April 29, 2007

A Downdraft for "Inherit the Wind"

There is a pre-show bonus each night before the current revival of Inherit the Wind begins at the Lyceum Theater: a gospel quartet serenades the audience. They're good; so if you go, go early. But they aren't the choir that director Doug Hughes’ production is preaching to. The play, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, is a fictionalized version of the 1925 “Scopes Monkey trial” in which a young science teacher was tried for teaching evolution and breaking a Tennessee law that favored a biblical interpretation of creation. The case became a cause célèbre when Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney and ACLU activist; and William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate and devout Christian called in to represent the school board, squared off in the courtroom.

There were other attorneys on both sides but the titans go mano a mano in Inherit the Wind and the roles—Darrow is called Henry Drummond in the play and Bryan, Matthew Harrison Brady—are wet dreams for actors of a certain age. Paul Muni and Ed Begley played Drummond and Brady in the original 1955 production. Spencer Tracy and Fredric March slipped into the suspenders for the 1960 film. Jason Robards Jr. was Drummond and Kirk Douglas Brady in a 1988 made-for-TV movie. George C. Scott and Charles Durning revived the play for the stage in 1996. Then, Scott turned around and took the Brady role against Jack Lemmon's Drummond in another TV movie, which aired just five months before Scott's death in 1999.

The scenery-chewing Drummond is usually the role that gets the approbation, and the awards. Muni won the Tony, Tracy was nominated for an Oscar, Robards took home an Emmy and Lemmon got a Golden Globe. Now, Christopher Plummer has received similar praise for his performance in the current production, while the usually formidable Brian Dennehy has fared less well. Meanwhile the current evolution vs. creationism debate gives the show a particularly relevant sermon to deliver. The “Amens” were almost audible the night my friend Bill and I saw the show. We happened to be sitting in front of a retired theatrical agent, one of the zillions of people Bill knows in the theater world. “Are you loving this as much as I am?” the agent leaned forward to ask us at intermission. We weren't.

Hughes’ production seemed too self-righteous for me. In a fascinating interview on the recent episode of public TV's “Theater Talk” (click here to listen to it), Dennehy argued that Bryan was a primary architect of many of the progressive views that the people in most Manhattan audiences now champion. Dennehy said he tried, as much as the text would allow, to incorporate that side of Bryan into his portrayal of Brady. I don't think his interpretation was entirely successful and I believe Bryan was more complicated than he does—anti-imperialist but pro-prohibition, outspoken on women's suffrage but silent on the South's treatment of blacks. Still I applaud Dennehy's effort to, as he says, portray his Bryan-based character as more than just some Christian Snidely Whiplash. For we seem to be at a time in our culture, and in our politics, when too many of us are content to think in those simple terms of good and evil, blue states and red states, to speak only to those who already agree with what we have to say, and to pat ourselves on the back for doing so.

April 25, 2007

A Shout Out for "The Yeomen of the Guard"

There is a reason that people in New York pay half their salary for rent or maintenance fees and that they don't blink at eating in “reasonably priced” restaurants where the cost of an average check would feed a family of eight for a whole year in a Third World country. It's because there's no place else like New York if you love theater and music and art. And yeah, I'm talking to you, London. Even if a person retires early so that he's still vigorous enough to go out as much as he wants and has the stratosphere-is-no-limit resources of a Bill Gates so that he can afford to see and do anything he wants, he can only scratch the surface of what there is to do in New York.

Last weekend my husband K and I went to see The Blue Hill Troupe production of The Yeomen of the Guard. Blue Hill is a group that raises money for charities by producing Gilbert & Sullivan operas every spring. The cast and crew are volunteers, people who have day jobs as bankers and lawyers and teachers and real estate brokers. But the Heckscher Theater, where I recall seeing puppet shows and early versions of Joe Papp's Shakespeare productions when I was in grade school, was packed. Our friends in the Yeomen cast were terrific. But so were the other folks, some of whom would have no trouble landing jobs on Broadway. And that's the point. There are terrifically talented people doing their thing all over the city. I suspect there were Irish musicians in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan, Chinese opera singers in the Flushing neighborhood in Queens and multicultural performance artists in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, all entertaining equally appreciative audiences that night, and all just as good. And that's why no matter how old my husband K and I, both born and reared in the city, get we will never leave here. Our occupations (his as a pit musician) and avocations (mine as the writer of this blog) may define us as Broadway babies but even if you took away the show biz glitz, we'd still be New York kids at heart.

April 22, 2007

A Fresh View of History with "Frost/Nixon"

Watching an actor impersonate some famous celebrity has never been one of my favorite things. Pretending to be someone doesn’t make sense if you don’t recognize the celebrity but mimicked voices and imitated gestures usually strike me as silly. And yet “The Queen,” in which Helen Mirren portrays Queen Elizabeth grappling with the death of Princess Diana; and “The Last King of Scotland,” in which Forest Whitaker portrays the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, were my two favorite movies last year. Now I find myself surprisingly taken with Frost/Nixon, the new play about the events surrounding the 1977 interviews in which British broadcaster David Frost got Richard Nixon to make his first public apology for his role in the Watergate scandal that brought down his presidency. It stars British actor Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon. It’s staged with the ferocious intensity and pageantry of a prizefight. And although not quite a knockout, it packs a solid punch

What all three works have in common is that they were written by the same man, Peter Morgan. In a terrific interview on NPR (to read or hear it, click here) Morgan explains that his primary focus has always been on relationships, the real people behind the famous personae. He has certainly been lucky in the actors he’s gotten to do his scripts. Both Mirren and Whitaker won Oscars for their performances and Sheen deserved a nomination for his portrayal of Tony Blair in “The Queen.” Now Morgan has hit pay dirt again with Langella.

Nixon has been caricatured so many times that even I’m now used to seeing others pretend to be him. And I wanted to see the show because I wanted to see Langella on a stage again. My husband K and I enjoyed him so much when we saw him in Fortune’s Fool, the until-2002 unproduced play by the 19th century Russian novelist and playwright Ivan Turgenev, that two years later, we rushed to see him in Match, a less successful contemporary comedy in which Langella nonetheless still charmed. Still, it took me a couple of minutes to even recognize Langella when he first walked onstage with Nixon’s familiar stoop-shoulder and heavy-footed gait. Langella folds himself into the role and what emerges is a more human Nixon than I’ve ever seen, including in news footage.

K, a Broadway pit musician, couldn’t get off work and so I went to the show with my friend Ann, a former model, who in the ‘60s traveled in the swinging circles on both sides of the Atlantic. The great love of Ann’s life was the producer of “Frost in America,” the talk show Frost did from New York in the mid-‘60s and that is referred to in the show. Frost/Nixon opened a trunk-load of memories for Ann and after the show, she shared goodies about some of the real people being portrayed on the stage. But even without Ann’s commentary, Frost/Nixon is worth a trip down that stretch of memory lane.

April 18, 2007

Walking the Plank with "The Pirate Queen"

After years and years in which one person shows and two handers have made up too large a part of its diet, with even the musicals tending towards small portion productions like Grey Gardens and Avenue Q, Broadway seems to be bingeing on big cast shows this season. There are 44 actors in The Coast of Utopia, 38 in Les Misérables, and 34 in the straight play Inherit the Wind. But not even 41 hard-working singers and dancers are enough to make a satisfying meal of The Pirate Queen, the Les Miz duo Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical version of the story of Grace O’Malley, a 16th century Irish proto-feminist and nationalist who not only commanded a ship of pirates but maneuvered a face-to-face summit meeting with Queen Elizabeth I.

I didn’t go to the show with high expectations. I’d heard about the poor notices it got during its fall tryout in Chicago. And even though I don’t read reviews until after I’ve seen a show, I had a sense that the New York critics weren’t much happier with the changes that show doctors Richard Maltby (pitching in on the book and lyrics) and Graciela Daniele (helping out with the staging) had made for the Broadway production. So when I called to invite my niece Jennifer to see the show, I warned her that it probably wasn’t going to be the best time she’d had in the theater. Jennifer, who’s now 27, has been going to the theater since before she was old enough to read a Playbill and she has very strong opinions about what she likes (Spring Awakening) and doesn’t like (Tarzan) but she’s obsessed with the Tudor era and so I thought she might see something in the show that others hadn’t. She didn’t.

It wasn’t a total washout. We both enjoyed the Irish step-dancing numbers choreographed by the Riverdance folks, who also produced the show. And we got a kick out of the over-the-top costumes that Martin Pakledinaz created for Queen Elizabeth. But neither the book nor the music did much for us. In fact, the show proved to be the theatrical equivalent of the proverbial Chinese meal that leaves you hungry an hour later—on the bus ride home neither of us could remember even one song from the score. And if you believe New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel, The Pirate Queen’s landlord is hungry for something else too. Riedel reports (click here to read it) that agents for Live Nation, which owns the Hilton Theater where the show is playing, recently showed the space to director Susan Stroman as a possible home for the new Mel Brooks show, Young Frankenstein. Undaunted, The Pirate Queen’s producers are maintaining their swashbuckling attitude and posting daily entries to their website. Take a peek (click here to visit it); it’s more entertaining than their show and a lot cheaper.

April 15, 2007

A Misbegotten "Moon for the Misbegotten"

As anyone who has ever been in love can attest, there is little use in trying to explain why you fall for someone. I fell for Eugene O’Neill in my teens when I stumbled across a magazine article about him. His tortured genius was pure catnip for the would-be aesthete in me, enraptured by the romantic notion of suffering for one’s art. Reading Arthur and Barbara Gelb’s masterly biography, “O’Neill,” the following summer deepened my passion. And by the time I saw Jason Robards, Jr. in his return performance as Hickey in the 1985 production of The Iceman Cometh I was totally hooked. I have stayed in love with O’Neill over the years, despite the criticisms that his plays are too sentimental, too depressing, too long. So there was no question that I was going to see the latest revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten starring Kevin Spacey and the Olivier Award-winning British actress Eve Best.

Spacey seems to be in love with O’Neill too. He has previously appeared to critical acclaim in Broadway productions of Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Iceman. But this time, I fear, he has done our man wrong. Spacey and director Howard Davies have made the misguided decision to go heavy on the humor in Moon for the Misbegotten. Even the always inventive—and this season, with four new Broadway shows, ubiquitous—set designer Bob Crowley has contributed a slightly cartoonish set. Best gives a lovely performance (click here to see a bit of it) as Josie Hogan, the awkward farm woman who loves the dissipated Jamie Tyrone, the fictional stand-in for O’Neill’s older brother, but the actress is a lithe and handsome woman, too refined for the misfit that O’Neill envisioned Josie to be.

The audience the night I was there seemed to love all of it. But I found myself wistful for Gabriel Byrne’s anguished portrayal of Jamie in 2000. And for the umpteenth time, I lamented not having seen the legendary 1973 production with Robards and Colleen Dewhurst. The Broadway Theater Archive has released a DVD of it that’s available on Amazon.com and I almost ordered it when I got home. But the magic of the theater for me is the immediacy of the moment, the literal you-had-to-be-there experience shared only by you and the few hundred other people in the theater at the time. Unfortunately for me, the signal memory of my evening at the Brooks Atkinson Theater was when a cell phone went off during a quiet moment in the second act. It rang and rang and rang until Best improvised the words “there’s a cell phone ringing” into her next line of dialog. The audience laughed and applauded her quick wittedness; Best and Spacey briefly broke character with little smiles of acknowledgement before going on with the scene. It was deftly done and in keeping with the let-us-entertain-you nature of the production but it wasn’t the O’Neill that I love.

April 9, 2007

Stranded on "The Coast of Utopia"

As the lights dimmed at the conclusion of The Coast of Utopia: Salvage you could feel an armada of emotions ripple across the audience at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. There was deep admiration for the artistry and stamina of the actors who gave life to the characters in Tom Stoppard’s epic trilogy covering 30 years of the political and romantic affairs of the 19th century Russians who planted the seeds for what would eventually become the Russian Revolution. There was a certain smugness, too, for being among the select few who had managed to see the theatrical event of the season. There was also a rueful wondering if the nearly eight hour venture had been worth it, if Stoppard couldn’t have had his say in a shorter amount of time. And for me there was a touch of envy. I didn’t want to be in the audience; I wanted to be onstage or even backstage, just part of that incredible ensemble.

After months of rehearsals and performances, the 44 members of the cast appear to have developed a camaraderie that is palpable. They seem to revel in the challenge of the work, in the pleasure of being among others for whom the play is the thing. They look like they are having great fun. And none more so than Ethan Hawke, who plays the high-spirited anarchist Michael Bakunin. At each of the gorgeously choreographed curtain calls I saw, themselves more entertaining than many plays I’ve seen, Hawke seemed to hum with an uncontainable joy. As he walked off the stage, he’d slap a fellow actor on the back, or loop his arm around the shoulder of another, or grin and wink at a third too far away to touch. I don’t know if his exuberance is a genuine reflection of the delight he takes in being part of such a once-in-a-career experience or the residual bonhomie of his character. But it made me smile, even as the third part of the trilogy seemed to run out of steam.

April 1, 2007

True Magic in "The Year of Magical Thinking"

According to theater legend, Michael Redgrave was on stage playing Laertes to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet on the night of January 30, 1937, when word came that his first child had been born. At the curtain call, Olivier made an announcement to the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he is said to have said, “tonight Laertes has had a daughter, a great actress has been born.” The baby was named Vanessa.

Olivier may have been indulging in one of the extravagant gestures for which theater people are known, as Redgrave speculated in an interview (click here to read it) she gave Bob Costas in 2005; or he may have been acknowledging that the baby was the scion of a theatrical family that dated back to her grandparents Roy and Daisy; or maybe he was clairvoyant that night and actually able to see what a dazzling star the infant would become. For over the 40 years of her professional career, it has been hard to look anywhere else when Vanessa Redgrave is on stage or screen. There is nowhere else to look at the Booth Theater where Redgrave is starring in the one-woman show, The Year Of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s adaptation of her award-winning and bestselling memoir about mourning the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne. And I couldn’t imagine wanting to look anywhere else.

I had met Didion and Dunne once briefly when they were coming in and I was leaving the Christmas party of a mutual friend back in the ‘90s and later, having recently suffered a loss of my own, I had read the book with deep interest and loved it. But I wanted to see the show because of Redgrave. Some critics have complained that the play lacks dramatic tension and that Redgrave is too actorly in the role. But I found both the show and the actress devastating. For me, the true magic in The Year of Magical Thinking, and in all her performances, is Redgrave’s ability to convey, with the smallest gesture—the slight trembling of an outstretched arm, the unblinking bewilderment in a stare—the fragility of life. Because she is tall and big-boned and regal in bearing, the feeling that she could shatter at any moment seems counterintuitive and thus, all the more awful.

The emotional terrain she has to cover in The Year of Magical Thinking’s 90 intemissionless minutes is particularly precarious. And although I knew that Didion had survived the ordeal and the later death of the couple’s only child and that I was there because I know how adept an actor Redgrave is, I found myself, literally on the edge of my seat, wondering if both the character and the actor would make it. Redgrave does, of course, and making the journey with her creates the kind of catharsis that theater was created for.