December 29, 2007

A Brief Encounter with "The Receptionist"

There are so many holiday-themed shows running between Thanksgiving and New Years that you wouldn't think a play centered around a chubby middle-aged woman who answers telephones for a living would be the choice for a multi-generational family outing during Christmas week. Yet sitting behind me at the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of The Receptionist were a grandmother and her three grandkids, who looked to be between the ages of 12 and 19. And, for the most part, they also looked to be having a pretty good time.

Perhaps they were primed for the show by its seeming similarity to "The Office," the NBC sitcom about an obnoxious boss and the poor saps who work for him. Or maybe they were simply amused, as I was, by Jayne Houdyshell's pitch-perfect performance as the good-natured busybody familiar to every workplace. And I suspect that the now-notorious twist in the play may have appealed to the sense of the macabre that, if the current popularity of horror movies is any indication, seems to excite lots of young people these days. "I wasn't so sure about this at the start," I overheard the grandson say during the curtain call. "But then things started getting interesting."
Finally, I imagine that the play's running time may also have played a part in their enjoyment. The Receptionist runs just 70 intermission-less minutes.

I'm a big fan of one-act plays. Unlike the opera, where you get a comfortable 30 minutes or so of intermission, the 10 to 15 minute breaks during plays always strike me as stingy and a waste of time and effort. By the time you shove your way into the lobby, it's time to shove your way back to your seat. Which is why I rarely leave mine. I also like the fact that a short performance gets you out at a decent hour so that you can go somewhere afterwards and linger over dinner talking about the show or, if you choose, find a cab home easily since the other shows haven't yet let out. But 70 minutes kind of startled me.

The brevity of The Receptionist seemed to take the rest of the audience by surprise too. When the stage lights went out, signaling the end of the show, it took a few seconds for the applause to start and even then it was tepid, although people had laughed and, in some cases even gasped, out loud during the performance. I think we all felt cheated.

Going to the theater obviously isn't like renting a car or seeing a shrink, you don’t pay for it by the hour. But the regular ticket price for The Receptionist, which ends its run this weekend, is $75, and that works out to more than a dollar a minute. I don't bear any resentment towards Houydshell and her co-stars—Josh Charles, Robert Foxworth and Kendra Kassebaum—who were all terrific. Or towards playwright Adam Bock, whose play deftly captures these distressing times; or director Joe Mantello, who paced the work perfectly; or sound designer Darron L. West, who created just the right undercurrent of menace.
But shouldn't someone at MTC have made the call that asking folks to pay more than a buck a minute for a performance is, well, distressing.

Luckily, other theater companies and producers are looking for ways to make theater more affordable for more people. Playwrights Horizons has a number of programs including Hot Tix, which sells $20 tickets to people who can prove they’re 30 or under; and LIVEforFIVE, an online lottery that offers $5 tickets for first preview performances (click here to see all of its discount programs). And earlier this month, the producers of August: Osage County, The Homecoming, and November announced a package deal to see all three for $199 (click here for more details on that offer).

I don't know how often the young people who sat behind me at
The Receptionist go to the theater. But I think seeing it may have persuaded them that a live show can be just as enthralling as a movie at the Cineplex. Alas, it may also have made them think that going to the theater is something that you can only afford to do when an indulgent, well-heeled grandmother takes you.

December 26, 2007

Discovering "Cymbeline"

The big question for me when I'm getting ready to see a play by Shakespeare is whether I should read the play, or at least a summary of it, beforehand. But I knew right from the moment I heard about Lincoln Center's production of Cymbeline that I wasn't going to read it. I'd never seen Cymbeline or studied it in school and the chance to "discover" a work by Shakespeare for the very first time, almost the way that a groundling at the Old Globe might have done in the Bard's day, seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

As you probably know by now, Cymbeline is kind of like a "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits" album. Characters and themes from other plays pop up so much that if you're familiar with just a little bit of Shakespeare, you feel quite at home. There are young lovers who are kept apart by wrongheaded parents (ala Romeo and Juliet), a scheming queen (just like Lady Macbeth), an unjustly jealous husband and the villain who eggs him on (hello, Othello and Iago), rousing battle scenes (all hail Henry V and Richard III), and spunky cross-dressing heroines and long-lost siblings (pick your favorite of his comedies). I've been trying to imagine what might have possessed Shakespeare to cram so many of his favorite tropes into one play. Was he cash-strapped and threw it all together fast to pay off a debt? Had he developed a case of writer's block and decided to treat it with remedies that had worked in the past? Who cares? What matters is that director Mark Lamos has whipped them all together into a delightfully entertaining evening full of pageantry, romance and liberal dollops of good-naturedly over-the-top humor.

Lots of directors these days seem to think that the best way to get a Broadway audience to sit through a Shakespeare play is simply to cast it with a big name star or two, or as many as they can get. Lamos didn't do that. Instead his large, color-blind cast (black Phylicia Rashad plays mom to white
Adam Dannheisser) is filled with accomplished stage actors and they return the favor by turning in nicely polished performances, particularly Martha Plimpton as the courageous heroine Imogen, Michael Cerveris as her secret-husband Posthumus and John Pankow as their loyal servant Pisanio. The always-dependable John Cullum makes a regal king and Dannheisser, as a totally hissable villain, provides comic relief and wins big laughs. Lamos doesn’t try to impose any overarching concept on the play either; he just lets it tell its story. And he's ably assisted by Michael Yeargan's simple but elegant set, which evokes the fairy tale that Cymbeline ultimately is, and Jess Goldstein's lavish costumes, which are a little more all over the map but fitting since the play is too.

I squeezed the show in during the pre-Christmas rush and its message of forgiveness and reconciliation fits right into the spirit of the season. Maybe too many other theatergoers had longer shopping lists than mine because there were lots of empty seats at the Vivian Beaumont, where the show is playing through Jan. 6. And that's too bad because although Cymbeline is too much of a grab-bag to be a great play, there’s enough in this production to make a theater-loving groundling like me grateful to have seen it. Plus, there's that extra treat of discovering a work by Shakespeare that hasn't been done to death.

December 22, 2007

The Joy of "A Child's Christmas in Wales"

Christmas is a wonderful time to be in New York. From the big glittering tree in Rockefeller Center to the lights strung around lampposts, and from the performances of "The Nutcracker" at the City Ballet to the Nativity pageants in neighborhood churches, the whole city seems to be aglow and putting on a show. Somehow, though, the season usually whirs right by me. But this year when I saw that the Irish Repertory Theatre was putting on a musical adaptation of the Dylan Thomas poem A Child's Christmas in Wales, I emailed my friend Ellie and asked if she wanted to go. I'd never read the poem but I knew that Ellie, a former actress who now writes and teaches poetry, loved it and I thought seeing the show would be a fun way for us to take some time out and celebrate the holidays. As with so much in life, it didn't quite turn out the way I thought it would.

The show, playing in the tiny 44-seat studio space in the basement of the Irish Rep's theater on West 22nd Street, was enthusiastically performed by five twentysomething actors and a pianist but it came off more as a school recital featuring the pluckiest students (right down to the red velvet dresses for the two girls and tuxedos for the three boys) than a professional production with a $35 ticket price. The Rep's artistic director Charlotte Moore has paired the recitation of the Thomas poem with a dramatic reading of Clement Clark Moore's "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and embellished both with carols and other holiday songs. Ellie, who'd thought there would be Welsh, or at least Irish, music, put her head in her hands and groaned when the two women started singing "Silver Bells." But watching the young actors and listening to both poems transported me back to my own childhood.

Like the Thomas clan, the uncles, aunts and cousins in my family gathered each year and ate and drank and argued and bonded throughout the day. For a few years, my cousins and I even did our own adaptation of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" (I wrote and directed) and performed it for our parents after the big family dinner and before the presents were exchanged. Nearly all of the elders have now passed on and it's been years since the extended family has gotten together. The Rep's 60-minute version of A Child's Christmas in Wales (click here to hear a recording of Thomas reciting his poem) isn't what I'd usually call a good show but, in reminding me of those joyful times, it touched me. So I'm glad, I took the time out to see it. And I hope each of you finds some time during this busy season to think about good holidays past, to make good memories for the ones yet to come and of course, if you can, to see a good show.

Merry Christmas.

December 19, 2007

Why "The Homecoming" Doesn't Hit Home

Harold Pinter's The Homecoming created a sensation when it opened at the Music Box Theatre in January of 1967, just as it had done during its earlier run in London. People took sides with the kind of passion displayed today only by fans at a World Cup final. In his opening night review, the New York Times critic Walter Kerr declared the play too slight and too slow. But a few weeks later, his colleague Clive Barnes proclaimed it "the most important English play since the war." The New Yorker wasn't impressed. Newsweek, however, thought it redefined drama. Readers heatedly debated the play in letters columns for weeks. Five months later, Tony voters chose it as the year's Best Play and gave it three other awards as well.

I know all of this because I was so befuddled about the meaning of The Homecoming after seeing the new production that opened on Sunday at the Cort Theatre that I started looking things up as soon as I got home. "What you need," said my husband K, who had decided to see it with me because he had never seen a Pinter play and thought he should see one, "is a kind of Cliff Notes." I checked the Cliff Notes website and they didn't have anything but I did find something like it on and was delighted to discover that I could download the PDF to my computer immediately (click here if you want to do the same) although I can't honestly say it helped.

I can say that it's unlikely the new production of The Homecoming will create the kind of commotion it did 40 years ago, even though it is nicely
directed by Dan Sullivan and performed by a superb cast that includes Raúl Esparza, Michael McKean, Ian McShane and Eve Best. Back then it arrived after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and in the midst of the burgeoning women’s movement but before the events of 1968 that many people consider the heart of that paradigm-changing period we call The Sixties and the play seemed fittingly emblematic of those disjointed times. But now it is an established classic, considered by many to be Pinter's masterpiece. And Pinter himself has become a revered theater elder who has won the Nobel Prize and been knighted by the Queen.

On its most basic level, The Homecoming tells the story of a philosophy professor, who, after living in the U.S. for nine years, returns with his wife to his native England to visit the all-male household of his widowed father, two brothers and the uncle who lives with them. They are—no surprise—a dysfunctional family (are there any other kind in dramas?) and so the play is also about the sexual dynamics, power plays and betrayals among them. What Pinter brings to all of this is that indefinable feeling of creepy unease that even people who haven't seen his plays refer to as Pinteresque.

Which raises the question, at least for me, of what I would have thought if I'd seen the same show but the playwright had been listed as some other name. Because, dear reader, as much as I wanted to, I couldn't figure out what the play was supposed to be telling me (is it a proto-feminist work? or just the familiar old male fantasy?). Admittedly trying to discern that kept me riveted. And I was equally fascinated by how Best, who played Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten last season, and Esparza, who most recently played Bobby in Company, transformed themselves into such completely different characters. And, of course, I came home and started reading (click here to read a terrific piece that the New Yorker critic John Lahr wrote about how The Homecoming changed his life) and found out lots of interesting things. But the play still hasn't hit home for me. Maybe that's because there’s really no way to turn the clock back and experience a breakthrough work in the same way that people did when it first broke through. Or maybe, it's just me.

December 15, 2007

The Many Faces of "Yellow Face"

The first thing I wanted to know when my husband K and I walked out of The Public Theater after seeing David Henry Hwang's new play Yellow Face was: what is the New York Times going to say about this? People in the theater world are always asking some variation of that question because the paper wields so much influence over what theatergoers choose to see and which plays get to run. But I had a very specific reason for my question: the New York Times plays a role in Yellow Face and it's not a pretty one.

The Times, as it turns out, gave the show a circumspect review (click here to read it). But K and I loved Yellow Face. I've been a Hwang fan since I saw his second play, The Dance and the Railroad at The Public back in 1981; it told the story of two Chinese laborers working on the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s and it was the first time I'd seen Asian-Americans portrayed on a stage as real people. Seven years later, Hwang hit the Broadway big time with M. Butterfly, his wry deconstruction of the "Madama Butterfly" story as refracted through the real-life spy case of a French diplomat and the Chinese transvestite who was his lover. That play won three Tonys, including Best Play, three Drama Desk awards and a Pulitzer Prize nomination; it also ran for almost two years. Hwang produced a couple of more plays after that but he's spent most of the last decade working on books for musicals ranging from an update of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song to Disney's adaptations of Aida and Tarzan. So one of the reasons I'm so excited about Yellow Face is that it marks Hwang's return to the subject of racial identity that he does so well and that very few other playwrights do at all.

Yellow Face, which has been extended through Dec. 30, is the somewhat autobiographical story of Hwang's life since the success of M. Butterfly. It starts with the protests he helped lead when the white Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce was cast as the Eurasian pimp in the musical Miss Saigon, a role that Asian-American actors felt should have gone to one of them. It ends with the government investigations of Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwan-born nuclear scientist who was erroneously charged with spying for China, and Hwang's father Henry Y. Hwang, an immigrant who founded the first Asian-American-owned bank in the U.S. and who was unjustly accused of laundering money for his native China. (This is where the New York Times, which aggressively covered both cases, enters the action.) Along the way, Hwang tells the tale of what happened to his infamous flop Face Value and the story of his mentorship of a white actor he mistakenly believed to be Asian.

That's a lot of plot. But Wong handles it deftly, with enough humor to keep you amused during the show (people who know Broadway will particularly enjoy his portrayals of producers Stuart Ostrow and Cameron Mackintosh and actors B.D. Wong and Jane Krakowski) and with enough perspicacity to keep you thinking about it for days afterwards (some critics complained about the serious turn in the play's second half; but it's the serious stuff that's the point). The show is also aided by Leigh Silverman's sharp direction and an agile seven-member cast headed by Hoon Lee, who plays Hwang, Noah Bean as the ambiguous actor, and Francis Jue, who portrays multiple characters including Hwang's father.

After the show, K and I walked to Five Points, our favorite downtown restaurant and a place that was almost a second home for us when K, a pit musician played in the orchestra for The Public's production of Elaine Stritch At Liberty. Our friend Lee, the nicest maitre d in New York, was off but they gave us a nice table and as we sipped two of their specialty cocktails—a pear mimosa for me, something with gin for K—I recalled how I'd once met Hwang during the Miss Saigon controversy and how even in the midst of it, he was ambivalent about taking on the role of spokesman for his race. Yellow Face is simultaneously his declaration of independence and a potent demonstration of what makes his voice so important.

[Update: Yellow Face has been extended through Jan. 13]

December 12, 2007

"Is He Dead?" Is Delightfully Alive!

How can you not like Mark Twain? His novels, particularly the great “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, were bestsellers in their day and progenitors of the Great American novel, and they're still smart and funny. He was a devoted father, an adoring husband and a great raconteur with a wide circle of friends and an international following. He had an iconic sense of style and an innate sense of decency. Of course, like everyone, he had his faults; his was being notoriously bad at managing money but even then, he was the kind of guy who, when he went bankrupt, paid back all his debts even though it took him years to do it. After reading his biography a couple of years ago, I developed a crush on him.

Still, I had my doubts about seeing the new Broadway production of Is He Dead?, the play that Twain wrote in 1898, but that was never produced and that was pretty much lost until a Stanford English professor discovered it in an archive five years ago. But I was curious too and so last week, I went with my friend Ann, a good sport who is up for any adventure, to see it. Hedging our bet, we had pre-show burgers at Angus McIndoe, the Broadway hangout that almost always guarantees a good time. Then, we crossed over to the east side of Broadway to get to the gorgeous old Lyceum Theatre where Is He Dead? is playing and where, it turns out, we had an even better time.

Is He Dead? isn't a great play but, as adapted by David Ives, directed by Michael Blakemore, and performed by a wonderfully game cast, it is great fun. Twain's tale takes the life of Jean-François Millet, a real-life 19th century French artist, and reimagines what would have happened if the impoverished painter had faked his own death in order to sell his works to a fickle public that only seems to appreciate artists when they're dead. The result is a farce filled with mistaken identities, cross dressing characters, mustachioed villains, clueless foreigners, silly jokes, sight gags and, of course, lots of slamming doors.

Ives, who has retrofitted 19 musicals for the Encores! series, and Blakemore, who directed the original production of the classic Noises Off and knows his way around a farce, whip all of these elements into a delightful confection that deftly captures the Twain aesthetic. There are also terrific performances from Byron Jennings, David Patu and Marylouise Burke. But the show's secret ingredient is its star, Norbert Leo Butz.

The funny thing is I wasn't all that impressed with Butz the first time I saw him, as the cute boy toy both witches wanted in Wicked. But I was knocked out by his Tony-award winning performance as the manic con man in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; and he was even more hilarious when Jonathan Pryce joined the cast and the two seemed to push one another to dizzier heights of do-anything-for-a-laugh zaniness.
Like Nathan Lane, whose comic brilliance often improves the roles he plays, Butz seems to work best when there's room for him to let his talents fly without restraints. Ives and Blakemore have cleared the decks for him and Butz is more delightfully antic than he's ever been, the play is better than it should have been and the audience is more entertained than it thought it could have been.

Historians speculate about why Is He Dead? was never produce during Twain's lifetime. Here's my thesis: Twain, a man with a great respect for the power of humor and a popular lecturer who drew thousands to his talks, knew what it took to be a crowd-pleaser and so he simply waited until an actor came along who could make his play one. And, of course, as he knew, death makes no difference, it just makes us appreciate his artistry more.

December 8, 2007

Turned Off By "The Farnsworth Invention"

My husband K was ambivalent about The Farnsworth Invention even before we saw it. On the one hand, the show is about the rivalry over who invented television between Philo T. Farnsworth, a naive, self-educated scientific genius, and David Sarnoff, the shrewd media visionary who ran RCA and founded NBC, and K isn't crazy about watching actors pretend to be famous people. On the other hand, the show is by Aaron Sorkin, who is famous for having written the smart courtroom drama A Few Good Men, the smart movies "Malice" and "The American President" and the smart TV series "Sports Night" and "The West Wing" and K is crazy about smart people. As it turns out, the characters in The Farnsworth Invention aren't famous enough to be distracting and the actors playing them—Jimmi Simpson as Farnsworth and Hank Azaria as Sarnoff—are talented performers but Sorkin may be too smart for his, and the audience's, own good.

Sorkin clearly did a lot of research into the technology behind the creation of television and the intricacies of patent law and he's clearly proud of that because long stretches of the play's dialog sound as though pages of “Popular Science” magazine or "The Journal of Intellectual Property Law" somehow got mixed up with the script. I like learning new stuff but I go to the theater to be entertained as much, if not more, than to be educated. At least half of the action in The Farnsworth Invention is simply narrated by the two main characters as they talk about major events in one another’s lives and the few dramatic scenes that are supposed to show those turning points have far too little drama. In short, there's a whole lot of head in this show but not enough heart.

The man sitting next to me kept sneaking peeks at his watch. K and I were bored too. Watching the show reminded me of Democracy, another play about a complex subject (German politics in the post-war era) and written by a smart playwright (Michael Frayn) that came off, at least in the New York production, as more of a lecture than a drama. Sorkin tries to spice up his work by peppering his speeches with anachronistic asides to the audience and expletives that reminded me of those desperate stand-up comics, who, knowing that their jokes are falling flat, try to prop them up by throwing in a barrage of f-words. Plays about serious subjects can be engaging without that kind of gratuitous pandering. Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon proved that last season. And now, right across 45th Street, Tom Stoppard is proving it as he recounts 30 years of modern Czech history in the winning Rock 'n' Roll.

After The Farnsworth Invention ended, K and I walked over to 46th Street for dinner at Orso, the country Italian restaurant that is such a part of the theater scene that you don't even need to give them a specific time when you're making a reservation for a post-theater dinner but instead can just tell them which show you'll be coming from because they know how long each one runs and how long it should take you to walk from the theater. As usual, the cozy room was filled with people who had just seen various shows. The couple who came in right after us and who were seated at a nearby table had just come from The Farnsworth Invention too and, seeing our Playbills, stopped and chatted for a bit. Former New Yorkers who now live in Colorado, they said they come in at least once a year to see shows. Grateful that the stagehands' strike had ended just before this visit had been scheduled to begin, they'd seen Cyrano de Bergerac, which they enjoyed; August: Osage County, which they loved; and, of course, The Farnsworth Invention. They said they were ambivalent about it.

December 5, 2007

The Wonders of "August: Osage County"

New York theater lovers are luckier than most. We have regular access to amazingly gifted actors, directors and designers. When a show is a hit somewhere else, it usually makes its way here, often with its stars. But what we don't always get to see are the often-equally talented people who do most of their work in cities outside of New York. And it's even rarer that we get a whole cast of them appearing in a show that was a bonafide hit in another part of the country. That's what makes the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of August: Osage County so wonderful.

People lined up in Chicago last summer to see Tracy Letts's three-act play about a large dysfunctional Oklahoma family. The production dominated the Joseph Jefferson Awards that honor theater in Chicago, winning best play, best director, best actress in a drama, and three other categories including best ensemble (click here to read a wonderful cast blog about the making of the Chicago production). Now, nearly all of the original 13-member cast, sensationally directed by Anna D. Shapiro, are recreating their roles in the production that opened last night at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. And they're all terrific. But the most terrific is Deanna Dunagan, who plays the clan's pill-popping, sharp-tongued matriarch (she's the one wearing the pearls and seated at the head of the table in the photo above).

Steppenwolf actors aren't total strangers to New York; many of the cast members' Playbill bios lists credits for Broadway and off-Broadway shows and even for the various “Law & Order” TV series that are the bread and butter jobs for New York actors. But Dunagan seems to have done most of her work in what we New Yorkers call the hinterlands—in Chicago, where she's won three Joseph Jefferson Awards including one for August: Osage County, in Madison, Wisconsin and Louisville, Kentucky and Washington D.C. I don't know what took her so long to get to New York but I’m mighty glad she came.

In fact, my friend Ellie, the erstwhile actor and current poetry professor, and I were pretty pleased about the whole evening. I'd worried beforehand about how I would respond to the show because I'd gone into it with such high expectations. Other friends who'd managed to see previews before the stagehands' strike shut down Broadway told me it was not to be missed. Even some people I'd just met at a party over the weekend started singing its praises. I usually find that few shows can live up to that kind of build up. And I also worried about making it through the show's three hour and 20 minute running time. (There are two intermissions and so many people were late getting back to their seats after the first one at the performance Ellie and I attended that the actors had to add some pauses to their dialog so that important lines wouldn’t be missed while the latecomers settled back into their seats.) But after a first act that struck me as a trifle twee, I had a great time. It’s been a while since I’ve laughed out loud as much as I did watching August: Osage County.

And that's something you wouldn’t necessarily expect because August: Osage County is another dysfunctional family play, reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill's Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate, Sam Shepard's Buried Child and dozen of others. Letts, a member of Steppenwolf as both an actor and a writer, has acknowledged the influence of those earlier works but he has also said in interviews that he based the play on his own family.
And he finds just the right balance between humor and pathos that brings a freshness to this familiar trope and a renewed recognition of how the pains of one generation are transferred to the next. You might not want to go to the Letts family reunion but the characters it has inspired make for fascinating company on stage and a show that critics are already proclaiming the must-see of the season.

But it’s Letts' other family—his Steppenwolf brothers and sisters—that I left the theater wanting to spend more time with. "It was great to get see those Steppenwolf actors," Ellie remarked as we walked to the subway. Indeed.
Watching their wonderful work made me envious of my blogger buddies Steve on Broadway and Terry Teachout who regularly get to visit theater companies around the country. I bet there are other Deanna Dunagans out there. In the meantime, though, I consider myself very lucky to have seen this one.

December 1, 2007

True Genius in "The Piano Teacher"

In the weeks before the writers' strike shut down TV production, television execs were patting themselves on the back and boasting that, unlike the movies where a woman over 30 is considered long in the tooth, several TV series were giving older actresses a place to show off their talent. But, out of the women they were talking about—Glenn Close (a ball-busting lawyer on FX's "Damages"), Mary Louise Parker (a middle-class drug dealer on Showtime's "Weeds") Holly Hunter (a dysfunctional cop on TNT's "Saving Grace"), Kyra Sedgwick (a quixotic cop on TNT's "The Closer"), and Vanessa Williams (a narcissistic fashion editor on ABC's "Ugly Betty")—only Close is currently eligible for an AARP card.

Theater is different. One of the reasons I love it is that women of all ages (and sizes, shapes and ethnicities) can—and do—strut their stuff on its stages. Right now, Debra Monk and Karen Ziemba are kicking up their heels in Curtains. Sinéad Cusack is giving two kick-ass performances in Rock 'n' Roll. Phylicia Rashad, who has only come into her own in the past decade even winning the Tony in 2004, is in previews in Cymbeline. And, of course, the whole premise of Mamma Mia! pivots around a boomer-age mom and her pals.

I thought about all of this after watching the hands-down best performance I've seen this year: Elizabeth Franz in Julia Cho's The Piano Teacher. Although some theatergoers will remember her as the original unctuous nun in Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Franz first knocked me out in her Tony-winning performance as Linda Loman in the 1999 revival of Death of a Salesman, she isn't a big name. But she is a big talent. She's also 66.

And that's fitting because Cho's play tells the story of a retired and widowed piano teacher who, out of loneliness, tries to reconnect with some of her old students to find out why in one particular year so many of them stopped taking lessons. The two who show up—the very good Carmen M. Herlihy and the young and very promising John Boyd—bring with them unsettling answers that force the teacher to confront truths she has spent a lifetime trying to avoid.

Director Kate Whoriskey hits every chord of tension in the piece, which runs just under 90 minutes. She is ably assisted by Derek McLane's cozy, yet slightly creepy, set; and Obadiah Eaves' subtlety unnerving sound design. But it is Franz who makes the show worth a trip down to the Vineyard Theatre on 15th Street, where the run has been extended until Dec. 23. Her Mrs. K, as the piano teacher is called, is a complete person and Franz makes you feel every emotion she experiences.

Many of those feelings are disturbing because the play is intentionally ambiguous, allowing the viewer to bring her or his own nightmares to its mysteries. Cho totters at times on this ambitious tightrope she has set for herself but she is a playwright to be watched and supported. A Korean-American, she includes Asian characters in all of her works and yet race and politics seldom take center stage but, rather, add undertones that accentuate the commonality of human experience. And at just 32, Cho has created a master role that older actresses will treasure for years to come (click here to read an interview in which she discusses the genesis of The Piano Teacher).

Cho isn't the only playwright who has recognized the inherent drama that can be mined from centering plays around such characters. Contemporary writers from Horton Foote to Tom Stoppard have created big, juicy roles for actresses who are mature enough to bring a lifetime’s worth of experience and skill to those parts.The jobs don't pay as well as playing cops and robbers or comic foils on TV but the pay off—for the actors and their audiences
—is richer.