September 11, 2008

An Idiosyncratic Preview of the Fall Season

Is it me or is it the economy?

When I sat down this past weekend to start my September ritual of figuring out which new shows I most want to see, the pickings seemed paltrier than they did last year. In fact, four big musicals—revivals of Brigadoon, Godspell and for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf , plus the kind-of-new Harry Connick Jr. show, Nice Work if You Can Get It, drawn from the Gershwin songbook—dropped out before the new season even started. The producers of the first three admitted that they couldn’t dig up enough money to bring their shows in.

And that isn’t the only sign that times are tough. When the national mood is down, people—producers included—become less adventurous. New plays queued up to get on the boards last fall but there is only one (To Be Or Not to Be, an adaptation of a 1942 Jack Benny movie) opening on Broadway between now and the end of the year. And only four new musicals. Still, there are some promising shows to see both on Broadway and off. And as I read through the various Fall Previews in the papers, magazines and online, I could feel the buzz of anticipation that always rushes through me at the beginning of a new year of theatergoing.

So below is a list of a few of 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 one idiosyncratic reason or another grab me and that you may not have heard as much about.

FARRAGUT NORTH You’d think that Barak Obama and Sarah Palin would provide enough political drama (and comedy) for me during this election season but I’m intrigued by the Atlantic Theater Company’s new onstage drama about a young hot shot press secretary who gets caught up in a sex scandal during a presidential primary race. It’s written by a former aide to Howard Dean and stars John Gallagher Jr. who won a Tony for his portrayal of Moritz in Spring Awakening. Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater on West 20th Street is a little off the beaten track but I’ve usually found the journey there to be worthwhile. Previews for this show start on Oct. 22 and the run is scheduled to end on Nov. 29, by which time, of course, we’ll know who the real next President will be.

HOME The Signature Theatre Company is devoting its entire season to plays originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company but Samm-Art Williams’ funny and wise bildungsroman about a North Carolina farm boy holds a special place in my heart because one of my friends was working for the company at the time of the original production and I remember the excitement and the sense of optimism about the future of black theater everyone there felt when the show became an unexpected hit and moved to Broadway. If the revival is anywhere near as good as the first production in the series, The First Breeze of Summer, then there may be cause for hope again. Previews begin at the Peter Norton Space on Nov. 11 and the show is scheduled to run through Jan. 4.

THE LANGUAGE OF TREES I’ve never heard of this show’s playwright Steven Levenson. And that’s precisely why I want to see his play. It’s part of the Roundabout Underground, the company’s new series that showcases the works of young playwrights at the 60-seat Black Box Theatre located in the basement of the Laura Pels Theatre on West 46th Street. Last year's terrific debut offering Speech & Debate told the stories of a trio of high school misfits. Levenson’s play takes on the gnarlier subject of the nation’s involvement in the Mideast through the story of a family whose husband and father is an American translator stationed in that war zone. Previews begin Oct. 4 and the run is scheduled through Dec. 14. And all tickets are just $20.

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS Frank Langella, who has won two Tonys in the last five years, can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. If he decided to read footnotes from the Congressional Quarterly, I’d be there and I'd be prepared to be riveted. The fact that he’s going to star in a stage revival of one of my favorite historical movies—about Thomas More’s fateful refusal to break with the Catholic Church in support of Henry VIII’s decision to divorce his first wife and marry Ann Boleyn—is an extra treat. The Roundabout Theatre Company has scheduled a limited run at the American Airlines Theatre from Sept. 12 through Dec. 7.

PRAYER FOR MY ENEMY The war in Iraq isn’t the first subject that would come to mind when thinking about a new project for the sensational team that put together The Light in the Piazza at Lincoln Center three years ago. But playwright Craig Lucas, director Bartlett Sher and their Tony-winning leading lady Victoria Clark are back together again with a new play at Playwrights Horizon about how the war affects a young soldier and his family. Jonathan Groff, the other breakout star from Spring Awakening, plays the young man. Previews begin Nov. 14 for a run that is scheduled to close on Dec. 21.

ROAD SHOW O.K. So who doesn’t want to see the new Stephen Sondheim musical. But I’ve already put in my dues for this one. I saw this play about two brothers seeking their version of the American dream from the Alaska gold rush at the turn of the last century to the Florida real estate boom in the 1920s back in 1999 at the New York Theatre Workshop when it was called Wise Guys. Even with Nathan Lane and Victor Garber as the leads, it didn’t work. Then my husband K and I went down to the Kennedy Center in Washington in 2003 to see it when it was called Bounce and Richard Kind and Howard McGillin took over the parts. The show, while substantially rewritten, wasn’t much better. Now the latest version has a new name, new leads (Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani) a rejiggered script and director John Doyle at the helm. Previews start at the Public Theater on Oct. 28 and the run is scheduled through Dec. 28. My buddy Bill and I already have our tickets.

ROMANTIC POETRY The provocative drama Doubt won John Patrick Shanley a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize three years ago but it was the delightfully whimsical movie “Moonstruck” that first introduced him to a wide public back in 1987. So I’m eager to see Shanley’s return to romantic comedy. This work, about a newlywed whose former husbands disapprove of her new mate, is a musical and Shanley, who’s done both the book and the lyrics, has hooked up with Henry Krieger who wrote the music for Dreamgirls and Side Show. The Manhattan Theater Club is presenting Romantic Poetry at its Stage I theater in City Center from Sept. 30 thru Dec. 14.

SHOGUN MACBETH One of the most visceral and sensual experiences I ever had in a movie theater was watching Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran,” the master Japanese filmmaker’s interpretation of the Lear story. It swept me away. I know that the Pan Asian Repertory Theater won’t be able to produce the cinematic sumptuousness of the movie but its production of the Macbeth story, set in the Japanese feudal period, does plan to juxtapose the classical Japanese theater techniques of Noh and Kyogen alongside Shakespeare's Elizabethan language. It’s scheduled for a very limited run at the Julia Miles Theater from Nov. 4 through Dec. 7.

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