December 31, 2011

The Best Theater of 2011

If you read as many “10 Bests” lists as I do around this time each year, it quickly becomes obvious that the lists say a whole lot more about the people making them than they do about any empirical merits (whatever those are with one woman's meat being another woman's poison) of the subject being graded.  And, of course, it’s no different with me and my list.

Regular readers will know that I’m a pushover for shows that take on big subjects like politics, class, race and religion, that I love bravura acting and sensational stagecraft and that I’m always happy to see shows reaching out to new audiences.  So, while I'm not claiming that these were the best shows to hit the boards in 2011, it probably won’t be surprising to see that the 10 shows I most admired this year are, in alphabetical order:

BLOOD & GIFTS: Unlike so many contemporary American playwrights, J.T. Rogers refuses to navel gaze and instead writes plays that wrestle with big issues. It’s hard to find one bigger than the U.S.’s involvement in Afghanistan. But Rogers doesn’t settle for dry polemics. On the contrary, aided by Bart Sher’s superb staging, Blood & Gifts is a totally involving—and thoroughly entertaining—evening of theater.

THE BOOK OF MORMON: I had some problems with this musical by the creators of South Park but even I appreciate the fact that it’s an original musical that isn’t based on a movie or TV show. And that despite, its potty mouth-humor and non-p.c. sensibility, it’s a well-made show that deserved its Tony for Best Musical and is also making look Broadway cool to young and hetero-male audiences.

DIARY OF A MADMAN: Geoffrey Rush used all of his considerable gifts—his majestic voice, knack for physical comedy and ability to excavate pathos from even the simplest sentence—to create the hapless and eventually mad government clerk in this virtually one-man adaptation of a short story by Nikolai Gogol that had a short run at BAM early in the year . It was a textbook example of bravura acting.

GOOD PEOPLE: Maybe it’s the economy but serious plays about the class divide have begun popping up recently and David Lindsay-Abaire’s drama about the uneasy reunion between two people who grew up together in a working-class neighborhood but went on to very different lives is the best so far. And the Manhattan Theatre Club gave it a beautiful—and beautifully acted—production that should have run longer. 

JERUSALEM: People will be talking for years about the performance Mark Rylance gave as the mythic Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s marvelous lament about the decline of Britain and of the independent characters who made it what it once was. But the rest of the cast and the production as a whole were just as extraordinary.

THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT: Stephen Adly Guirgis’s off-beat romantic comedy about a recovering drug addict and his less-than-faithful girlfriend was, hands-down, the most entertaining play of the entire season: simultaneously funny and touching and the kind of show that can be appreciated by both hardcore theater lovers and those who might previously have thought theater wasn’t for them .

QUEEN OF THE MIST: Yes, I do know Michael John LaChiusa but that’s not why I’m putting his latest musical on my list.  It’s because the songs from this show about the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel still haunt me and because the show gave perennial sidekick Mary Testa the opportunity to shine in a leading role—and she glows.

THE NORMAL HEART: The revival of a play about the AIDS crisis could have been totally outdated but this production, directed by George Wolfe and anchored by a powerhouse performance by Joe Mantello, made history contemporary, the political personal and created one of the most affecting evenings of the entire season 

OTHER DESERT CITIES:  Dysfunctional family plays are the bread and butter of the theater but Jon Robin Baitz added a new spin that goes right to the core of the right-left divide that has defined the Baby Boom generation, while refusing to take sides.  The play moved to Broadway this fall and is still good but the cast that debuted when it played off-Broadway was agonizingly sublime.

WAR HORSE: You can’t beat this play about a boy and his horse caught up in the horrors of World War I for sheer theatricality. The horses are all incredible life-size puppets but their performances are surprisingly moving.  The Steven Spielberg movie version that just opened is quite good but it lacks the wonder of what happens each night on the stage at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre.  It’s what the magic of theater is all about.

And so now on to the new year, in which I wish you peace, prosperity, the love and company of good friends and, of course, oodles of good theater.

December 28, 2011

"Bonnie & Clyde" Got Gunned Down Too Early

Let’s be honest: what I think about Bonnie & Clyde isn’t going to matter one bit because the show has already posted its closing notice and will be moving out of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre before the end of this year, which, of course, is just three days away.

Still, I can’t help throwing in my two cents because (1) I’ve been a sucker for the Bonnie and Clyde story ever since I saw Warren Beatty’s 1967 movie and (2) I don’t think this musical version is half as bad as nearly all the big critics have been braying that it is. In fact, I enjoyed the show and a lot more than some others that have recently drawn raves. And I suspect a lot of people might like it too if they were given the chance to see it.

The reason they won’t be is Frank Wildhorn.  He’s the show’s composer and the guy that the Broadway snoberati love to hate. Wildhorn has a fondness for melodramatic stories, a way with big power ballads and a knack for getting producers to back his shows.  He’s had six on Broadway since his biggest hit, Jekyll & Hyde (1,543 performances) open in 1997 and the critics have hated every one of them (click here to read a NYTimes story about that). 

I’m no Wildhorn fan myself. I wasn’t crazy about Jekyll & Hyde, was only mildly amused by The Scarlet Pimpernel (which actually closed down for revisions twice in attempts to make itself more popular) and thought Wonderland, which opened last spring and overstayed its welcome at just 33 performances, was one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen (click here to read my review). 

But just cause you don’t like what someone has done in the past doesn’t mean that you should automatically dismiss what he comes up with next.  And Wildhorn seems to have really tried to please this time out. 

Instead of choosing a Classic Comics approach, he’s taken an edgier route and built his musical around the Depression-era gangster couple who gunned down a dozen men before they themselves where ambushed and killed.

His collaborator, first-time book writer Ivan Menchell, has varied the tale the movie told and attempts to give his story contemporary resonance by emphasizing how an obsession with celebrity and a frustration with poverty caused by heartless banks led the couple astray. 

And Wildhorn has teamed up with the Tony-winning lyricist Don Black (click here to read a Q&A with him). Black's lyrics this time out could probably stand one more run through the word processor and Wildhorn's music is still more pop than traditional Broadway but it’s catchy.   

There’s a country twang to the Bonnie & Clyde score that nicely captures the show’s Dust Bowl-era setting. And the resulting songs aren’t bad at all.  Which you’ll be able to judge for yourself since a cast album is being recorded next week.

But the smartest move Wildhorn made was hooking up with director and choreographer Jeff Calhoun,  an up-from-the-ranks Broadway vet who has put together a top-flight production that you won't be able to see unless you hurry (click here to read a piece about how he did it).   

Calhoun gets outstanding support from Tobin Ost, who designed the simple but effective set and the period costumes; and Aaron Rhyne whose video productions make affecting use of iconic images by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and other Depression-era photographers.

And even the most negative naysayers have praised the casting of Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan as the title characters. This is the fourth in a string of performances Osnes has given since 2007 that almost make you forget she got her start by winning the reality TV show “Grease: You’re The One That I Want" (click here to read a profile of her).    

For his part, Jordan justifies all the buzz about his performance in the recent Paper Mill Playhouse production of Newsies. So much so that I can't help wondering if an eagerness to get him into that more family-friendly show, which is scheduled to open on Broadway in March, may have contributed to the premature death of this one. 
Yet as terrific as Jordan and Osnes are—sexy, charming, blessed with great voices—the supporting players are just as good.  Claybourne Elder gives a goofy sweetness to Clyde’s brother Buck that is almost the complete opposite from his equally effective turn as a sullen male hustler in One Arm, the Tennessee Williams drama that had a brief run in June (click here to read my review of that).

And Melissa van der Schyff virtually steals the show as Buck’s wife Blanche, not least because she sings the hell out of every song she’s given.  If she isn’t on the award ballots next spring, I’m writing her in. 

But since there are only four performances left, you’re unlikely to see any of this. I do hear, however, that another musical about Bonnie and Clyde is in the works.  Here’s hoping that it’s at least as good and won’t be gunned down as quickly.

December 24, 2011

Christmas Wishes

No post today but, instead, heartfelt wishes that you and yours have a holiday filled with love, laughter, the company of good friends... and, maybe, some good theater too.

December 21, 2011

Will "Stick Fly" Have Sticking Power?

Somewhere Lorraine Hansberry must be smiling.  When A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959 on, she was the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. There haven’t been many others in the five decades since then. The only ones I can think of are Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf in 1976, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog in 2002 and  Regina Taylor’s Drowning Crow in 2004. 

But this season has been a good one, in the words of a posthumous Hansberry show, to be young, gifted and black. For it has brought Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop (click here to see my review) Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly and, coming in January, Park’s revisal of Porgy and Bess and a revival of Margaret Edson’s Wit, which won the Pulitzer Prize when it ran off-Broadway in 1998. 

But even more noteworthy is the fact that none of these plays (with the exception of Porgy) fits into what is euphemistically called the “urban drama” genre. That usually means the play deals with the problems and, more often, pathologies of poor black people.  But that is particularly not the case with Stick Fly, now playing at the Cort Theatre. 

Stick Fly is a flawed play. It boasts enough coincidences and melodrama to fill a couple of seasons of a show like “Desperate Housewives.” But it’s also a thought-provoking play and a highly enjoyable one.

The story centers around the affluent LeVay family.  Mom is a progeny of the light-skinned black aristocracy, dad is an accomplished neurosurgeon, their oldest son is an Ivy League-trained plastic surgeon and the youngest, the underachiever in the family, has three graduate degrees and is about to publish his first novel. In short, they make the Huxtables on the old TV show “The Cosby Show” look like sluggards. 

The play opens as the LeVays are gathering for a summer weekend at their grand country home on Martha’s Vineyard (stage directions make a point of saying that the house in not in the heavily-black section of Oak Bluffs). Both sons are bringing home women to meet the family but mom is slow in arriving and the family’s longtime housekeeper is ill and so has sent her teenage daughter to fill in.

As you might expect, the normal social unease is exacerbated by surprise discoveries and suddenly revealed secrets. Luckily, Diamond has a gift for natural and often humorous dialog.  

Yet, underneath it all she also makes some trenchant observations about class that seem to transcend race. Even if the metaphor she uses for her title (one character is an entomologist who studies houseflies) is never fully explained and she can't resist wrapping things up a little too tidily at the end (click here to read the playwright's thoughts about the show). 

In an apparent attempt to draw audiences, the cast has been filled with familiar TV faces. Mekhi Phifer (from “ER” and “Lie to Me”) and Dulé Hill (“Psych” and "The West Wing”) play the brothers, Tracie Thoms (“Cold Case”) is the fiancée of the youngest brother and Ruben Santiago-Hudson (a stage vet who until last year was the captain on ABC’s cop show “Castle”) plays the dad. They’re all fine, with the exception of Hill who’s somewhat wooden as the younger sibling. 

Ironically, it’s the lesser-known Condola Rashad who turns in the most supple performance of the evening.  Rashad, the daughter of Phylicia Rashad and the niece of Debbie Allen, was lovely in Ruined a few seasons ago but she’s matured as an actor and gives a performance so honest and detailed that I wish the play had focused on her character.

If only the rest of the production were as elegant.  Director Kenny Leon, the go-to-guy for black shows on Broadway (he did August Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf, the revival of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, last season’s Tony-winning revival of Fences and this season’s The Mountaintop) keeps things moving on stage but he should have taken a firmer hand with the design team. 

David Gallo’s set looks too ponderous and might have worked better on a turntable than with the awkward half walls that cut a hole in the living room so that the audience can see into the kitchen. Beverly Emmons’ lighting works hard to direct the eye where it should go but is too often defeated.

Of course even if he’d wanted to, Leon probably couldn’t have done a thing about the incidental music, which was composed by the R&B singer Alicia Keys, who is also the show’s marquee-name producer.

One of Keys’ tunes opens the show and then plays on and on and on before any of the cast members appears.  I’d hoped that Leon was just trying to get the obligation to Keys out of the way but other tunes kept popping up and overstaying their welcome during the long scene changes that pushed the running time to an unnecessary 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Straight plays are having a tough time on Broadway this season and Stick Fly is no exception. It sold only 56% of its seats last week.  Which is too bad. Judging from the whoops and "uh-huhs" in the audience, Stick Fly has the potential to be a crowd pleaser. 

And not just for black crowds. In fact, whites in the audience at the performance my friend Joy and I attended were laughing and uh-huhing just as enthusiastically as the blacks were. As the spread of the Occupy Movement has shown, class warfare is something almost everybody can identify with.

December 17, 2011

"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" Sounds a Lot Better Than It Looks

The shrinks who psychoanalyzed Broadway’s best back in the early ‘60s must have been doozies.  How else to explain the fact that two of the most high-profile flops from that period are about psychiatrists who come up with inappropriately wacky ways to screw with their patients? 

I’m speaking, of course, about Anyone Can Whistle (book by Arthur Laurents; music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (music by Burton Lane and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner). I don’t know what it says about the sanity of our times but after 40-year absences both have recently been brought back—Whistle in a spiffed-up Encores! production last year (click here to read my review) and On a Clear Day in a totally remade and less successful incarnation that opened at the St. James Theatre this week.
The main chatter this season has been about the changes made to the new production of Porgy and Bess, which begins previews tonight in advance of a Jan. 12 opening (click here to refresh your memory of the flap over that). And so the extensive reworking of On A Clear Day hasn’t received as much attention, despite major changes that if the equivalent were done to Porgy and Bess would populate Catfish Row with Swedes. 

On Clear Day originally told the then-contemporary story of Daisy, a woman with self-esteem issues, a major smoking habit and a remarkable susceptibility to hypnosis. During sessions with her psychiatrist Mark Bruckner, it’s revealed that she had a previous life as a glamorous 18th century woman named Melinda. Complications ensue as Bruckner gradually falls in love with the alter-ego. 

If only things were that simple in the new version that book writer Peter Parnell has cobbled together with considerable input from director Michael Mayer. Daisy is now Davey, a gay guy in the psychedelic ‘70s. 

Davey’s remarkable susceptibility to hypnosis is discovered when he visits a gal pal’s psychiatry class. The intrigued doctor asks to see him again and is then beguiled by the alter-ego who emerges during their sessions.

The inner-woman is still a woman but this time she’s a ‘40s-era big-band singer. Complications still ensue, albeit not necessarily for the better. It might have helped if Mayer and Parnell had gone all the way with the gay angle and allowed the doctor to wrestle with his feelings about falling in love with someone who is actually a man. 

There are a couple of moments when they flirt with that idea but they drop it fast as though worried that it might prevent the show from being considered family friendly.

Instead, the big draw is supposed to be Connick.  He was terrific in the 2006 revival of Pajama Game, so vibrant and sexy in the role that I thought he might be having an affair with his co-star Kelli O’Hara and then chided myself for underestimating his performing chops.   

Now, I’m back to my affair fantasy because without O’Hara, or someone like her, to play off, Connick is Al Gore-stiff in this role or, as he admitted to he New York Times, totally out of his comfort zone (click here to read the whole piece)

The legendarily gifted Barbara Harris starred as both Daisy and Melinda in the original 1965 production of A Clear Day, with John Cullum as the besotted doctor. This time out, the part is split and Davey is played by David Turner, a journeyman actor who, according to the Playbill, has had several smaller roles on Broadway, while Melinda is played by Broadway newcomer Jessie Mueller. 

Turner is appropriately quirky as Davey but he doesn’t have the pipes for the glorious Lane and Lerner songs. Luckily, Mueller does. She is, in fact, a knockout singer in the Garland/Streisand tradition and she almost stops the show with a bluesy number in the second act.  

Her performance had me fantasizing again, this time about how Mueller might do as Funny Girl’s Fanny Brice. Although if they couldn’t raise money for the production that was to have starred TV’s Lauren Ambrose, it’s unlikely that they can raise money for one starring Mueller.

Speaking of money, this show seems to have been done without much of it. The skimpy sets by Christine Jones hit too hard on the psychedelic and often looks like a leftover from the old TV show "Laugh-In." Kevin Adams tries to compensate by working the lighting hard but the effect comes across as overly explicit.   

Similarly, the usually great Catherine Zuber does what she can with the costumes but it’s hard to be subtle with ‘70s stuff.  Ditto the ‘70s-style choreography by Joann M. Hunter.

Fortunately, there’s no stinting when it comes to the music. An 18-piece orchestra under the baton of conductor and arranger Lawrence Yurman does the score proud.  And what a luscious score it is.

This version of the show has interpolated some songs from Lane and Lerner's 1951 movie “The Royal Wedding” and the 1970 movie version of On A Clear Day with Barbra Streisand as Daisy/Melinda.  A few numbers from the original stage production have also been cut. But the big hits—“What Did I Have That I Don't Have?” “Come Back to Me,” and of course the title song—are still there and still thrilling to hear. 

In fact, if you ignore the inane plot, close your eyes and just listen to the music, you can have a swell time at On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.  Although you can do the same thing by throwing on a CD at home—and for a fraction of the price.

December 14, 2011

"Ch’ing•lish" Has Some Serious Things to Say

The first thing I noticed when my husband K and I walked into the Longacre Theatre to see David Henry Hwang’s new play Ch’ing•lish was the unusually large number of Asian faces in the audience. I wasn’t surprised to see them. Hwang’s play not only deals with the miscommunication between the U.S. and its latest frenemy, China, but is performed partly in Mandarin. 

Don’t worry. Translated supertitles are projected on screens above the stage so you won’t miss a word. And a good number of them are worth hearing—or reading, as the case might be.

Hwang is, of course, still best known as the author of M. Butterfly, the Tony-winning play about a French diplomat who carries on a 20-year love affair with a Chinese opera star without knowing that the singer is not only a spy but a man. But Hwang is also known for being quite a funny guy and Ch’ing•lish shows off his sitcomy side.  

Here’s the situation: a Midwestern businessman goes to a similarly midland Chinese city where he hopes to get a contract to make English-language signs for its new cultural center and finds a surprising ally in a beautiful lady minister.

The clash between East and West is obviously still on Hwang’s mind and his new cross-cultural couple grapples with bureaucratic red tape, illicit romance and rudimentary knowledge of one another’s customs and language.  The latter is mined for much comic effect.

Jennifer Lim has been drawing great reviews for her portrayal of the lady minister  (click here to read a profile of her). I thought she was good too, but not quite enough to write home about.  Same goes for Gary Wilmes as the not-so-ugly American.

Leigh Silverman’s direction is fine and snappy, although I don’t know why she felt the need to have actors doing unrelated and distracting business in the background of so many scenes. 

But for my money the MVP honors should go to scenic designer David Korins who has constructed nimble sets that smoothly transform into a variety of settings from a mid-level bureaucrat’s office to a four-star hotel lobby. They’re smartly lit by Brian MacDevitt and the jaunty incidental music by sound designer Darron L West adds to the fun.

In some ways, though, Ch’ing•lish is a one-joke play.  Hwang has a good time with the way literal translations of even the simplest statement can mean something entirely different than its speaker intended.  When, for instance, the businessman describes his company as a “small family firm” it’s mistranslated as “his business is insignificant.” 

But in another way, particularly in the second act, Ch’ing•lish has something more serious to say about how much the West still has to learn about the nuances of Chinese culture, a worthwhile topic at a time when the Chinese hold the mortgage on America’s financial future. 

In between, Hwang flirts with so many stereotypes that I thought the Asian audience members might be offended.  But they didn’t seem to be. 

Instead, they—including the chic woman seated next to meseemed to get a kick out of it all, particularly hearing the Mandarin dialog. There were several times when my seatmate chuckled so deeply that I was convinced the translations of the translations must have been missing something. 

But what’s really missing are enough people to fill up the seats at the Longacre. Despite largely positive reviews (click here to check some of them out) the play doesn’t seem to be crossing over to non-Mandarin speakers. It played to just under 40 percent of capacity last week and that was down from the week before.  

That's too bad because Ch’ing•lish gives smart theater lovers something to chew on and you don't have to be Asian to savor it . 

December 10, 2011

Turning on the Ghost Light

No post today.  My husband K and I are having our apartment painted.  The painters arrive early on Monday morning and so we've spent the last few days packing up things (it's amazing how much stuff one accumulates over the years!!!) and getting the place ready for them. So, since I haven't had time to put a post together, I'm turning on the ghost light that theaters turn on when they're temporarily empty.  But I will be back with a full post on Wednesday and I hope you'll come back then too.

December 7, 2011

This "Cherry Orchard" Needs Some Weeding

 Repertory companies were once mainstays of the theater but, with rare exceptions like Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, they’re become rarities nowadays. It’s just too expensive for most theaters to maintain a resident crew of actors.  And it’s too much of a sacrifice for most actors to give up the chance to do more lucrative work elsewhere.
So it’s nice to see the same familiar faces turning up in Classic Stage Company productions with such constancy that they’ve come to constitute an unofficial rep company.  I just wish I had been as happy seeing what director Andrei Belgrader has done with them in the new production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard that opened on Sunday night.
The production is the final installment of the company’s “Chekhov Initiative,” which has presented the father of modern theater’s four major country-estate plays beginning with The Seagull in 2008. I've seen all four and I’ve been up and down about them (click here to read what I thought of The Seagull and here of Uncle Vanya and here of Three Sisters but I found this one to be the most disappointing.  Although the New York Times’ Ben Brantley and others have raved (click here to see some of those reviews).  
The Cherry Orchard, which famously ends with the sale of an aristocratic but improvident family’s country home and the sound of an ax chopping down their beloved orchard, is the most elegiac of Chekhov’s final quartet not only because it’s the last, completed the year before his premature death at 44, but because it echoes his boyhood experience when financial problems caused his own family to lose its home. 
But Chekhov being Chekhov, comedy sits right beside the family's tragedy in The Cherry Orchard (he told his wife that he was writing a “a four-act farce”) and as always, the challenge for a director is finding the right balance between the two.
Belgrader tips his production way towards the comedic and, despite a new flamboyantly colloquial translation (characters call one another “jerk”) by the actor John Christopher Jones, it also strives to be enigmatic.   
For the first time I can remember in all the years I’ve seen shows at CSC, curtains were drawn around the three-quarter playing area. It’s already a tight space with audience members sitting just inches away from the performers and the curtains were placed in a manner that made it difficult for people to get to their seats. The reveal when they were drawn hardly seemed worth the trouble. Santo Loquasto’s set is just a minimalist spin on the same old nursery room that always opens the play.
Things don’t pick up once the show gets under way either, although there’s a lot going on.  Costume designer Marco Piemontese has done up some characters in funny top hats and mismatched socks. A couple sport Brechtian-style whiteface makeup.  And several address their speeches directly to the audience.
One, Roberta Maxwell as the eccentric governess Charlotta, even breaks the fourth wall Pirandello-style and actually asks an audience member to move to another seat so that she can sit in his place and observe her fellow players. She also reaches into her pocket for a pickle, bites into it and then gives the remainder to the person sitting next to her. The man who got the leftover at the performance my friend Mary Anne and I attended was game and munched on the other end of the pickle. 
Mary Anne and I got caught up in a milder form of audience participation when a pillow was cut open and thrown up into the air: the feathers settled over those of us in the rows nearest the stage and stuck.  I was still pulling these unsolicited souvenirs off my clothes on the subway ride home.
All that funny business earns chuckles but I’m not sure what other purpose it serves. Shouldn’t the humor come from the characters and the situations they’ve created for themselves—falling in love with the wrong people, spending so much that they can’t hold on to the family patrimony, blindly ignoring the changing times—than from sticking on extraneous stuff?  
Now, this is the point in the post where I usually praise the actors (New York is chock full of 
so many awesome actors) regardless of what I’ve thought of the play.  The cast here is lead by Dianne Wiest and John Turturro, both formidable actors and CSC vets (click here to read a Q&A with him). 
They’re backed up by such CSC stalwarts as Maxwell and Alvin Epstein and CSC newcomer Daniel Davis (giving one of most subtle but effective performances). Plus there are a bunch of younger talents including Josh Hamilton, Juliet Rylance, Michael Urie (click here to read an interview with him) and the Waterston sisters, Elisabeth and Katherine.
Actors of this caliber are seldom bad and they aren’t here either. But none of them wowed me this time out.  Luckily, most are part of the CSC rep and so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll be back soon in other productions that will. 

December 3, 2011

"Private Lives" is Just Lively Enough

Like every exclusive society, the world of theater lovers has its unspoken rules.  For starters, we’re all supposed to genuflect to everything by Shakespeare, mostly everything by Chekhov, musicals by Stephen Sondheim and comedies by Noël Coward.

Well, don’t tell anyone but I'm just not that crazy about Coward's arch comedies. Which means I wasn’t sure what kind of time I was going to have at the latest revival of Coward’s Private Lives, which is now playing at the venerable Music Box theater (acknowledging fondness for it is another one of the rules).

So like most Coward philistines, my chief interest in this production was the chance to see Kim Cattrall, who, of course, is best known as Samantha Jones, the most-lascivious of the women in “Sex and the City.” 

Cattrall, who was born in Liverpool and grew up in Canada, trained at both the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. But the revival’s producers have shrewdly played up the question of whether “Samantha” would be believable as Amanda, the sophisticated divorcee who discovers that she’s still in love with her first husband Elyot while both he and she are on honeymoons with their new spouses.

Coward wrote the play for himself and his good buddy Gertrude Lawrence and over the years, Amanda has been played by such divas as Tallulah Bankhead, Tammy Grimes, Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith  and, in a much acclaimed 2002 production, Lindsay Duncan. I don’t if Samantha Jones would fit on that list but Cattrall seems quite comfortable there (click here to read a profile of her).

The success of the play hinges on the connection between the two former-now-back-in-love spouses.  And both the comic and sexual energy are entirely believable between Cattrall and her co-star Paul Gross, whom the most devoted of theater lovers will know as Geoffrey Tenant, the perpetually frazzled director of a theater repertory company on the Canadian-produced TV series “Slings and Arrows” (click here to read my review of the series and here to read about him.)

Catrall’s Amanda provides the effervescent gin to their cocktail; Gross’ Elyot is the debonair vermouth. The mix is tasty and satisfying.  Cattrall is 55 and Gross is 52, which makes them both a generation older than the characters are supposed to be but they used the extra mileage to give the characters a little extra emotional depth that appealed to folks like me for whom the jokes wear a thin after a while.

I suspect that a large part of the credit for that goes to director Richard Eyre (to whom I will always be grateful for “Changing Stages”, the wonderful history of English theater that ran on PBS a few years ago and that was also turned into a terrific book).  (Click here to read about him.)

The only off-note is the set for Amanda’s apartment in the second act. I’m guessing that designer Rob Howell thought his idiosyncratic set would show what a free spirit Amanda is but—not quite deco, not quite modernist—it’s just bizarre.  

Still, I had a good enough time.  My theatergoing buddy Bill, a Coward fan and a member in better standing in the world of theater lovers, had an even better one.  And besides, who, in these dismal days, doesn’t need a laugh, even if it’s only an old-fashioned chuckle.