May 30, 2009

The Morgan Puts a Spotlight on Set Design

If you’re a theater lover, this has got to be the best time of the year. In the four-week period between the announcement of the Tony nominations and the handing out of the awards, it seems as though the whole world (and not just we theater geeks) starts thinking and talking about Broadway. And the buzz is even louder than usual this year.

The June issue of the glossy mainstream magazine Vanity Fair has a photo spread with 25 stars who have appeared on Broadway this past season. Just this week, PBS aired a documentary on the making of In the Heights, which took home Tony’s Best Musical honors last year. Recent guests on “The View's" daily gabfest have included David Hyde Pierce (star of Accent on Youth), Nathan Lane (co-star of Waiting for Godot) and, coming next Friday, Neil Patrick Harris (the host of this year’s Tony Awards show).

The New York Times has already devoted an Arts & Leisure section to the Tonys and continues to
run features about the nominated shows. There are also interviews with nominees on the Playbill website, on the BroadwayRadio podcast, on blogs, in tweets. And, of course, there are predictions everywhere; one of the best is NY1 critic Roma Torre’s chats with some actual Tony voters.

Now, even the Morgan Library & Museum, which usually celebrates printed text, has gotten into the act with a new show, “Creating the Modern Stage: Designs for Theater and Opera.” The exhibit,
which opened last week and runs through Aug. 16, traces the history of set design in the 20th century and although it displays more drawings from opera productions than the theater ones that most fascinate me, it is still a terrific introduction to a field about which I know far too little.

The exhibit is small, with only around 50 drawings, which means you can really focus on each one,
without worrying that you won’t have time to get through the whole thing as is the case with so many megashows. Most of the drawings are drawn from a gift by the widow of Donald Oenslager, the prolific set designer who got his start as an actor with the Provincetown Players but went on to create the sets for such shows as the original productions of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes and to teach at the Yale School of Drama for 45 years.

Oenslager was clearly a student of set design as well as a master of it. His collection includes dr
awings by the pioneers Adolphe Appia, the Swiss designer who led the move away from painted scenery to what he called “living” sets; Edward Gordon Craig, son of the celebrated British actress Ellen Terry, whose influential book “The Art of the Theater” advocated experimental lighting techniques and expressionistic sets like the one he did for the 1906 production of Hamlet in the drawing at the top of this entry; and avant garde Russian designers like Erté, who brought the art deco look to the Ziegfeld Follies; and Serge Soudeikine, who cut his design teeth with the Ballets Russes and later did the sets for the original 1935 production of Porgy and Bess.

American masters like Robert Edmond Jones, Norman Bel Geddes, Jo Mielziner, Oliver Smith and Ming Cho Lee are also represented. One display card tells the story of how Mielziner’s set drawing for the final act of Maxwell Anderson’s 1935 play Winterset was so impressive that Anderson changed his text to better correspond with Mielziner’s interpretation. I wish there had been more behind-the-sets stories like that one.

I also wished the exhibit had included more of what it calls the “ephemera” related to some of the productions like those in a display case near the Of Mice and Men drawing that include opening night tickets ($3.30 each for orchestra seats), Oenslager’s written account of a production meeting that Steinbeck attended, and a copy of the script, annotated by its female star Claire Luce in now-faded red pencil.

Another treat was being able to compare Soudeikine’s original 1935 set for Porgy and Bess with the one Juozas Junkas did for another production 30 years later. It all made me hungry for more exhibits like this one. And they'd be just as welcomed even when it’s not Tony season.

May 27, 2009

"Giant" Is Grand But It’s Also a Little Too Big

You might think there would be enough theater in New York to keep me occupied. But last weekend, I took the Metroliner down to Washington to see Giant, the new musical by Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson that is being given a world premiere at Signature Theatre in nearby Arlington, Virginia.

Given the state of the current economy—the world’s and mine—I didn’t make the decision to go down there lightly. And the mixed reviews didn’t help. But on the weekly BroadwayRadio podcast, Talkin’ Broadway critic Matthew Murray encouraged “anyone who has any interest in it whatsoever to go down there and support it even if it ends up coming to New York. I promise you, you’ll be glad you did.” I had more than a passing interest in the show. So I went. And I am indeed glad I did.

My fascination with Giant dates back to the days when my young niece Jennifer, now 29, used to visit me on weekends. She was obsessed with the 1956 movie version of “Giant” that starred Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and, in his final screen appearance, James Dean. The local video shop (remember those?) was always the first stop of our weekend and then she would play the movie non-stop for the next two days. I would go to sleep with “Giant” playing and wake up with “Giant” playing. There are very few movies I know as well. Or like as much.

I also know LaChiusa a little and like him quite a bit. My husband K, a pit musician, has played in several of his shows and Michael John has always been very nice to me, including when we ran into one another outside the Signature Theatre before last Saturday’s matinee. His shows don’t always work bu
t much of the music is gorgeous and I greatly admire his determination to take on serious subjects, like race and class.

Edna Ferber who wrote the novel “Giant” was fascinated by those topics too. You don’t hear much about her nowadays but Ferber’s big sprawling books were regulars on the bestsellers lists during the first half of the 20th century and they provided the inspiration for some classic Broadway shows, including Show Boat, considered to be the first modern book musical and certainly the first to deal head-on with the issues of class and race.

It was Ferber’s niece, a fan of LaChiusa’s music, who came up with the idea of turning her aunt’s 1952 novel about three generations of Texans—both Anglos and Mexicans—into a musical and approached him about doing it. W
hen Signature used part of a gift from the Shen Family Foundation to commission LaChiusa to do a new work, he recruited Pearson and they set about adapting “Giant” for the stage. (Click here to read a Washington Post story about the making of the musical.)

Giant centers around a Harvard-educated Texan who marries a Virginia deb and brings her home to his two million-acre ranch but its story encompasses the interconnected lives of the many people who live and work nearby. It looks at how they deal with the change from a land and cattle-based economy to one fueled by oil, the evolving relations between Mexicans and Anglos, and the familial tensions between husbands and wives, fathers and sons.

LaChiusa and Pearson try to tell all of it—and that’s the biggest problem with this Giant. The musical runs 3 hours and 55 minutes, with two intermissions, and it still leaves stuff out. And if you didn't have a Jennifer in your life to make sure that you were steeped in the particulars of the saga, there are moments when you might wonder what the hell was going on. I’m hoping the creative team uses the time between now and any future New York production to focus on just one or two storylines and to prune appropriately.

Some of the 29 songs will probably have to go and I’ll be sorry to lose them. LaChiusa is known for difficult scores that challenge audiences but this one is totally accessible, mixing melodies that evoke the wide open spaces of the prairie with rhythms from south of the border, symphonic harmonies with jazz syncopation. A few of the songs try a little too hard to please but in general it’s a magnificent score. The woman sitting next to me, kept swooning with pleasure.

And, for the most part, they’ve found terrific actors who can both sing and act the roles. The leads—Lewis Cleale as the proud rancher Jordan Benedict and Betsy Morgan as his socially-progressive wife Leslie—are superb. Neither is a “big name” and so I tried to imagine which Broadway stars might be brought in to take over the roles but I can’t imagine anyone being better.

The critics who saw the show also loved Ashley Robinson, who plays Dean’s role of the ranch-hand-turned-oil-mogul Jett Rink. Robinson is a charismatic guy with an “American Idol”-style belt but he seemed to me too conscious of living up to the Dean legacy. Similarly, Judy Blazer drew raves for her portrayal of Benedict’s no-nonsense sister Luz but she was too one-note for me and failed to convey the protective love Luz feels for her baby brother.

The production, which cost about $1.1 million, is elegant. It’s performed on a largely bare stage against an artfully lit backdrop, set designer Dane Laffrey and lighting designer Japhy Weideman's poetic interpretation of the vast expanse of the Texas landscape. It contrasts nicely with Susan Hilferty’s richly-detailed period costumes. Chris Fenwick’s direction may be a little too stately but there’s time to fix that too before the show comes to New York.

Although I have no idea whether it ever will come. To my great chagrin, I forgot to ask Michael John when I saw him. But I hope it does. Or that it’s done somewhere else after it closes at Signature this weekend. Because more people should get the chance to see this Giant. In the meantime, I’m grateful I did.

May 23, 2009

"Next to Normal" is Next to Great

Springtime in New York is also class trip time. High school seniors from all over the country crowd (or, depending on how desperately you need to get somewhere when you find yourself walking behind them, clog) midtown streets. At some point most of them end up at a Broadway show. Still, I was a little taken aback when I got to the Booth Theatre a few days ago and saw a group of them waiting to go inside. For the Booth is now home to Next to Normal, the new musical about a middle-aged woman who has a bipolar disorder.

To be honest, I’d had my own reservations about seeing the show. I thought it would be depressing. So did my husband K, who opted to stay home, saying “I can depress myself right here.” As it turns out, K and I were wrong about Next to Normal. It is a heartbreaking show but it’s an uplifting one too, particularly if you care, as I do, about the future of the American musical. I was wrong about the kids too. Judging by the youthful-sounding cheers emanating from the balcony at the curtain call, they loved it.

The music is probably a large part of what appealed to them. Tom Kitt’s pop-rock score would be right at home on an Emo radio channel. And Brian Yorkey’s profanity-spiked lyrics are lingua franca for kids raised on potty-mouthed shows like “South Park.” But they work as Broadway songs too, advancing the story and revealing the inner lives of its characters (click here to hear excerpts and a Playbill interview with Kitt and Yorkey).

Or they do if you’re open to thinking of Broadway music as more than just one kind of sound. I love classic show tunes as much as any theater geek but I also came of age during the heyday of introspective singer-songwriters like Laura Nyro, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Graham Nash and although I wish Yorkey’s lyrics had been less predictable (I figured out most of the rhymes before the actors could sing them) this music speaks to my soul.

Yorkey also wrote the book and its story—an original, not based on a movie, a book or a videogame—is even more audacious than the music. It examines how a mother’s mental illness infects her entire family. There are suicide attempts and death, there is prescription drug abuse and electric shock therapy. But Yorkey is smart enough to know there can be humor in even the most dire situations and he leavens the show’s many dark moments with a genuine affection for his characters and even a few glimmers of optimism.

But there’s plenty smart about this show. The actors, lead by Alice Ripley who gives a fearless performance as the mom, are perfectly cast. J. Robert Spencer and Jennifer Damiano are particularly good as the compassionate husband and confused daughter. But I have a special fondness for Adam Chandler-Berat who plays the daughter’s stoner-boyfriend with a sweetly geeky devotion that I haven’t seen since John Cusack’s underachiever Lloyd Dobler tried to woo the class valedictorian with a boom box serenade in the classic 1989 romantic movie “Say Anything.”

My only concern is whether their voices will hold out in what is almost a sung-through show, with more than a few of the songs calling for full-strength, power-ballad volume. The Playbill doesn’t list the songs but according to IBDB, there are 36 of them, including several reprises which helped wedge songs such as the love duet “Perfect for You” into my mind and makes me want to hear all of them again.

The creative team is in tune too. Mark Wendland’s set, an abstract, three-tiered jungle gym, doubles deftly as the family’s home and the inner recesses of the mom’s fractured mind. While the lighting by Kevin Adams brilliantly captures all the subtleties of the characters' emotions. And director Michael Grief keeps it all in harmony.

Kudos are also due the producers who stuck with the show through a winter 2008 run at Second Stage that got mixed reviews and a retooling in Washington later in the year. I didn’t see either of those but folks who did say this version is sharper and more emotional. If the creative team had worked a little more on the ending, they would have a truly great show instead of just a really good one. Even as is, Next to Normal may give Billy Elliot a run for the Tony gold on June 7.

Still Next to Normal isn’t for everyone. “It’s not incredible but it’s good. It’s a different kind of show,” the woman sitting behind me commented during the intermission. She, her mother and sister spent the rest of the break listing musicals they would have preferred seeing: Oklahoma!, South Pacific, West Side Story, A Chorus Line.

Of course, each of those shows was innovative in its time. Now, as part of a burgeoning trend that includes Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, and In the Heights, Next to Normal could help ensure that young people like those high school kids in the balcony think of Broadway as a living artform and not just as a museum dedicated to the memories of one.

May 20, 2009

A Toast to the Sheer Joy of "Blithe Spirit"

Some theater lovers are happy to see just about anything (me). Others are choosier, saving their theatergoing for what promises to be something special (my husband K). So it should say something right away when I tell you that it was K’s idea for us to see the new revival of Blithe Spirit now playing at the Shubert Theatre. “I think it will be fun,” he said.

Fun is precisely what Noël Coward intended when he wrote this frothy drawing room comedy over five days in 1941. War-weary Brits were delighted by it and the show ran for 1,997 performances there and then for 657 performances when it opened on Broadway a few months later with a largely American cast.

Coward’s story of the writer Charles Condomine whose dead wife Elvira is conjured up during a séance by an eccentric medium named Madame Arcati was turned into a 1945 movie with Rex Harrison as Charles and Margaret Rutherford recreating her London stage role as Madame Arcati. It was also the basis for the 1964 musical High Spirits with Edward Woodward as Charles, Beatrice Lillie as Madame Arcati and Tammy Grimes as Elvira.

K knew none of this. He simply wanted to see the current production because Angela Lansbury is playing the role of Madame Arcati. And he isn’t the only one who thinks that seeing Lansbury is something special. Rupert Everett makes a suitably suave Charles and both Jayne Atkinson and Christine Ebersole do bravura work as his wives—the live one Ruth and the ghostly one Elvira. Susan Louise O’Connor gives a deliciously ditzy performance as the family’s not-quite-competent maid and deservedly won one of the Theater World awards given for the season's best Broadway debuts. But every critic has singled out Lansbury’s performance.

So far, Lansbury has won every theatrical award this season that she’s been eligible for— Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play from both the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle—and a few that were created just to honor her –a Unique Contribution to the Theatre Award from the Drama League and a Special Citation for her contribution to the American theater from the New York Drama Critics Circle (click here to watch her gracious acceptance speech). And, of course, she’s also a frontrunner for the Tonys that will be handed out on June 7.

You may think that the theatrical community is merely paying homage to her long and illustrious career in the theater—Lansbury, now 83, made her Broadway debut in 1957 in the Georges Feydeau farce Hotel Paradiso, created the iconic roles of Mame and Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett and has won four previous Tony awards. Or you might say it’s all because she’s so beloved for her role as Jessica Fletcher in the old TV mystery series “Murder, She Wrote.” But you’d be wrong. Lansbury’s getting all this attention because she’s playing the hell out of the role (click here to read an interview with her about her career and her take on Madame Arcati).

Lansbury's performance is a master class in what stage comedy should be. From the madcap dance she improvises as she moves into Madame Arcati’s trances to the mere raising of an eyebrow as she ponders a question posed by one of the other characters, she know how to hold the stage without hogging it, to get the laugh without milking it. She is serious about her fun-making but has a good time making it. She is, like the martinis her character guzzles, thoroughly intoxicating. And, as K predicted, she makes Blithe Spirit one of those special, you’ll-be-sorry-if-you-miss-it events. Watching her in this show is sheer theatrical bliss.

May 16, 2009

Its Many Duplicities Unbalance "Sophistry"

The drama unfolded on TV but it’s hard to think of a more theatrical event than the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas’s nomination to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. Anita Hill’s testimony that Thomas had made unwelcome advances when she worked for him catapulted the issue of sexual harassment into the national spotlight. And like millions of people, I was glued to the tube that weekend and talked about what transpired for weeks after.

The he-said, she-said controversy also fired up the ire and imaginations of writers all over the country, including David Mamet, whose 1992 drama Oleanna tells the tale of a college student who accuses her professor of harassment, and Jonathan Marc Sherman, whose similarly-themed 1993 play Sophistry is currently being revived at the Beckett Theatre. I saw Oleanna three times but somehow missed Sophistry back then and so I was particularly interested in seeing South Ark Stage’s new production.

Sophistry is actually two plays in one. The first is about a popular philosophy professor at a small New England College who is accused of sexual misconduct with a male student. The second centers around a group of students at the school and their “Animal House”- like activities—drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll, or in this case the grunge music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The stories intersect but they don’t really mesh. Sherman was just 25 and three years out of Bennington College when Playwrights Horizons first produced Sophistry and it’s a young man’s play, bristling with both genuine promise and callow bravado.

What people seem to remember most about the original production is its cast. Calista Flockhart, Ethan Hawke, Anthony Rapp and Steve Zahn, all at the beginning of their careers, played the students alongside the playwright himself with Austin Pendleton as the professor. Stripped of such high-wattage talent and the galvanizing heat of the debate over sexual harassment, the show packs less of a punch than it did in ’93 when the New York Times critic Frank Rich praised Sherman’s “idiosyncratic personality” and that production’s “energetic cast.”

There are some nice performances in the current production too. Natalie Knepp brings a sharp intelligence to the role of the college’s crusading journalist, Ian Alda, the grandson of Robert and the nephew of Alan, is sweetly goofy as the sensitive guy who can’t quite get the girls and Jonathan Hogan nicely conveys the conflicting emotions roiling within the professor. But neither they nor director James Warwick can keep the story from plodding along scene-after-scene, nowhere near as involving as the Congressional hearings that helped to inspire them 18 years ago.

May 13, 2009

A Different Life for "Death of a Salesman"

The great thing about a great play is that you can see it a zillion times and still see something different in it with each viewing. I was reminded of that after my husband K and I took the train down to New Haven to see the new production of Death of A Salesman at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

This slightly controversial version of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece isn’t the best I’ve seen but it touched me in ways the play hadn’t before and it made me wonder if Death of A Salesman isn’t the greatest American play ever written. This comes from a woman who loves herself some Eugene O’Neill, reveres August Wilson and would walk over hot coals to see a good production of a Tennessee Williams classic.

But more than any of the other contenders for the honor, Miller, particularly in this play, grapples head-on with the contradictions of the American dream and his everyman characters assume a grandeur of truly epic proportions. “He is writing as an American with an affectionate understanding of American family, people and their problems; and everybody recognizes in his tragic play things that they know are poignantly true,” wrote the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson when the play opened in February, 1949 for what would become a then-impressive two and a half year run.

The point of controversy about the current production, which is scheduled to run only through May 23, is that the entire cast is African-American. What black man, the purists asks, could sit in downtown hotels, ordering steaks, drinking whiskey and swapping stories with other salesman during the first half of the 20th century the way the play’s eponymous protagonist Willy Loman so fondly recalls? How many black boys, they want to know, could go west and find a job on a cattle ranch the way Willy’s beloved but feckless son Biff so desperately longs to do?

To which I say, don’t get hung up on the details. The yearnings and the disappointments of people struggling for a toehold in life are the same, regardless of skin color. Over the past 60 years, Miller’s play has been performed all over the world by actors of all ethnicities and it has hit home everywhere. Although I confess that some of what moved me in the Yale Rep production may have been the fact that the actors look like me. Or maybe it was that I am moving closer to the age of Willy and his long-suffering wife Linda and can more fully appreciate their wonder at where the time has gone and why they haven’t made better use of it.

This production came into being because the actor Charles Dutton, who got his start at Yale 25 years-ago when he appeared in the original production of Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, wanted to play Willy. (Click here to read a Playbill interview with him.) Dutton has always been a powerhouse of an actor and he is here too. But he is at times so commanding that his forcefulness masks some of the fragility that makes Willy’s fall so sad. And yet, I found myself wiping away tears as his Willy, small flashlight in hand, tries to plant a garden in the dark in one final gesture of doomed optimism.

Linda Loman is an equally tough role and I so clearly remember being blown away by Elizabeth Franz’s shattering performance when she played opposite Brian Dennehy in the 1999 Broadway revival that it took me a while to adjust to Kimberly Scott’s approach to the role. Her Linda is more robust, more practical than Franz’s or others I’ve seen. Scott occasionally stumbles—she proclaims, rather than speaks, the famous "attention must be paid" speech—but she still manages to makes Linda the stout-hearted center of the family. Ato Essandoh and Billy Eugene Jones are less successful as the Loman sons and resort too often to histrionics. Both seem to be promising young actors but their chops aren’t yet tight enough for such formidable roles.

That may be because African-American actors get too few opportunities to develop all the muscles they need for major roles in the theatrical canon. August Wilson has been a one-man jobs program for black actors but his plays and those by many black playwrights are rooted in the dynamics of race. These roles give the actors the same emotions to play. “You get tired of angsting about race on stage and having to dredge all of that race stuff up all the time,” Scott explained during the talkback session that followed the Saturday matinee K and I attended. “I want to explore other things. I want to do my Margarets,” she added, referring to the queens in Shakespeare's Richard III and Henry VI.

I hope she gets that chance. In the meantime, I’m glad she and the rest of the cast got this one with Death of A Salesman.

May 9, 2009

"9 to 5" Works Hard But the Sweat Shows

My grandmother liked to say that one man's meat is another man's poison. I often think about that as I read theater reviews. Because critics see a lot more shows than the average theatergoer and what appeals to them isn’t always the same as what might appeal to folks who only get to the theater a few times a year. Most of the critics loved the theater-insidey musical [title of show]; but it lasted only 102 performances. Many of them sneered at the audience-friendly musical Mamma Mia!; it’s still going strong after over 3,100 curtain calls.

I’ve also thought about my Grandma’s saying as I looked over the lists of theater awards that have been announced over the past two weeks. Nowhere has it been more true than in the response to 9 to 5, the new musical version of the 1980 movie about three female office workers who join forces to overcome their sexist boss. The apparently populist-minded theater critics and writers who vote for the Drama Desk Awards gave this latest screen-to-stage makeover 15 nominations. The more theater-establishment folks who make up the Tony nominating committee gave it just four and shut the show out of the race for Best Musical.

I fall somewhere in-between. And so does 9 to 5. Watching it reminded me of one of those holiday dinners that your Aunt Lou cooks every year: all the right dishes are there, and they’re well prepared and they’re tasty enough but, in the end, the whole meal is so predictable and humdrum that you might as well have had a Big Mac. Of course, lots of people love Big Macs. That’s why McDonald’s has so many Golden Arches. The people sitting around my niece Jennifer and me seemed to be eating 9 to 5 right up, swaying to the music, laughing at the jokes and nodding in sympathy with the show’s female empowerment message.

And despite my own response, I’m not really surprised by theirs. From its opening number, the catchy title song from the movie, 9 to 5 works hard to please. (Click here to see excerpts from the production on the show’s equally hard-working website.) A 20-piece orchestra blares out that ode to working stiffs everywhere, as well as 17 other new songs written by Dolly Parton, who starred in the movie with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

Parton is one of the most successful songwriters in the country—and no, I don’t just mean in country music. She may be a Broadway newcomer but her songs have always been miniature stories and she knows how to write a melody. Her songs here are pleasant to hear, fit right in and move the story along, even if none of them really stick in the mind once the show is over.

There’s plenty else to keep a showgoer engaged too. The energetic 30-member cast fills the big stage at the Marquis Theatre with Andy Blankenbuhler’s frenetic choreography. Scott Pask’s constantly-morphing set is almost as busy. And director Joe Mantello and book writer Patricia Resnick, who also co-wrote the original screenplay, keep the gags coming.

The stars go all out too. Allison Janney in the Tomlin role of the office manager, doesn’t really have much of a singing voice but she knows how to hold a stage, to deliver a line and to win over an audience. Stephanie J. Block is somewhat bland in Fonda’s part as a newly divorced woman who is forced into the work world, but she knows how to belt out a show tune. Megan Hilty, as the office’s not-so-dumb blonde, does a great Dolly impersonation. And Marc Kudisch is deliciously hammy as the piggish boss.

Jennifer and I appreciated all the effort that went into pleasing us. But we could also see them sweat. Whether it all adds up to a satisfying evening for you really depends on whether you like your musicals rare, medium or well done.

May 6, 2009

Time Out for Talk About Tony Nominations

What is there left to say about the Tony nominations? The New York Times live blogged the event. And by the time the sun set yesterday, about 11 hours after Cynthia Nixon and Lin-Manuel Miranda announced the nominees, Google News had aggregated 950 articles about them. During that same time, the All That Chat chatroom had racked up 183 responses on its “2009 Tony Award® Nominations” conversation thread (Click here to read them). And chatters who thought their comments might get lost in that din had started at least nine other threads on various aspects of who got nominated, who didn’t get nominated, who should have gotten nominated, and who shouldn’t have.

Still, I can’t resist chiming in too. Some folks complained that, as has become the custom with the Oscars, it was better for shows that opened late in the season so that their productions were fresher in the memories of the nominators. And indeed, all four Best Revival of a Play nominees opened in April, pushing out The Seagull, the snob hit of the fall, and my personal fave Exit the King, which opened in March. On the other hand, that approach didn’t work for 9 to 5, which opened on April 30, the very last day of eligibility, and still didn’t earn a Best Musical slot.

But there was so much good stuff to choose from this season that it’s inevitable that some standout performances would get left out. I’m particularly sorry that Patrick Page didn’t get some love for his best-thing-in-the-play performance as Henry VIII in last fall’s A Man for All Seasons and that Carey Mulligan wasn't recognized for her a-star-is-born turn as Nina in The Seagull. But you might also argue that John Goodman was robbed when he got overlooked for his larger-than-life Pozzo in Waiting for Godot. And weren’t Amelia Bullmore and Ben Miles just as funny and touching as the other four nominated cast mates in The Norman Conquests? I agree with New York Magazine's Jesse Green that it's time for the Tonys to give an award for Best Ensemble (click here to read his proposal).

For the most part, however, the nominating committee appears to have acted like the good citizens of Lake Wobegon who believe that all the town's children are a little better than average. The nominators, who gathered on Monday, cast secret ballots, there’s no debate during the voting process, and lobbying is discouraged before it. Still, they managed to give a little something to as many shows as they possibly could. Twenty-seven of the 43 productions that opened this season got at least one nomination. Big names like Jane Fonda and James Gandolfini got nods, as did Broadway favorites like Raúl Esparza and Sutton Foster, but so did lesser-known actors like Roger Robinson of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Marin Ireland of Reasons to be Pretty. (Click here to see the full list).

Of course, there's no denying that the big trend this season has been for TV and movie stars to do Broadway shows. Some theater snobs complain about their presence, arguing that they take jobs away from “real actors.” But, all in all, I think it’s a good thing that those Hollywood folks think theater is important enough that they want to do it and, in the process, bring their glamor to it, reminding people that Broadway is a cool place to be.

As a result even people who don’t normally care much about the theater are paying attention. In fact, the most surprising theatrical honor this season may have come from the magazine Vanity Fair, which usually devotes its glossy pages to Hollywood starlets. But in its June issue, which hits newsstands today, the magazine features a photo spread with 25 stars who have appeared on Broadway over the past six months. The magazine’s website also has a behind-the-scenes video about the photo shoot (click here to see them both).

It’s great to have everyone talking and even arguing about the theater. It's even greater to have so much quality theater around. So go see a show or a few and, at the very least, tune in to the Tony Awards broadcast on June 7 to get a peek at the folks and the shows that have made this such a great season.

May 2, 2009

A "Waiting for Godot" Worth Waiting For

O.K. So when did it become Waiting for God-oh instead of Waiting for Gudo, which is, like, what I’ve been calling Samuel Beckett’s existential classic since my free-thinking English teacher Mrs. Pease sneaked it onto our reading list during my junior year in high school? She rhymed the name in the title with the Bordeaux section of France whose wines I would grow up to crave. But a friend, recently back from seeing the London production with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart corrected me and Mrs. Pease. “Now we know how it should be pronounced,” he said. “It’s God-oh.”

That’s also the way they pronounce it in the fascinating new revival of Waiting for Godot that just opened at Studio 54. I suppose both productions are underscoring the point that it is God whom the characters, like even the most fickle believers, are simultaneously longing for and fearing to see. (Click here to read an interview with the show’s director Anthony Page on why he chose that pronunciation.)

But however you say the title, every theater lover should see this essential part of the dramatic canon at least once. I’ve longed to see it from the time I was 16. I thought I had hit the jackpot when I managed to wangle a ticket to the now-legendary 1988 Lincoln Center production directed by Mike Nichols and starring Robin Williams and Steve Martin as the two bowler-hatted tramps Estragon and Vladimir, who spend their lives vainly waiting for the arrival of the elusive Godot. But I was disappointed.

Beckett creates a situation that is absurd in every sense of the word. Nothing happens. Except that the same nothingness happens over and over again—just as in life, Beckett is saying. (Click here to read two letters the playwright wrote about the play.) The challenge for actors is to keep the humor and the despair of these circumstances in balance. Although Martin achieved a few moments of grace-filled equilibrium, most of the 1988 production leaned too heavily on laughs, with Williams even throwing in shtick from his old “Mork & Mindy” sitcom. So it is particularly gratifying to see Page and the stars of the current production, Nathan Lane as Estragon and Bill Irwin as Vladimir, capture the true spirit of the play.

Both Lane and Irwin are accomplished clowns, albeit of different provenance. I had expected Irwin, the circus-trained performer who has gone on to dramatic acclaim in the Edward Albee plays, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, to have the easiest time in Godot. He had been in the 1988 production playing the nearly silent role of Lucky, the ironically-named slave who is constantly abused by Pozzo, the overbearing traveler with whom Estragon and Vladimir cross paths, and Irwin has said that he has yearned to play one of the main roles ever since then. (Click here to read an interview about his history with Godot).

But Lane turned out to be the revelation for me.
Lane, of course, honed his comedic genius on the stage and his hilarious turn in The Producers really did make him the king of Broadway. I know that he is also a fine actor but I had worried that he might stray the way Williams and Martin did, going for the jokes. But his performance not only manages to please the galleries but to plumb the depths of Estragon’s desperation.

There are also bravura supporting performances. John Goodman uses his incredible bulk to create an imposing Pozzo. Friends who have worked with the actor, most famous for his role in the old “Roseanne” sitcom, say he is a perfectionist given to literally banging his head against a wall when he feels he hasn’t fully realized a part, but even he should be pleased with his work here. (Click here to read a New York Times profile about his preparation for the role.) And John Glover’s groveling and slobbering Lucky is so creepy and wretched that I could hardly stand to look at him. Which, I suppose you’d have to say, is proof of his convincing performance.

This isn’t, however, a perfect production. Both my husband K and my theatergoing buddy Bill argue that the main characters, played by Lane and Irwin, are too similar. In the original 1956 production, the serious actor E.G. Marshall played Vladimir and the serious clown Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz” and father of The New Yorker theater critic John Lahr, played Estragon and both won praise from the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson for their “glowing” performances.

I agree that the distinctions between the instinctual and yet pessimistic Estragon and the intellectual but optimistic Vladimir should have been made sharper in this production, but it still seems to me that this Waiting for Godot is the one that I had been waiting for.