June 11, 2016

The Highs and Lows of Three Tony-Nominated Plays

As soon as I finished Wednesday's post on the highs and lows of some of the musicals up for Tonys, I realized that I should give some equal hi-lo time to a few of the nominated plays as well. The clear frontrunner for Best Play is Steven Karam's The Humans, which has already won the Obie, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards and probably would have won the Pulitzer Prize if not for Hamilton (click here for my review).

But the competition is tougher for Best Revival of a Play, whose nominees include Noises Off, Michael Frayn's much-beloved farce about the behind-the-scenes hijinks of a second-rate acting troupe. The Roundabout Theatre Company's production was fun and picked up five Tony nominations, including for three members of its cast (David Furr, Megan Hilty and Andrea Martin) but it ended its eight-week run back in March and doesn't really stand a chance against the four heavyweight dramas in the category.

I've already talked about my personal favorite, Belgian director Ivo van Hove's radical reimagining of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge (click here to read my review of that) and so here are my thoughts on the other three: 

BLACKBIRD. Scottish playwright David Harrower's two-hander about the reunion between a pedophile and the now-grown woman he abused had its American premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club back in 2007 and seeing it then remains one of the most riveting nights I've ever had in the theater (click here to read my review).

Highlight:  Both actor Jeff Daniels and director Joe Mantello have returned for this Broadway production and they've managed to dig even deeper into the marrow of the play.

Lowlight: Michelle Williams, taking over from Allison Pill, is a fine actress but her choices make her character more worldly and less shell-shocked, undercutting the play's poignancy for me.

Tony Spotlight: Both Daniels and Williams have been nominated in the lead acting categories but he faces stiff competition from The Father's Frank Langella and A View from The Bridge's Mark Strong; and she from Eclipse's Lupita Nyong'o and Long Day's Journey into Night's Jessica Lange.

THE CRUCIBLE. This is the fifth Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's cautionary tale about the 17th century Salem witch trials, which he intended as an allegory for the McCarthy hearings that sort to root out suspected communists in the 1950s. It's also the second Miller work that the iconoclastic van Hove staged on Broadway this past season.

Highlight: I don't share New York Times critic Ben Brantley's love for this modern-dress production, which mystifyingly—and awkwardly—sets the action in what appears to be a classroom in an all-girl's school. But the lead character John Proctor's refusal to save himself by making false accusations against his friends and neighbors never fails to move me.

Lowlight: The cast is filled with actors I admire but van Hove (perhaps exhausted from having mounted four major productions in six months (Antigone, which played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Lazarus, the David Bowie musical at New York Theatre Workshop and the two Miller revivals) either miscast the roles (Ben Whishaw, struggling but uncomfortable as Proctor) or directed them to hit one note (the young movie actress Saoirse Ronan unrelentingly churlish as the chief troublemaker Abigail Williams).

Tony Spotlight: Despite my misgivings, the show picked up four nominations. Still, it's the runt of van Hove's theatrical litter and I'd be surprised if it won any.

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. The four main roles in Eugene O'Neill's memory play about his tormented family and their battles with substance abuse and other demons remain among the most coveted in the American theatrical canon.

Highlight: Director Jonathan Kent underscores the love that the fictionalized Tyrone family have for one another despite its inability to save them from one another. And the production—Tom Pye's set, Jane Greenwood's costumes, Natasha Katz's lights, Clive Goodwin's sound—is gorgeous.

Lowlight:  Michael Shannon and John Gallgaher, Jr.'s portrayals of the sons Jamie and Edmund struck me as far too contemporary.

Tony Spotlight: Jessica Lange, who played the morphine-addicted mother in a London production 16 years ago, has said that "No part I have played on stage or in film has ever captured me more," and her radiant performance shows it. I expect that she will win the Tony and I wouldn't be surprised if she gets a standing ovation when she does.

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