September 8, 2007

An Eclectic Preview of Theater This Fall

The calendar may say that the year starts in January and officials who oversee the Tony Awards may try to persuade us that it begins in May but for me, unable to shake the ingrained habits of the school-year regimen and eager to see what the fall season will bring, it starts in September. I usually mark the occasion by buying as many Fall Previews as I can find, spreading them out on my bed, reading each one in minute detail and making obsessive notes on the shows that most intrigue me—not the ones I should see, or the ones that everyone else wants to see but just the ones that for some reason or another grab me. This year, I thought I'd share some of the choices on my wish list with you:

The Cherry Orchard and The Coffee Trees: The Resonance Ensemble is doing two versions of Chekhov's classic play in repertory. The new interpretation of The Cherry Orchard, adapted and directed by Eric Parnes, is set in the late 1940s in the American South. The Coffee Trees, by Arthur Giron, takes place on a Guatemalan coffee plantation following the country's 35-year civil war between communist rebels and conservative landowners. I don't know any of the actors involved but I like the idea of being able to compare how this universal story about the passing of a way of life will play out when filtered through these two different cultures. The shows are scheduled for a limited run at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre from Sept. 28 thru Oct. 21.

Cymbeline: I have a love-hate thing going with Shakespeare. My earliest exposure to professional theater came from watching Joe Papp's truck productions in the local park when I was kid. I can still hear my mother and our neighbors asking one another, "You going to the Shakespeare tonight?" Over the years, I've seen as many boring productions of the Bard as I have good ones but I've never seen or even read Cymbeline and I don't know a thing about it, so I'm looking forward to discovering it. Plus the cast alone—Michael Cerveris, John Cullum, Martha Plimpton and Phylicia Rashad—is worth the price of the ticket. It is scheduled to run at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater from Nov. 1 to Jan. 6.

The Farnsworth Invention: Stage or screen biographies aren't my favorite form of entertainment but I've been fascinated by Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of the television, ever since I first heard about him. His idealistic battle over the role his invention should play in society is inherently dramatic and it doesn't hurt that it's been turned into a play by Aaron Sorkin, making his return to Broadway 18 years after first making his name there with A Few Good Men. The show stars newcomer (at least to me) Jimmi Simpson as Farnsworth and Hank Azaria as his nemesis RCA chief David Sarnoff. Des McAnuff, who had success bringing the story of the Four Seasons to the stage with Jersey Boys, is directing. It opens at the Music Box Theater on Nov. 14 and previews start on Oct. 15.

The Glorious Ones: To my surprise, this is the only musical on my list. It's not here because I read the Francine Prose novel on which it's based. Or even because I'm such a big fan of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's musicals. It's that the show is about a troupe of 16th century commedia dell'arte actors. I spent a wonderful semester doing commedia when I was in college and I can't wait to get back into that world and to see what they do with it. The cast is lead by the always-entertaining Marc Kudisch and directed by Graciela Daniele, who I assume will be working hard to make up for last season's waterlogged The Pirate Queen. It is scheduled to run at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater from Oct. 11 to Jan. 6.

Mauritius: I missed Theresa Rebeck's Pulitzer Prize-nominated Omnium Gatherum when it played a few seasons back so I'm curious to see her new play about two sisters battling over the legacy of a rare stamp collection. But what really landed this show on the list is its cast: Katie Finneran and Alison Pill (sensational in last season's Blackbird) as the sisters with the scene-stealing F. Murray Abraham, Dylan Baker, Bobby Cannavale as the dealers eager to get their hands on the collection. Doug Hughes, whose Doubt and Frozen I loved and whose Inherit the Wind and A Naked Girl On the Appian Way I didn’t, is directing. It is scheduled to run at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Biltmore Theater from Sept. 13 to Nov. 25.

Ohio State Murders: The African-American playwright Adrienne Kennedy has written a semi-biographical play about a black professor confronting racism at a university in the 1950s. It's the kind of fresh subject matter that we don't often get in the theater and it's starring Lisa Gay Hamilton, who amazes me each time I see her with how good she is. It opens for a very-limited run at The Duke on 42nd Street from Oct. 27 to Nov. 18.

Pygmalion: This is the fifth time that Shaw's classic has been revived on Broadway since it first production in 1914 with its original British star Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle; the last was 20 years ago with Peter O'Toole as Henry Higgins and Amanda Plummer as Eliza. I don't know how I missed that one but I'm almost as eager to see the Roundabout Theatre Company's new production with Jefferson Mays as the professor and Claire Danes, making her Broadway debut, as his Cockney Galatea. The extra treat for me is that Boyd Gaines, one of my favorite stage actors, is playing Colonel Pickering. David Grindley, who did such a brilliant job with last season’s revival of another early 20th century work, Journey's End, directs. It is scheduled to run at the American Airlines Theatre from Sept. 21 to Dec. 9.

Rock ‘n’ Roll: I know. I know. Everyone wants to see this one. Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia trilogy was last season's highbrow hit, the London critics have raved about this new play and its top-shelf British cast lead by Brian Cox, Sinead Cusack, Rufus Sewell is coming to New York. But the subject matter—the travails of a Czech band during the two-decade long Soviet occupation of their country—is the draw for me. The ill-fated Prague Spring happened when I was in my teens and has always seemed the most romantic chapter in the Cold War. And the idea that art—in this case, rock music—can change the world is pure catnip for me. It is scheduled to run at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater from Oct. 19 to March 2.

Scarcity: Class is still something of a taboo subject in the U.S. and so I'm really curious about the Atlantic Theater Company's production of a new play by Lucy Thurber that tells the story of what happens when a wealthy benefactor tries to give a kid growing up in a poor family the chance to escape to a better school in another town. It is currently in previews at the Linda Gross Theater and is scheduled to run thru Oct. 14.

Yellow Face: David Henry Hwang has written a play about the controversy over the decision to cast Jonathan Pryce in the original Broadway production of Miss Saigon back in 1991 and the playwright has made himself the main character in this retelling. Hwang has spent most of the last few years writing books for Disney musicals like Aida and Tarzan but he is one of the most trenchant observers about the role race and ethnicity plays in American society and I'm curious to see if he's still got the chops that made his M. Butterfly such a standout 19 years ago. Also I just love backstage shows. It is scheduled to run at the Public Theater Nov. 19 thru Dec. 23.

And finally…
King Lear: I saved this for last because seeing
Ian McKellen in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Shakespeare’s grand tragedy is entirely a fantasy for me. I forgot to order tickets and now the entire run, which began last week and is playing through Sept. 30 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is totally sold-out. I thought about posting a “ticket wanted” notice on craigslist but there are already a bunch of pathetic pleas there. And I thought about bidding for a ticket on eBay but the last pair went for $860, somewhat above my budget. So I’ll just have to read about this one.

These aren’t, of course, the only shows I want to see. I want to see everything. I'd also love to know what's on your list. And if you’re one of the lucky ones who gets to see King Lear, let me know what I’ve missed.

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