy as his doomed Duncan and Robert Kennedy as an avenging amalgam of Macduff and Malcolm. It enjoyed a year-long run at the Village Gate but pretty much disappeared after Robert Kennedy’s own assassination.
NIXON'S NIXON by Russell Lees, 1994: Set in the Oval Office on the night before Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign, this two-hander imagines the conversation between Nixon and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger as, fueled by alcohol, each man struggles to find a way to create a better legacy for himself in history.
NOVEMBER by David Mamet, 2008: Although he’s one of the few outspoken conservatives in the theater community, Mamet opted for a non-controversial approach to politics with a comedy about a president up for re-election who is so unpopular and so in need of cash that he decides he might as well start selling pardons, beginning with the turkey that traditionally gets a reprieve each Thanksgiving. But not even the presence of Nathan Lane as the president and Laurie Metcalf as his chief speechwriter could make me excuse this turkey when I saw it on Broadway.
OF THEE I SING, music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, 1932: The first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama took a lighthearted look at politics with a frothy story about a presidential candidate who wins the election on a platform of love and then has to overcome the possibility of impeachment and an international crisis when a woman with French connections claims he backed out of a promise to marry her. A sequel the next year, Let ‘Em Eat Cake, tried to spoof the idea of a fascist takeover of the U.S. government and although things end happily (this is a musical comedy after all) didn’t prove to be as popular.
THE ORIGINALIST by John Strand, 2015: The conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia often selected one liberal-minded law clerk to serve as a sparring partner while he worked on his court decisions. In Strand’s fictional version, Scalia chooses a liberal lesbian to work with him and over the course of their many debates, the two develop a friendship that allows them to transcend political differences.
OTHER DESERT CITIES by Jon Robin Baitz, 2012: The parents’ in Baitz’s drama are proud to be close friends and supporters of Ronald and Nancy Reagan but their late son was a ‘60s radical caught up in the underground movements of that time and when their estranged daughter announces that she has written a book about all of it, family secrets are unearthed and political loyalties are tested. I saw the show both off and on Broadway and was knocked out by it both times.
THE PARISIAN WOMAN by Beau Willimon, 2017: This update of a 1957 Brigitte Bardot film transformed that farce about sexual and political shenanigans in the French government into a wan comedy of manners about a well-connected Washington wife’s efforts to get her lawyer husband appointed to a prestigious judgeship. But Willimon’s efforts to goose up the satire with lots of references to the Trump administration fell flat and the Broadway production ran for just 116 performances despite having movie star Uma Thurman in the title role.
ROE by Lisa Loomer, 2016: The hot-wire subject of abortion is viewed through the lens of the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade case that made the procedure legal in the U.S., starting with the pregnancy of Norma McCorvey, who was called Jane Roe in the suit, and carrying through her feminist attorney's arguments before the court and McCorvey's post-decision turnaround that had her stumping for anti-abortion groups (which she also recently recanted). It's a show I've yet to see but WAM Theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts has scheduled a timely digital production running from Oct. 17 to 20, which you can learn more about by clicking here
SOFT POWER, music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by David Henry Hwang and Tesori with a book by Hwang, 2018: Hillary Clinton plays a central role in this tongue-in-cheek riff on “The King and I” which examines America’s struggles with democracy, cultural identity and racism in a 21st century world where its role as the dominant global force is being challenged by China.
STATE OF THE UNION by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, 1945: A wry exploration of the conflict between political ambition and moral principles as Republican Party bosses try to decide the best candidate to be their presidential nominee, this political satire won the Pulitzer and was the basis for the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film of the same name.
STUFF HAPPENS by David Hare, 2003: The British playwright combined verbatim quotes from real speeches, meeting minutes and press conferences with his own imaginings of what went on behind closed doors to create a three-hour condemnation of the decision by the George W. Bush and Tony Blair administrations to invade Iraq. The play was a hit for London’s National Theatre and won all kinds of awards when it played at The Public Theater a couple of years later but I have to confess that it totally bored me.
SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO by Dore Shary, 1958: Named for the summer resort where Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with polio, the play chronicles his struggle to overcome his disability and to find new meaning in his life, culminating with the speech Roosevelt gave at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, which made him a force in the party and ultimately president of the country for an unprecedented four terms.
THE TERMS OF MY SURRENDER by Michael Moore, 2017: The progressive activist, who became the youngest elected official in the country when at just 18 he won a seat on his local Michigan school board back in 1972, surveyed the state of the nation in the wake of Donald Trump's election in this one-man show. A few times he even led his audiences into the street to protest the new president, setting off a Twitter spat between the two of them.
THE TRUE by Share White, 2018: This fictional version of the real-life relationship between Erastus Corning, who served as Albany, New York’s mayor for over 40 years, and his key aide Polly Noonan aimed to detail the ways in which politics sidelined even the most politically savvy women in midcentury America. But perhaps out of deference to Noonan’s granddaughter current New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the play pulls its punches and despite a typically powerhouse performance from Edie Falco failed to win over my husband K, my theatergoing buddy Bill or me when the three of us saw the original New Group production.
WATCH ON THE RHINE by Lillian Hellman, 1941: Members of an upper-class American family are forced to reckon with fascism when they discover that a house guest is working with the Nazis in Hellman’s drama which won that year’s New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and was quickly made into a somewhat talky movie starring Bette Davis.
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME by Heidi Schrek, 2017: Replicating her participation in speech and debate competitions sponsored by the American Legion during high school, Schrek examined the ways in which the U.S. Constitution has protected the rights of straight, white men at the expense of other Americans including the women in her family, many of whom were subjected to emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Her form-defying piece, part TED Talk, part performance art, began as part of an off-off-Broadway summer festival, moved to New York Theatre Workshop, eventually ran on Broadway for five months and became a Pulitzer finalist.
YOU'RE WELCOME AMERICA: A FINAL NIGHT WITH GEORGE W. BUSH by Will Ferrell, 2009: The comedian brought the impersonation of the 43rd president that he honed on "Saturday Night Live" to the stage in a show in which his goofy Bush looks back on his presidency and ahead to his legacy.