December 20, 2014

The Hi's and Lo's of Four Star-Studded Shows: "The River," "The Real Thing," "A Delicate Balance," and "It's Only a Play"

The city is filling up with holiday visitors and, of course, a lot of those folks want to see a Broadway show. And the ones who want to see a show probably want to see a show with a big-name star in it. I’m not knocking that. Most people only get to see one or two shows a year, if they’re lucky. And so it makes sense to me that they want to do what they can to get their money’s worth cause Broadway tickets cost a lot. Which means that seeing a dud can be a serious disappointment. But seeing a dud with a famous face or two in it at least lessens the sting. So here are my thoughts on four star-studded shows that you might have considered seeing or recommending to the show-seeking out-of-towners you know:

A DELICATE BALANCE: Like so many Edward Albee plays, this comedy of bad manners deals with liquor-swilling WASPs who, despite—or maybe because of—their 1% status, are nearly paralyzed by existential dread. The central characters are the uneasily married couple Tobias and Agnes, her alcoholic sister, their much-divorced grown daughter and the couple’s best friends, who, for some never-specified reason, are terrified of living in their own home and so move in. Filled with Albee’s sardonic one-liners and roiling anxiety, the play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967, and a 1996 revival swept up a bunch of Tonys, including one for my friend the late George Grizzard's performance as Tobias. The new revival, running at the Golden Theatre through Feb. 22, has been directed by Pam MacKinnon, who did a superb job with Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? last year but is, alas, less successful this time out.
Starlight: Glenn Close, John Lithgow and British actress Lindsay Duncan

Highlight: It’s nice to get to see Close, who, her movie-star fame aside, is also a three-time Tony winner, onstage again for the first time since she did Sunset Boulevard 20 years ago.

Lowlight: Almost everything about the production—the overly ornate set, the unattractive costumes that make Close look dumpy, the stodgy direction—seems to be trying too hard.

IT'S ONLY A PLAY: Terrence McNally has updated his Reagan-era farce about the opening night party for an ill-fated play with new jokes and contemporary references but the basic set-up remains the same: a group of theater folks gather at a producer’s apartment to wait for the New York Times review of their new show. Among them are the anxious playwright, a one-time-theater-actor-turned-TV-star who passed on the chance to star in the play, its wunderkind British director, an aging leading lady, the wealthy but ditzy producer, a condescending—is there ever any other fictional kind—critic and the rookie actor who’s moonlighting as a waiter at the party. Jack O’Brien directs this anything-for-a-laugh production, which has been selling out and was the first show of the season to recoup its investment. It’s scheduled to run at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre through March 29 but three of its stars will be leaving sooner, although Martin Short steps in on Jan. 7.
Starlight: The Producers duo Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane are back together again as the playwright and his actor buddy, plus there’s F. Murray Abraham, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally and Rupert Grint from the Harry Potter movies. 

Highlight:  Nathan Lane, who is hilarious even when he’s just standing still—and yet who seems as generous when it comes to sharing the laughs with his fellow actors as he is about giving them to the audience. 

Lowlight: Some of McNally’s new zingers seem a little mean-spirited.

THE REAL THING: Another show with a backstage setting, Tom Stoppard’s 1982 dark comedy deals with love, friendship, infidelity and, this being Stoppard, some lefty politics. At its center are Henry, a married playwright, and Annie, an actress married to his close friend and obsessed with the cause of an imprisoned anti-war activist. There is sex play, word play and some serious thoughts about the boundaries of artifice and the meaning of loyalty but they all get jumbled in director Sam Gold’s self-consciously hip revival, which is running at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre through Jan.4.
Starlight: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ewan McGregor, Cynthia Nixon, Josh Hamilton

Highlight: McGregor has done lots of theater in London but this is his Broadway debut and it proves worth the wait. It’s also fun to see Nixon, who played Henry’s daughter in Mike Nichols' 1984 production, get the chance to appear as Henry’s wife in this one.

Lowlight: The annoying music that plays between scene changes and that adds absolutely nothing to the experience of seeing the show. 

THE RIVER: It’s hard to know what to say about this head-scratcher of a show. It seems to be about a guy who takes his new girlfriend to a cabin in the woods that has some special meaning to him. To say much more would be a spoiler. And yet, although this is the only show on the list that isn’t a revival, it’s probably the toughest ticket to get. That may be in part because playwright Jez Butterworth’s last play was the critically acclaimed Jerusalem, a big bruiser of a play, teeming with important ideas and a powerhouse performance by Mark Rylance. But it’s more likely because the show, now at Circle in the Square through Feb. 8, stars Hugh Jackman. 
Starlight:  See above.

Highlight:  See above. Jackson is congenitally charismatic, even when he's just cleaning fish.  And it’s also great that the up-and-coming Nigerian- British actress Cush Jumbo has been cast as the girlfriend, even though there’s no mention of race at all.

Lowlight: I like a good intellectual challenge as much as the next theatergoer—maybe more—but, despite the nimble staging of director Ian Rickson, the murkiness of this play is ultimately frustrating.

1 comment:

Esther said...

I really liked the Virginia Woolf revival but I was bored and bewildered by A Delicate Balance. I'd never seen it and I was looking forward to Glenn Close and John Lithgow but it wasn't for me. I think I just like my plays with a little more plot.