Thursday, May 28, 2009

A splendid revival of the classic tribal love rock musical. I’d never seen the play before, had only seen parts of the film, and hadn’t been very taken with the original cast album. We saw this production when it played in Central Park last summer, and were very taken with it. It has been moved successfully to Broadway in a theatre that is probably too large for it. Mercifully we had great seats, 4th row on the aisle, so we really got the full interactive experience. This is no ordinary musical: there’s not much of a plot, and the most potent romantic relationship seems to involve a young man and a poster of Mick Jagger. It is more of a revue of assorted songs and sketches hanging very very loosely together on the story of Claude, a young man who is having a bit of a crisis of conscience about the Vietnam war and his own impending draft into the army. The crowd of hippies Claude hangs out with is no merry band of psychedelic stereotypes. As directed by Diane Paulus, the Tribe is a bunch of pretty damaged people, a bunch of social misfits whose demands for love and peace are delivered with an enraged intensity that cuts deeper than merely flashing a peace sign and lighting a joint. Yeah, there’s a lot of fun in the show, but there’s method to its madness. I liked it a hell of a lot.

A mostly amusing revival of Coward’s comedy is mostly an excuse for Angela Lansbury to strut her stuff one more time as Madam Arcati, the daffy medium. There are some good laughs along the way from Rupert Everett (looking more than ever as if he had stepped out of a 1930s Arrow shirt advertisement) and Christine Ebersole as the ghost of his late wife. The show is pure fluff, there’s no doubt about it, but there was something uncomfortable about the proceedings, as Lansbury fluffed enough of her lines to make what should be pure bliss into an exercise in suspense: I shouldn’t sit there worrying about whether or not one of the great stars of the Broadway stage is going to be able to get completely through her lines. To be fair, she mostly gets through it, and her little preparatory dance around the room before starting her seance was a delight. It was okay, I guess, but I think I preferred--

An Albee-esque picture of the tensions lurking under the civilized veneer of the upper middle classes. Two couples have come together for an evening to discuss a schoolyard fight between their respective sons, and the drinks and revelations start flowing. There are some good surprises and some good mean fun to be had here as each single character eventually finds him/herself ganged up on by the other three. Playwright Yasmin Reza owes huge debts to director Matthew Warchus and the really outlandishly over-qualified cast including Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, and the great James Gandolfini who has finally been given license to reveal his great comic acting chops. A great treat all around. Not the deepest evening I’ve ever spent in the theatre, of course, but it comes off like KING LEAR compared to---

A lot has been made of this import from London of Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy of comedies that take place in assorted rooms of one house over a weekend, one room per play. The NY critics have fallen all over themselves to praise it in extravagant terms, and it can only be put down to someone backstage having compromising pictures of them all. Considering the feverish raves for this tired revival of this dreadful little play, played with a near-total lack of inspiration or even simple human interest, the photos must have been damning indeed, involving animals and even infants. I did something I’ve never done in all my life – I left while the actors were still onstage, while the play was going through its agonizingly unfunny motions. I just couldn’t take it anymore.

The story, such as it is, involves -- aw fuck it. It isn’t worth it. The show blows. It blows CHUNKS. Yeah, yeah, I haven’t seen all of it, and there are little bits of jokes in the first play that clearly serve to set things up to happen in the second play and I’m sure there’s stuff in the second play that will set things up in the third play, and I’m sure there’s stuff in the second and third play that set things up in the first play, and it would all make sense after sitting through all seven and a half godforsaken hours of all three godforsaken plays but there was nothing and I mean NOTHING about the first play that made me want to go anywhere near a theater where any Ayckbourn play is ever running anytime anywhere for the rest of my life. This latest bit of Brit Chic shit is the second big trilogy of plays by British playwrights to get the anglolingus treatment from the NY critics in the last couple of years, Stoppard’s more substantial but still underbaked “epic” COAST OF UTOPIA being the other. I’d suggest Ayckbourn, Stoppard and the assorted blackmailed critics all be tied to chairs and be forced to see—
in the devastating new revival playing Off-Broadway, which manages to be entertaining, thought-provoking and profoundly moving in less than one third the time the Brits take to be annoying, condescending and profoundly boring. Thornton Wilder’s relatively brief play quite simply kicks Ayckbourn’s and Stoppard’s bloated trilogies into the dumpster where they belong. OUR TOWN invites you to consider your place in the universe and the way you live your life, an unabashed celebration of life on earth. NORMAN CONQUESTS and COAST OF UTOPIA only invite you to consider their playwrights’ own alleged genius.

You know OUR TOWN, of course. This revival manages to get pretty much everything right. The play’s bitter elements never overwhelm the sweet moments, or vice versa. And there’s a marvelous little coup in the final act that breaks every rule that Wilder lays down for the performance of this play, and it only serves to reinforce the brilliance and power of those rules and this play. I can’t imagine anyone but Dick Cheney being unmoved by it. If you’re in NYC, you are doing yourself a gross disservice in not seeing it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


So the big theatre season is over. Here are some notes on some of the shows we saw over the past few months. More will follow---

MARY STUART – a new translation of the Schiller classic about Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. A big deal Brit-production, with two imported British actresses in the leads: the sublime Janet McTeer as Mary, and Harriet French as Elizabeth. All in all, a pretty good show for the leading ladies who do their best with the roles, but there was just no getting past the “so what?” factor for me. This story has been told and told and told again, and usually better elsewhere. Ultimately, there just wasn’t enough here to make me feel any of the sympathy that Schiller wants me to feel for either Mary or Elizabeth. I never for a moment thought that French’s Elizabeth would lose a single wink of sleep after sending Mary to the chopping block, and McTeer’s Mary, while fascinating and a joy to watch, never made me forget that the dear lady was, in fact, getting exactly what she deserved.

EXIT THE KING – Ionesco on Broadway, with Oscar winners Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon. Rush stars as King Berenger the First, who is told by one of this queens (Sarandon) that he has exactly 90 minutes to live. He basically then lives out each of the assorted possible stages of dying, but this is no dramatization of Kubler-Ross. Rush makes Berenger’s shuffling off of this mortal coil a terribly funny and deeply moving experience, an all-out bravura display of every acting trick in the book, and it all works. Sarandon seems rather oddly miscast at first, but her choices get clearer as the play continues and it has to be said that Rush’s big final moments wouldn’t work without her. I’m very glad I saw this. Not to detract from this production at all, but I’d like to see another production, one that didn’t go quite so far over the top.

WAITING FOR GODOT – probably the show I was most excited about seeing this season. A revival of Beckett’s classic starring Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, with John Glover and John Goodman. We wound up seeing this twice, as the first performance we saw felt very off-kilter. The first act was very bumpy indeed, with John Goodman in particular just seeming terribly lost. Then the second act went speedily and hilariously and movingly, it was almost as if the cast had all had a good strong cup of coffee at the intermission, or the director went backstage and kicked some ass or something. We saw it again a few weeks later, and were delighted. Goodman’s Pozzo was a treat to watch, all showy bluster but still able to navigate the stranger moments with real aplomb. No one has ever made such great theatre out of simply sitting down upon a stool. Nathan Lane’s Estragon was fine, as usual landing the laughs with ease but letting the really painful moments get away from him. I don’t think he’s in the same category as the great Bill Irwin, whose Vladimir is hilarious and heartbreaking without breaking a sweat. He accomplishes more by taking off his hat and putting it back on than most actors could ever think about doing given a dozen lifetimes. His mournful song at the start of Act Two, which Irwin has chosen to sadly sing to a down-tempo version of The Merry Go Round Broke Down, is one of the more haunting moments of the year.