Arts In LA

NY archives 2018-2019

(these shows are closed)
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
Irish Repertory Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

In the world of Broadway musical theater, do terrific songs offset a limp book? That’s the question raised with Irish Repertory Theater’s small-scale revival of Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s 1965 curiosity On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. This is one of those tuners that has more than its share of flaws, had a modest original run, and is occasionally hauled out of the closet for its memorable melodies. Lerner’s brilliant lyrics and Lane’s smooth, sweet music are always a pleasure to listen to, but you have to suffer through Lerner’s sitcom-like book, unmitigated by director-adaptor Charlotte Moore’s alterations.
   The plot, such as it is, centers on Daisy Gamble, a waifish kook and unknowing wielder of such trendy supernatural skills as ESP, precognition, and the ability to make flowers grow rapidly by talking to them. When psychiatrist Mark Bruckner hypnotizes her to cure her smoking habit, she regresses into a past existence as sophisticated British aristocrat Melinda Welles. Naturally, Mark falls in love with the alluring Melinda but can’t stand the quirky, odd-duck Daisy. Despite the absurdity of the plotline, the score contains numerous gems. “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” is a delightfully whimsical charm number for Daisy to coax blossoms into bloom. (Who else but Lerner could rhyme “geranium” with “subterranium” or “RSVP” with “peonies”?) “He Wasn’t You” is lushly romantic; “S.S. Bernard Cohn” is zippy and full of show-biz razzmatazz; and “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have” is a satisfying 10 o’clock number, but it’s sung a half-hour too early.
   As noted, the original starring the gamine Barbara Harris and the virile John Cullum was an uneven shipwreck, lost amid smashes like Man of La Mancha, Mame, and Sweet Charity, and closing after 280 performances. (Excerpts from the show performed on a TV special can be found on YouTube.) Vincente Minnelli’s overstuffed 1970 film version featured the unlikely pairing of Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand with a young Jack Nicholson in a tiny role. Cecil Beaton’s costumes for the regression scenes were the movie’s highlight. A 2011 revival recast Daisy as David, a gay male florist, and Melinda as a female 1940s jazz singer, injecting a bisexual subtext into Mark’s attraction, but Peter Parnell’s revised book failed to stitch together these myriad sexual and psychic threads, and the attempt closed after only 57 performances.

Moore returns the show to its goofy origins, stripping away extraneous characters such as Daisy’s stuffy fiancé, her hippie stepbrother (Nicholson’s role in the film), and a Greek shipping magnate desperate to find the secret of reincarnation so he can leave his fortune to his future self. Moore’s staging is direct and efficient with the small ensemble and an underused revolving staging providing scene changes (James Morgan designed the simple sets and the sweetly cartoonish projections). The show is still something of a hot mess with the songs the only bright spots. Kudos to music director John Bell and the small orchestra.
   As Daisy and Mark, Melissa Errico and Stephen Bogardus are reliable Broadway veterans, professionally hitting their marks and notes, but failing to generate any electricity between each other or the audience. John Cudia displays a sexy, strong baritone as Melinda’s Regency lover, and the eight-member chorus is pleasantly versatile. Unlike other constantly revived and retuned shows such as Follies or Show Boat, On a Clear Day will never be more than mildly pleasant. Moore has made the show a bit clearer, but I wouldn’t want it to last forever. A brief listen to those catchy songs is enough.
July 14, 2018
Cyprus Avenue
Abbey Theatre and Royal Court Theatre at the Public Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Though it takes place in Northern Ireland, Cyprus Avenue, the shockingly dark comedy now at the Public Theater after acclaimed runs in Dublin and London, addresses issues of violence, racism, and nationalism afflicting many other parts of Europe and the US. The playwright, the ironically named David Ireland, satirizes bigotry and the death-struggle between Protestants and Catholics in his native land, but the venom could be found anywhere hatred motivates violence.
   The main character is Eric Miller (a deceptively subtle Stephen Rea), a staunch Loyalist Protestant driven to extremes by his abhorrence of Catholics and Irish separatists. Obsessed by what he perceives as infringements on his cultural heritage, Eric believes his new baby granddaughter is really Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican political party. This absurd delusion is symbolic of Eric’s creeping fear that he is as Irish as the hated Adams. (Loyalists identify themselves as being part of Great Britain rather than Gaelic.) Like a demented Archie Bunker, Eric rails against Irish Republicans, spewing stereotypes and labeling them as “Fenians,” finally exploding in an unbelievable series of violent acts. The action is framed by Eric’s sessions with a psychiatrist, a young woman of African descent, allowing the protagonist to pour out even more repellant slurs.
   The first hour of this intermissionless piece is scathingly funny, with Eric drawing a beard on the offending infant and engaging in a bizarre debate on murder and celebrities with a young man he encounters in a park. The latter is bent on launching a career as a terrorist and wants to do it right. The playwright’s humor is effective in exposing the irrationality of Eric’s racism, but the themes become repetitive and lose their sting after a while. Events take a decidedly sinister turn at the 60-minute mark as the main character’s anti-Catholic barbs are replaced with gruesome physical acts. (At the performance attended, three elderly women walked out at this point.)

Vicky Featherstone directs her cast—three are holdovers from the British production, two are American newcomers—to maintain a straightforward demeanor so that the climactic Martin McDonagh–like orgy of killing comes as a shock and the audience’s laughter sticks in our collective throats. Unfortunately, playwright Ireland lays on the bloodiness too thick and the impact is lost amid the groans of disgust. Kudos to Rea for keeping Eric from turning into a total monster and carefully charting the slow takeover of his humanity by his demons. He orchestrates several long monologues of rage without becoming hysterical.
   As the would-be terrorist, Chris Corrigan similarly injects unexpectedly humor into his character’s repellant rants as he suddenly offers a capsule review of a Tom Cruise movie while threatening to shoot Eric. Roanoke Adekoluejo as the therapist, Andrea Irvine as Eric’s wife, and Amy Molloy as his daughter are stuck with reacting to the multiple outrages. Designer Lizzie Clachan created the sterile, all-white environment depicting the doctor’s office and Eric’s tony Belfast living room (Cyprus Avenue is a ritzy address in that city). Gradually it becomes a mud-splattered battlefield.
   Ireland bravely treads where few dramatists dare venture. Without revealing too much, suffice it to say only Edward Bond with Saved and Neil Labute with The Distance From Here come to mind as contemporary examples of depictions of such brutality. Full marks for boldness. The play wounds and cuts with jagged laughter, but its pervading bleakness overwhelms the message of tolerance.
July 8, 2018
Log Cabin
Playwrights Horizons

Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theater/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

You can trace the rising trajectory of the gay community in America through recent revivals of landmark plays presented on New York Stages. From vicious self-pity in The Boys in the Band to questing romance in Torch Song to revolutionary anger and AIDS advocacy in Angels in America, LGBTQ characters have transformed from pathetic outsiders to fierce warriors. Jordan Harrison’s new comedy Log Cabin, depicting a clash of ideals between two gays couples and their transgender friend, arrives Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons as the latest theatrical commentary on the gay/trans experience. Harrison has previously captured cultural collisions in incisive and moving plays such as Maple and Vine and Marjorie Prime, but here his conflicts feel manufactured and his protagonists are little more than animated talking points.
   The action beings in 2012 in the tasteful urban apartment of lesbian wives Jules and Pam (Allen Moyer designed the handsome revolving set). The women are celebrating the forthcoming arrival of a new baby and the upcoming nuptials of their best friends, gay male couple Ezra and Chris. The quartet discusses the odd sensation of having won their major battles and lacking a driving direction. After a few scenes rife with witticisms, enter Ezra’s boyhood friend Henry (formerly Helen), whose trans status throws a monkey wrench into the other characters’ complacency. In a party sequence reminiscent of Boys in the Band and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Henry and his younger girlfriend Mynah act as catalysts for a conflagration between the seemingly content couples. Henry also complains he’s now the lowest minority on the totem pole. This leads to a shouting match over who is the most oppressed. The three pairs face serious relational rifts and reconfigure in unconventional and hardly plausible patterns (Spoiler alert: The masculine Henry who still has a functioning uterus acts as a surrogate for Ezra and Chris’s baby. I didn’t buy it either.)
   Harrison brings up vital points about the interconnections between the gay and trans communities, but the characters are not fully developed, so we care little about the outcome. Chris is African-American and Pam is Asian-American, but their racial identities receive scant play as does Jules’s status as a transplanted Brit.

Joshua Harmon’s Skintight, at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater Off-Broadway is almost as superficial. Ironically, shallowness, not just of the homosexual variety, is the subject matter. It, too, raises interesting questions but fails to examine them with any depth. Forty-ish Jodi has fled to the swanky townhouse (another exquisite set, this time by Lauren Helpern) of Elliot, her internationally famous fashion-designer father. Her husband has left her for a 20-something beauty. What she doesn’t know is Elliot, about to celebrate his 70th birthday, is living with Trey, a gorgeous young man, also in his 20s. To add spice to the comedy, Jodi’s gay son Benjamin, arrives and is drawn the hunky Trey. The playwright’s theme is the obsession with beauty, which possesses or affects all the characters and by extension our entire society.
   Like Harrison, Harmon supplies us with a fair quotient of laughs, and while Harrison has not sufficiently developed his people, Harmon gives his more dimension. Yet all are whiny, selfish, and unlikable. He has created other unpleasant and/or narcissistic protagonists in previous works such as Bad Jews, Significant Others, and Admissions. But in those pieces they were complex, if deeply flawed. Here you just want to get away from them. Elliot neglects his family and is obsessed with Trey’s physical attributes. Jodi and Benjamin hungrily crave attention and lack compassion for anyone else. Trey is crude and boorish; Harmon tries to give him some sympathetic shading late in the play, but it’s by then it’s too late to garner any audience empathy.

Fortunately, directors Pam MacKinnon and Daniel Aukin deliver taut productions, and the respective casts are sharp and funny. Jesse Tyler Ferguson of TV’s Modern Family displays his precise comic timing as Ezra, and Cindy Cheung makes the most of the underwritten role of Pam in Log Cabin. In Skintight, Eli Gelb finds nuances in the disagreeable Benjamin, and Will Brittain does his damnedest to make Trey more than just eye candy. Idina Menzel and Jack Wetherall fare less well with the objectionable Jodi and Elliott. Both Log Cabin and Skintight deal with financially secure citizens moaning about first-world problems. Both playwrights are skilled at witty quips and plot structure, but it’s hard to get involved with either work past the chuckles.
June 30, 2018
The Boys in the Band
Booth Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

When The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play focusing on the gay experience, opened Off-Broadway in 1968, critics praised it as a sympathetic portrait of a persecuted sexual minority. But many reviewers tellingly revealed their bias. One expressed disgust at having to watch men dance together, while another described the work as an accurate depiction of those suffering from a disease. The current revival at the Booth of this devastating artifact—the first one for Broadway after two major Off-Broadway stagings—shows how far we have come as far as gay acceptance goes. The director Joe Mantello, one of the lead producers Ryan Murphy, and the entire nine-man cast are all openly gay and have not suffered any career damage.
   The acting and direction are strong and precise, as Crowley’s bitchy wisecracks are dropped like nasty bombs exactly on target. But, like George C. Wolfe’s surface-deep rendering of The Iceman Cometh a few doors down at the Bernard Jacobs, this production settles for easy laughs and fails to offer the full depth of the first production, preserved in a 1970 film version with the original ensemble, directed by William Friedkin. Crowley has trimmed his script and eliminated the intermission, and Mantello delivers his usual tight pacing, but it feels as if we are looking at these boys through the prism of 2018 sensibilities rather than directly experiencing their pain and loneliness.
   The concept is ingeniously theatrical and accounts for the original’s smash run of 1,000 performances. A group of funny-on-the-outside-sad-on-the-inside gay friends gathers for a birthday party, but a wild card is dealt when the supposedly straight college friend of the host shows up and all bets are off. A Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style party game forces the guests to reveal bitter secrets, and each somewhat stereotyped figure is stripped metaphorically bare.
   The attitudes towards gays at the time—reflected accurately in the script—ranged from outright repulsion to condescending pity. None of the partygoers is in a healthy relationship, and the object of their game, engineered by the self-loathing host Michael, is to expose the impossibility of romantic love between men. (Each player must telephone the one person they have truly loved and tell him so—a bold challenge to express the passion that dare not speak its name.) In 1968, homosexuality was seen as a curse, not a healthy state of being. Mantello’s sharp direction does not touch on this theme, but does offer plenty of yuks and attempts at pathos. At times, he pushes the melodrama, such as freezing the action and throwing a spotlight on Michael as he takes his first cocktail of the evening as if to shout at the audience, “Look out, dramatic fireworks ahead!” But his choices are rarely this blatant.

Jim Parsons deserves kudos for his caustic Michael, a notoriously difficult role that the lovable Big Bang Theory star tackles with conviction despite a fall during previews. He wisely does not water down Michael’s venom, but he misses his fathom-deep anguish and anger. The latter half of the play is usually stolen by Harold, the acerbic birthday boy who is given the lion’s share of biting barbs and is Michael’s equal when it comes to powerful put downs. Unfortunately, Zachary Quinto plays Harold on one affected rumbling bass note, sort of like a cartoon villain.
   Robin de Jesus reveals the ache beneath the effeminate clowning of Emory, the “nelly queen” of the bunch. Matt Bomer is relegated to reacting to the others’ excesses as Donald, Michael’s sometime lover, but he makes the most of it. Michael Benjamin Washington, Andrew Rannells, Tuc Watkins, and Brian Hutchinson complete this proficient ensemble. Even Charlie Carver, in the small role of the cowboy-hustler bought as a gag gift for Harold, has moments to shine.
   David Zinn designed the appropriate period costumes and the red-velvet duplex apartment set, which gets a trifle crowded. But the split-level effect is employed cleverly by Mantello. With the aide of Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, he uses mirrors and glass panels in a technique similar to the one in his staging of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, a revival that, unlike this Boys, fully mines the depths of its source.

June 10, 2018
2018 Tony and Drama Desk Predictions
By David Sheward

Just like last year, the Tony and Drama Desk awards are going to be very different.
   In 2017, Dear Evan Hansen and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 dominated the Tonys but were ineligible for the Drama Desks because they were in the running for 2016 because of their earlier Off-Broadway runs. The Tonys are only for Broadway shows, and the Drama Desks include on and Off. Usually the Drama Desks and Tonys results are similar because the Drama Desks voters tend to go for Broadway shows.
   The Tonys are voted on by 841 industry insiders including producers, directors, designers, actors, stage managers, and a few critics who belong to the New York Drama Critics Circle; the Drama Desks are voted on by about 100 theater reviewers, editors, and reporters.
   This year, The Band’s Visit is the likely Tony champ, but it played Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre Company last season, taking home several 2017 Drama DeskAwards, as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. In addition, several Broadway performers and creative personnel who received Tony love are absent from the Drama Desk list, particularly Lauren Ambrose and Norbert Leo Butz of My Fair Lady (the seven-member Drama Desk nominating committee didn’t seem to like Bartlett Sher’s Lincoln Center revival of the Lerner and Loewe classic). Ambrose won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical for her scrappy Eliza Doolittle, and Butz took the OCC Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his boisterous Alfred Doolittle. Harry Hadden-Patten’s Henry Higgins is in the running for both a Drama Desk and a Tony.
   Here are my predications for both sets of awards. The Drama Desks will be presented on June 3, and the Tonys the following week on June 10.

Best Play
Tony: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Drama Desk: Admissions

Harry Potter isn’t even nominated for the top DD play category. In fact, all of the DD outstanding play candidates are Off-Broadway shows. This will be one of the few times the DD award goes to a non-Broadway show. In the more than 40 years since the Drama Desk began given out Best Play awards, it has done it only six times. The rare past exceptions are Tribes (2012), Ruined (2009), Wit (1999), How I Learned to Drive (1997), Marvin’s Room (1992), and A Lie of the Mind (1986).

Best Musical

Tony: The Band’s Visit
Drama Desk: SpongeBob Squarepants
The Band’s Visit is the favorite to take the top Tony prize, but since it is absent from the Drama Desk field, that accolade’s final destination is not a certain thing. The only Broadway musicals the DD has nominated are SpongeBob Squarepants and Mean Girls. The Off-Broadway nominees are the short-lived K-Pop and Old Stock, and the York Theater’s Desperate Measures, which is scheduled to re-open in a commercial Off-Broadway run at New World Stages. Mean Girls has my Drama Desk vote—I thought it was a delightful expansion of the movie—but I have a feeling SpongeBob will be the ultimate winner as it was at the Outer Critics Circle Awards. The OCC divides its Best Play and Musical Awards between Broadway and Off-Broadway. Its Outstanding Broadway Musical was SpongeBob and Off-Broadway it was Desperate Measures, a Wild West remake of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Several DD members thought it was wonderful, but I found it average. In the absence of a huge Broadway favorite, DD voters could go the nontraditional route and award Desperate the big award. The award has only gone to an Off-Broadway show twice before: Hamilton (2015) and Little Shop of Horrors (1983).

Best Play Revival
Tony and Drama Desk: Angels in America

Best Musical Revival
Tony: My Fair Lady
Drama Desk: Carousel
The DD nominating committee was not as crazy about Lady as the Tonys. The show reaped 5 DD noms and 10 for the Tonys. Everyone seems to have forgotten about Once on This Island, innovatively reimagined by Michael Arden (who didn’t even get a DD nomination for Outstanding Director). If Arden was DD nominated he would have my vote, and I will vote for him for the Tonys.

Best Actor in a Play
Tony, Drama Desk: Andrew Garfield, Angels in America

Best Actress in a Play
Tony, Drama Desk: Glenda Jackson, Three Tall Women

When an 82-year-old British legend returns to Broadway after a 30-year absence and a career in Parliament, of course she’s going to win every award going. It doesn’t hurt that her performance as the crotchety matriarch A in Albee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play is magnificent. Interesting side note: Many award presenters mistakenly assumed Jackson is a Dame of the British Empire. She corrected the Outer Critics Circle on this point after she was introduced as one at their award ceremony: “I am not a dame and the Outer Critics Circle does not have the power to make me one. Only the Queen can do that.”

Best Actor in a Musical
Tony: Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit
Drama Desk: Ethan Slater, Spongbob Squarepants

This category is wide open with no surefire winner, and the two groups could split or agree. Tony Shalhoub could take home the Tony as part of a Band’s Visit tidal wave. Ethan Slater has already won an Outer Critics Circle Award for his athletic performance in the title role of Spongebob. Tony-DD nominees Joshua Henry of Carousel and Harry Hadden-Paton of My Fair Lady also have their advocates. I have a feeling the DD voters will go for Slater, following the OCC lead, though Henry and Hadden-Patton gave more complex performances.

Best Actress in a Musical
Tony: Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit
Drama Desk: Jessie Mueller, Carousel

Lenk is not eligible for the DD because of Band’s Off-Broadway run last season, but she will probably win the Tony for her seductive, sad cafe owner. Mueller will take the DD for her updated Julie Jourdan. Lauren Ambrose of My Fair Lady not nominated for the DD, but she won the Outer Critics Circle Award. If she were up for the DD, I would vote for her, but evidently the DD nominating committee was not enchanted.

Best Featured Actor in a Play
Tony, Drama Desk: Nathan Lane, Angels in America

Though he has won two previous Tonys and five Drama Desks, Lane will add another pair of prizes to his trophy shelf for his searing portray of Roy Cohn, the closeted, demonic power broker in Tony Kushner’s two-part classic. Ron Leibman won Best Actor Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Part One for the same role.

Best Featured Actress in a Play
Tony: Denise Gough, Angels in America
Drama Desk: Jamie Brewer, Amy and the Orphans

Gough will win the Tony for her pill-popping Harper Pitt in Angels, but she is not nominated for the same performance for the DD. She is in the DD Best Actress race for a stunning performance in People, Places and Things, which played the Off-Broadway St. Ann’s Warehouse earlier this season before Angels opened on Broadway. As a result, the Desk Award in this category will probably go to Jamie Brewer, an actress with Down syndrome playing a similarly afflicted character in Lindsey Ferrentino’s Off-Broadway play.

Best Featured Actor in a Musical
Tony: Norbert Leo Butz, My Fair Lady
Drama Desk: Gavin Lee, SpongeBob Squarepants

Once again, the DD snubbed a My Fair Lady cast member who is a strong Tony candidate. Butz will win his third Tony for his boisterous Alfred P. Doolittle and he has already won the Outer Critics Circle Award, but he did not receive a DD nod. Gavin Lee will probably take the DD for his eight-legged tap dance as Squidward J. Tentacles, Spongebob’s grouchy neighbor and co-worker at the Krusty Krab. I am voting for Grey Henson, the gay best friend who nearly steals Mean Girls.

Best Featured Actress in a Musical
Tony, Drama Desk: Lindsay Mendez, Carousel

Audra McDonald won the same two awards for her Broadway debut as Carrie Pipperidge in the last revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic (1994), and it looks like Lindsay Mendez will repeat the feat for the same role. Mendez has already won the OCC Award.

Best Score
Tony: David Yazbeck, The Band’s Visit
Drama Desk: Music: David Friedman, Desperate Measures; Lyrics: Nell Benjamin, Mean Girls

The Drama Desk splits its musical score award between the music and lyrics, so it’s possible for two different shows to be honored. The Tonys will go for The Band’s Visit and the DDs will share the wealth between Desperate Measures and Mean Girls.

Best Book of a Musical
Tony, Drama Desk: Tina Fey, Mean Girls

Tina Fey will add a Tony and a Drama Desk to her nine Emmys, three Golden Globes, and five SAG Awards.

Best Director of a Play
Tony, Drama Desk: John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Best Director of a Musical
Tony: David Cromer, The Band’s Visit
Drama Desk: Jack O’Brien, Carousel

Best Choreography

Tony, Drama Desk: Justin Peck, Carousel
June 1, 2018

The Iceman Cometh
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

Saint Joan
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Two massive works by dramatic theatrical giants Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw are making rare appearances on musical-heavy Broadway. The fact that masterworks The Iceman Cometh in a commercial, limited run and Saint Joan from Manhattan Theater Club as part of its subscription season at the Friedman are being presented at all in the same lowbrow venue with Disney and Donna Summer musicals should be cause for celebration. But their current incarnations fall short of their full, devastating potential. The directors and casts fall into the easy trap of audience-pleasing laughs—and yes, they are there even in somber, dark-hued O’Neill—and they miss the mark as complex portraits of man’s conflict with the illusions and institutions he has created.
   Iceman is O’Neill’s most challenging, unforgiving epic. Debuting on Broadway in 1946, this marathon of regret and pain was considered a failure until Jose Quintero directed a definitive production in 1956 at the new Off-Broadway Circle in the Square. Jason Robards’s iconic performance as the glad-handing but self-loathing salesman Hickey established him as his generation’s prime interpreter of O’Neill. The setting is ironically- named Harry Hope’s downtown dive in 1912 Manhattan where the drunken denizens deceive themselves with dreams of achieving their past glories—tomorrow. The normally jocular Hickey arrives for his annual binge but offers unforgiving truth rather than comforting pipe dreams. Stars such as James Earl Jones, Kevin Spacey, Nathan Lane, and Lee Marvin (in the leaden 1973 film version) have attempted to put their mark on Hickey, but none have approached Robards, whose masterful liming survives in a 1960 TV version and which he re-created in a 1986 revival.
   Denzel Washington makes a game effort to conquer this combination jester and devil, and he nails some of the character’s dimensions. From his first entrance charging up the theater’s aisle and through much of the show’s nearly four-hour running time, he captures Hickey’s intense jocularity. Unfortunately, he misses the darkness beneath the sunny exterior. Robards managed to simultaneously convey the drummer’s boisterousness and his inner disgust. Washington doesn’t latch onto that anger and hatred of self, just as he missed those qualities in the protagonists of Fences and A Raisin in the Sun.

Similarly, his director, the versatile and usually incisive George C. Wolfe (Angels in America, Lucky Guy, Shuffle Along), emphasizes the humor of Hickey and the huge cast of pitiable drunks clinging to their fantasies. As a result, the audience gets a hearty chuckle at their foibles but no gasps of recognition that they share the same condition. Wolfe seems to be saying to us, “Let’s have a laugh at these kooky old alcoholics from 100 years ago,” while O’Neill was saying “These kooky drunks are you people. They are all of us. We all need our illusions or we die.” Wolfe further shatters O’Neill’s horrifying construct by having Washington play his climactic confessional monologue seated center stage straight to the audience, removing any doubt that this is a star vehicle for Washington rather than a shattering indictment of all humanity.
   There are moments of mirth and some depth supplied by Reg Rogers, Neal Huff, Bill Irwin, Michael Potts, Danny Mastrogiorgio, and Tammy Blanchard as various delusional dreamers, but this Iceman is a mild summer cooler rather than a stiff belt that freezes your insides.
   Just as Hickey is an Everest of role for males, Shaw’s Saint Joan is an irresistible summit for actors such as Sybil Thorndike, Katharine Cornell, Wendy Hiller, Siobhan McKenna, Diana Sands, Lynn Redgrave, and Maryann Plunkett. Condola Rashad is more successful in probing the depths of the fiery maiden than Washington is of getting to the heart of Hickey, but she still doesn’t deliver Shaw’s complete package in Daniel Sullivan’s tepid production.
   The play opens with Joan boldly entering the castle of a powerful lord, claiming she hears voices from heaven telling her to lead the 15th century French army against the occupying British. Shaw casts her as a voice of reason and a symbol of the coming modern age of Protestantism and nationalism threatening the omnipotence of the Catholic Church and the wealthy secular barons. In the early scenes, Rashad plays her as a mad mystic with a wild look in her eye rather than a practical young woman speaking truth to power. As the play advances and Joan moves from soldier to martyr to saint, Rashad grows in power and conviction, but she never convinces as Shaw’s plain-spoken woman of the people or as a charismatic leader.
   Another similarity to the new Iceman is this Joan’s simplistic, hollow staging. Sullivan is content with showy theatrics when mounting Shaw’s witty and dense debates between figures of royalty, church, and military. A vital scene between the Bishop of Beauvais and the Earl of Warwick that conveys Shaw’s central theme of the warring factions of church and state falls flat due to the superficial liming of Walter Bobbie and Jack Davenport. It’s more of a shouting match than a clash of ideas.
   There is a modicum of surprise and snap in the epilogue when Joan and all the figures of the play appear in a dream to explain her impact on modern society. Patrick Page displays a glimpse of the deeper forces at work by underplaying The Inquisitor, Joan’s chief judge at her trial for heresy. Robert Stanton in three contrasting roles and John Glover as a pompous archbishop also supply satisfying work but it’s not enough to light Shaw or Joan’s fire.

May 2, 2018
Escape to Margaritaville
Marquis Theatre

The Low Road
The Public Theater

Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by David Sheward

Let me confess that margaritas are my cocktail of choice. Having one while watching the new Broadway musical Escape to Margaritaville certainly put me in the appropriate relaxed mood, but the salty sweet concoction in the plastic souvenir glass could not entirely overcome the show’s deficiencies. This is the latest in a long line of jukebox tuners with the canon of a musical artist employed as fodder for either a bio (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Jersey Boys, and the upcoming Donna Summer and Cher shows) or a flimsily constructed original story (Mamma Mia!, Good Vibrations). Escape falls into the latter category and it makes Mamma Mia! look like My Fair Lady by comparison.
   The laid-back Jimmy Buffet songbook serves as the spine (if you can call it that) for a simplistic rom-com extolling the virtues of sandy vacations, excessive alcohol intake, and willing suspension of disbelief. The soothing “Margaritaville” was a huge hit in 1977 and inspired a chain of bars and resorts. In addition to his previous hits, Buffet has composed new numbers for the score. The book by sitcom veterans Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl) and Mike O’Malley (Shameless) is a Hallmark TV movie with pauses for songs.
   Handsome, hunky beach bum-musician Tully meets cute with uptight scientist-tourist Rachel at the grungy hotel Margaritaville on an unnamed tropical isle. She encourages him to take life seriously while he prods her to let her hair down and knock back a few. Rachel’s caustic best friend Tammy and affably goofy bartender Brick, as well as colorful barfly J.D. and the hotel manager Marley, provide comic contrast. The minimal conflict arises when Tully and Rachel fall for each other—surprise!—and their radically contrasting lifestyles clash. Along the way, a volcano explodes, one wedding is averted and another is celebrated, there’s a tap number with dead insurance agents (don’t ask), and a seaplane lands in the Ohio River (offstage) with four of the passengers none the worse for wear walking straight into a Cincinnati bar in time for drinks.
   Just as in Mamma Mia!, details are planted to allow for jokey references to Buffet’s songs such as the lost salt shaker and mysterious tattoo of the title tune. Parrot Heads—Buffett enthusiasts—in the audience sang along with many of the lyrics at the performance attended and seemed to be having a grand time. But, for me, the musical buffet blended together as if we were on an endless cruise on which the band only knew one song. If you’re a fan of this kind of schmaltz, it’s the perfect escape from wintery NYC. Christopher Ashley’s slick staging, Garcia and O’Malley’s pleasant-enough dialogue, and a game cast keep Margaritaville from becoming a totally bad beach day. Paul Alexander Nolan and Alison Luff are a charming, attractive pair of leads, but Lisa Howard’s sweetly feisty Tammy and Eric Petersen’s lovably off Brick are the ones who got me through this mildly amusing but not particularly exciting vacation excursion.

As much as Margaritaville is silly and shallow, Bruce Norris’s The Low Road at the Public following a British premiere at the Royal Court, is complex and challenging. The concept sounds unpromisingly dry: a picaresque Tom Jones–like adventure based on the writings of free-market philosopher Adam Smith, principally The Wealth of Nations. But Norris has previously created entertaining and inventive explorations of such deep topics as racism (the Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park), sexuality (The Qualms), time travel and physics (A Parallelogram), and the paranoid hysteria of post-9/11 America (The Pain and the Itch).
   To examine the ramifications of Smith’s economic theories of unfettered capitalism, Norris has created a fascinating journey through 18th-century America, designing ironic parallels between the greedy excesses of colonial entrepreneurs and their 21st century counterparts. His hero is Jim Trewitt, a selfish bastard both literally and figuratively. As Adam Smith himself (played with dry wit by the invaluable Daniel Davis) narrates the tale, baby Jim is deposited on the doorstep of a brothel with a note proclaiming him as the illegitimate offspring of one G. Washington.
   Norris puts Jim through a series of misadventures and encounters, sometimes taking us on wild trips to the future, all directed with speed and imagination by Michael Greif, who makes brilliant use of the limited Anspacher space at the Public. Chris Perfetti skillfully captures Jim’s burning self-interest, and Chukwudi Iwuji is his perfect foil as John Blanke, a refined slave who is as erudite as Jim is crude. A large company of versatile veterans including Harriet Harris, Kevin Chamberlain, Max Baker, Crystal A. Dickinson, and Richard Poe shines in multiple roles. This is a challenging work that might be a tad too ambitious—Norris crams in an awful lot—but it’s still that rare thing: an American play tackling a big subject with style and intellect.

Travelling even further from the mindless beach of Margaritaville, my cultural week including the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Rossini’s rarely performed Semiramide. John Copley’s 1990 production is stodgy and stiff, but the vocal strength of the company was dazzling. As the titular queen of ancient Babylon, soprano Angela Meade is not a moving actor, but she displays a magnificent voice, capturing the intricacies of Rossini’s arias. In the trouser role of Arsace, commander of the Assyrian army, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong possesses dramatic as well as musical verve. Javier Camarena’s tenor is pure, Ildar Abdrazakov’s bass darkly thrills, and Sarah Shafer’s soprano soars.

March 21, 2018

Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Martin McDonagh takes the phrase “gallows humor” a bit too literally in his new play Hangmen, now at the Atlantic Theater Company after hit London runs at the Royal Court and in the West End. As in his previous stage work such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore and his Oscar-nominated film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the darkly comic playwright offers grisly scenarios of violence and vengeance replete with ironic and ambiguous twists. Just like his earlier plays and films, Hangmen is entertaining, well-structured, and funny, but it follows a familiar template and has little new to say other than McDonagh’s usual refrain of “People are bloodthirsty, and, given half a chance, they’ll slice your throat open over the pettiest little thing, or worse, for no reason at all.”
   Set in the north of England rather than his usual desolate Irish countryside, the play focuses on bellicose braggart Harry Wade (an Oliver Hardy–like Mark Addy), a purveyor of the titular trade, and Peter Mooney (the oily Johnny Flynn), a charming stranger with a mysterious background. The action takes place mostly in Harry’s pub, which he runs as a sideline in 1965 after hanging has been abolished in the United Kingdom. As Harry boasts of his macabre record of executions to a crew of admiring cronies, the enigmatic Mooney arrives and vaguely threatens the former hangman and his family—consisting of Harry’s dissatisfied wife, Alice (a delightfully shrewish Sally Rogers), and moody daughter, Shirley (Gaby French who displays great comic timing). There are also visits from Syd (sniveling Reece Shearsmith), Harry’s mousey former assistant, and Albert Pierpoint (domineering Maxwell Caulfield), a rival nooseman whose ego is even bigger than Harry’s, each with his own agenda. Without divulging any spoilers, a few people wind up dead, and we never find out certain characters’ motivations.

There are several hilariously macabre sequences dealing with corpses and torture, but the characters are too close to archetypes from other works. Harry is a puffed-up buffoon riding for a fall ,not unlike Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners (Mark Addy has played Kramden knock-off Fred Flintstone in the film The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas). Alice is the nagging wife who’s the real boss—she’s even got the same name as her model in the classic TV sitcom. Syd is the dimwitted second banana akin to Art Carney’s Ed Norton. Mooney is the enigmatic, vaguely threatening intruder we all know from the plays of Joe Orton and Harold Pinter. (I found Flynn more annoying than scary.) Mooney even self-consciously describes himself as “menacing.” Hint to playwright: If a character has to describe himself as menacing, then he’s probably not going to be.
   Matthew Dunster’s direction is slickly professional and well-paced, and the cast, which combines members of the original British troupe with American newcomers, exhibits exquisite comic characterization and timing. There is talk that the play may move to Broadway after its sold-out, Atlantic Theater Company run, but Hangmen feels more like a retread of familiar McDonagh themes and sitcom tropes rather than a frightening glimpse of humanity’s dark nature. Save your money and see the author’s much more effective Three Billboards.

February 13, 2018
Fire and Air
Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

“Does my enthusiasm exhaust you?” exclaims Douglas Hodges as Serge Diaghilev in Terrence McNally’s new play Fire and Air about the volatile Russian impresario, his relationships with his star dancers Nijinsky and Massine, and his revolutionary company Ballets Russes. Hodges’s virtuoso turn is indeed exhausting. Every intonation, gesture, and movement expresses the fiery temperament of the implacable visionary who set the stage for some of the greatest works in dance history. But the performance and John Doyle’s fast-paced staging aren’t enough to pull together McNally’s unfocused script and provide a clear, dynamic picture of a genius and his explosive impact on 20th-century culture.
   Glancing through the program notes by Sophie Andreassi for the Classic Stage Company world premiere production and the jam-packed historical timeline, it’s easy to see McNally’s problem. There is so much material and so many potential themes to chose from that it’s difficult to imagine them being contained in one evening. So McNally includes too much. There’s Diaghilev’s obsessive sexual and romantic passion for Nijinsky, the greatest dancer of the modern era; the shift in artistic taste from classical to contemporary; Diaghilev’s dysfunctional relationship with his mother country Russia and his neurotic narcissism; the arc of Ballet Russes and its influence on performance; Nijinsky’s madness and the ambition of his successor Massine; and on and on. McNally attempts to cover all of these and short-changes them as a result.
   Even with this kitchen-sink approach, many fascinating and vital elements are left out or minimized. Nijinsky is a minor player and Massine an afterthought, and a little thing like the Russian Revolution and how it affects the expatriate characters is barely mentioned.

An additional hurdle is the nature of the subject: dance. Rather than showing the exquisite movement of such signature groundbreaking Ballet Russes pieces as Afternoon of a Faun, Spectre de la Rose, and The Rite of Spring, McNally has Diaghilev describe them as Nijinsky (the sublimely beautiful James Cusati-Moyer) is enacting them offstage.
   The play travels like an out-of-control locomotive from the company’s inception in 1909 to Diaghilev’s death in 1929, barely stopping at a variety of European cities. Aside from Jane Cox’s atmospheric lighting, the only way we know where we are is through expositional dialogue such as, “Welcome to Monte Carlo,” “Here we are in Venice,” and “We’re on our way to Athens.”
   As noted, Hodge delivers an over-the-top whirlwind of a performance as the temperamental producer. Cusati-Moyer as Nijinsky and Jay Armstrong Johnson as Massine exhibit exquisite dance technique, but they are not given much of a chance to explore the psyches of these gods of the dance. John Glover lends a world-weary elegance and deep sorrow to Dima, Diaghilev’s business manager who also has a crush on him. Marsha Mason makes a lovable, motherly nanny, and Marin Mazzie is stylish and arch as a wealthy patron, but her role doesn’t require much beyond feeding lines to Hodge. This is a potentially fascinating subject, but there’s more air than fire here.

February 1, 2018
Carmen Jones
Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

The grand passion of opera and the minimalist aesthetics of director John Doyle blend perfectly in Classic Stage Company’s intimate revival of the rarely performed Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein II’s adaptation of Bizet’s classic. This is the first full New York staging of the hybrid piece since its Broadway premiere in 1943 (there were London versions in 1991 and 2007, as well as a Hollywood movie directed by Otto Preminger in 1954). After attending a performance of the original opera, Hammerstein was struck by the universality of its themes of jealousy and uncontrolled ardor. In between collaborating with Richard Rodgers on Oklahoma! and Carousel, the lyricist transported the story from a cigarette factory in 19th-century Spain to an Army base during World War II where African-American soldiers and women manufacture parachutes. The titular gypsy became a free-living factory worker breaking hearts among the local military.
   As he did with his pared-down stagings of Sweeney Todd, Company, and The Color Purple, Doyle, CSC’s artistic director, strips the material down to its essence and allows its raw, explosive power to explode fully. Set designer Scott Pask converts the company’s small space into a factory floor where boxes, chairs, and parachute fabric hung over lamps, as well as Adam Honore’s versatile lighting, suggest the numerous settings of the story. A spectacular 10-person cast delivers the vocal and dramatic goods, many playing multiple roles and effortlessly bridging the gap between opera and musical theater. Kudos also to music director Shelton Becton and music supervisor–orchestrator Joseph Joubert for the full-bodied rendition of Bizet’s sensuous score.
   The star is Anika Noni Rose as the scintillating seductress Carmen. Costumed by Ann Hould-Ward in flaming red, the appropriately named Rose sets fire to the stage as she slinks, slides, and trills up and down Bizet’s scales and Hammerstein’s saucy lyrics. She totally convinces us that any man would gladly die for her charms. Clifton Duncan employs his thrilling tenor tones to convey the anguish of her main victim Joe, while Lindsay Roberts has just the right amount of grit and sweetness as Joe’s rejected girl Cindy Lou. David Aron Damane rumbles with authority as the boxer Husky Miller. Soara-Joye Ross stops the show with a vibrant rendition of “Beat Out That Rhythm on a Drum.”
   Carmen Jones has not been performed in New York for more than 70 years, probably because Hammerstein’s book and lyrics employ crude, stereotypical slang. It’s also a portrait of African-American female sexuality written by a white male (just like Porgy and Bess, which was adapted by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks for its most recent Broadway revival). Doyle wisely downplays the exaggerated nature of the speech and emphasizes the emotional connections of the story and Bizet’s music, resulting in an unforgettable rediscovery of a curio from Broadway’s Golden Age.

June 28, 2017
Free Shakespeare in the Park/Delacorte Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

The latest entry in the Public Theater’s annual free Shakespeare in Central Park series is a traditional one on the surface, but there are subtle shifts in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s sturdy staging that give this Othello a modern perspective. Racial issues are not as strongly emphasized as sexual ones, and the women emerge as the strongest voices.
   The dynamic between the trusting, easily led title character and his deceptive ensign Iago is the usual engine of most productions. Iago’s hateful machinations to drive Othello into a murderous rage over his innocent wife, Desdemona, are the main propellants of the drama. Othello’s outsider status as a black Moor in white European society underlies Iago’s malice, though Iago professes that his suspicion of his commander as cuckolding him with his spouse, Emilia (Desdemona’s lady in waiting), is the main motive. Santiago-Hudson has toned down the edge of the play’s themes of racism by casting several African-American actors in supporting roles—including Roderigo, a foolish rival for Desdemona’s affections.

Corey Stoll’s Iago is a tad too lighthearted and comical in his villainy, garnering laughter from the large outdoor audience as he confesses his treachery in soliloquies. Chukwudi Iwuji’s Othello is properly commanding and passionate, but he switches on the anger too abruptly, accelerating into full explosion mood with little transition. Having reached volcano status early in the proceedings, Iwuji only increases in volume and fury. He twists his body like a contortionist, bending it into a knot of rage. Despite these shortcomings, Santiago-Hudson delivers a compelling, straightforward telling of Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy, aided by Rachel Hauck’s elegantly simple set, Toni-Leslie James’s rich period costumes, and Jane Cox’s sensitive lighting.
   The momentum increases in the second act when Heather Lind’s Desdemona and Alison Wright’s Emilia get more time. In the spirit of the #MeToo movement, Lind gives Desdemona a backbone. Though she submits to her husband’s irrational rantings, this Desdemona stands up for herself—as much as possible given Shakespeare’s constraints. Likewise, Wright’s Emilia is a fiery advocate for her mistress’s virtue and the rights of all women. Her intense unraveling of her mate’s cunning is the highlight of the evening. But when Emilia is the most interesting character, it’s a lesser Othello.
June 23, 2018

Dan Cody’s Yacht
Manhattan Theater Club at City Center Stage I

Reviewed by David Sheward

A wealthy parent confronts his son’s economically strapped teacher over a failing grade for an essay on The Great Gatsby. As the scene progresses, the dad sits at the instructor’s desk, questions her qualifications and her teaching methods, and finally slaps a handful of bills down. The teacher is appalled at the blatant bribe, but she hesitates for a split second, giving the obnoxious parent his opening. That’s the arresting opening sequence of Anthony Giardina’s intriguing but ultimately uneven new play Dan Cody’s Yacht, now playing at Manhattan Theater Club’s Off-Broadway space at City Center. It turns out Kevin O’Neill, the arrogant briber, wants something besides a better score on his kid’s homework. The teacher, Cara Russo, is the main advocate for a bill to merge two Boston suburban school districts: ritzy Stillwell, where Kevin lives and Cara teaches, and lower-class Patchett where Cara lives. Kevin offers the financially struggling Cara his considerable investing acumen in return for dropping her support of the measure.
   It’s a gripping premise, and Giardina has added several factors to up the stakes. For instance, both protagonists have children approaching senior year, and their college futures depends on the vote. In addition, the central theme is compelling, crystallized by the symbolism of the title. The titular watercraft is the fictional one Gatsby sees as a harbinger of the status and privilege he desires and ultimately achieves. Kevin invokes it as a glimpse of the world Cara cannot touch but sees all the time through the parents of her well-to-do students.

The theme of wealthy privilege versus idealist near-poverty is worthy, but Giardina adds too much freight to his boat and it sinks before the final fade-out. The main question of the school vote is resolved halfway through, and more issues arise that are not fully developed. Kevin announces he’s gay in the first scene, but we get no hint of any romantic attachment or how his queerness influences his actions. His son Conor is a handsome shadow, while Cara’s daughter Angela is more complex and appealing (both kids speak far more eloquently than any teenagers I’ve ever encountered). There are intense confrontations, but too many of the plot points are just not believable. Would Cara really recklessly invest all of her money with the impulsive Kevin? Predictably her rash decisions led to a bad outcome. This is a disappointment since Giardina’s last major New York production, The City of Conversation, was such an insightful and deep portrayal of political conflict.
   Luckily, Doug Hughes delivers a sleek and sure staging, while Rick Holmes and Kristen Bush are capable and intense sparring partners as Kevin and Cara. Casey Whyland captures Angela’s fear and confidence, while Roxanna Hope Radja provides sass and spice as Cara’s blunt-talking best friend. John Lee Beatty created the stylish sets suggesting the contrasting economic environments.

June 6, 2018
My Fair Lady
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont Theater

Dance Nation
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Lunt-Fontanne Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Alan Jay Lerner, the librettist and lyricist of My Fair Lady, once joked to Rex Harrison, the original Henry Higgins of that classic musical, that they both should have been gay because of their terrible history with women. Lerner had eight wives and Harrison six. Lerner’s misogyny permeates Lady, and Barlett Sher’s new production for Lincoln Center attempts to counter it. This new version with its steely heroine is the latest in a trend of reshaping Golden Age tuners to address the Me Too movement (Jack O’Brien’s Carousel is another example).
   The story of Eliza Doolittle, the bedraggled Cockney flower girl, and Higgins, the haughty phonetics professor who transforms her into a lady by refining her speech, has captivated audiences since George Bernard Shaw first penned his Pygmalion. When there was talk of transforming the material into a musical, many teams balked at the notion. Shaw wrote the play as an anti-romance concerned primarily with class distinction. The connection between Eliza and Higgins is intellectual, and the missing love was a necessary ingredient in popular entertainment of midcentury Broadway. Lerner and Loewe solved the problem by uniting the unusual pair as the music swells at the final curtain. But along the path to reconciliation, Higgins expresses his contempt for the female sex in two numbers, and Eliza is treated like an object, a live doll, a household drudge, and a pseudo-wife. Shaw has her stand up for herself and leave Higgins. Lerner had her coming back and smiling as Higgins relaxes and asks her to fetch his slippers—the very ones the girl had previously thrown at him in defiance.

Spoiler Alert: Sher restores Shaw’s dynamic, with Eliza bravely exiting Higgins’s house (elaborately designed by Michael Yeargan) like Nora in A Doll’s House. But she also acknowledges their hidden emotions by tenderly stroking the cheek of a devastated rather than triumphant Higgins. Lauren Ambrose and Harry Hadden-Paton give this explosive reinterpretation reams of subtext as they do with the entire show, which is as vital and fresh as Sher’s previous retakes on such evergreens as South Pacific, The King and I, and Fiddler on the Roof. Christopher Gattelli’s seamless choreography is all wild, drunken mayhem for the antics of Eliza’s boisterous father Alfred (a winning and grizzled Norbert Leo Butz) and restrained precision during the elegant Embassy Waltz and buttoned-up Ascot race sequence (beautifully costumed as always by Catherine Zuber). Donald Holder’s lighting places Yeargan’s diverse settings in the proper time, from a shabby dawn in Covent Garden to bright sunlight at Ascot to a romantic evening at the embassy.
   In addition to the indispensable Butz, girder-like support is provided by a sweet-voiced Jordan Donica as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Allan Corduner as a warm and perhaps closeted Col. Pickering, Linda Mugleston as the starchy housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, and the stylish Diana Rigg as Higgins’s mother. Just beneath Rigg’s spritely smile and dry delivery, you can detect a hint of devilish mischief not unlike that of Emma Peel, the leather-clad karate expert she immortalized on the 1960s adventure series The Avengers.
   Of course the success of any production of this show depends on its stars, and Ambrose and Hadden-Paton are worthy combatants in a Shavian battle of wills. Ambrose miraculously transforms from struggling urchin to confident courtier, navigating the confusing rules of etiquette, diction, and class, singing beautifully along the way. Watch as she finally enunciates the famous “Rain in Spain” like Helen Keller grasping speech for the first time. Hadden-Paton’s Higgins likewise undergoes a metamorphosis from arrogant language expert to bumbling victim of love. His precise delivery of Lerner and Loewe’s patter songs is as expert as Harrison’s, and he crumbles like a child bereft of a toy when Eliza is taken from him. This is a memorable match in a lovely and loving Lady for our age.

Off-Broadway in the intimate Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, Clare Barron’s Dance Nation also concerns a male teacher figure clashing with female students. In this case, it’s Dance Teacher Pat (a sternly serious Thomas Jay Ryan) mercilessly drilling his troupe of 13-year-old Ohio girls (and one boy) in quest of glory at the National Championships in Tampa Bay, Fla. But the adult teacher is not a primary figure in Barron’s arresting and fragmentary script. The focus is on the girls as they deal with sexism and self-esteem. Amina is the one undeniably talented star in the troupe, but she downplays her abilities. Meanwhile, Dance Teacher Pat has chosen Zuzu, who burns to dance but lacks charisma, to take the lead in the group’s latest competition piece, a pretentious meditation on the life of Gandhi. The tension between the two friends, the troupe, their teacher, and their moms (all played by the versatile Christina Rouner) is the stuff of Barron’s drama. It sounds like a bad episode of Dance Moms, the reality-based TV series, but Dance Nation is an insightful portrait of the quest for female identity, incisively directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans.
   Played by actors in their 20s to their 50s, the young women reveal their inner fears and frustrations in a series of unexpected and penetrating monologues and scenes. Eboni Booth expertly captures Zuzu’s tentative doubt, and Dina Shihabi nails Amina’s fire and the fear that keeps her from fanning it. Lucy Taylor delivers an incandescent speech on teen destiny, while Ellen Maddow has a sweet and lilting fantasy on flying. Ikechukwu Ufomadu is a perfectly fumbling Luke, the sole male in the troupe. Purva Bedi and Camila Cano-Flavia complete this estimable ensemble.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
clumsily attempts to make a similar statement on female empowerment, but the flimsy musical bio skims TV-movie clichés about the disco diva’s life in between mostly uninspired renditions of her hits. Sexual abuse, male oppression in the music industry, growing up on the mean Boston streets, numerous love affairs, family, daughters, and finally death from cancer—all flash by in the crowded book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and director Des McAnuff, whose staging is like a flashy Vegas concert. Only in “She Works Hard for the Money” does McAnuff’s direction, Sergio Trujillo’s slick choreography, and the performance of Ariana DeBose, one of three actors playing Summer, combine to create an exciting and powerful sequence moving the story forward and offering commentary on the subject’s trials. Otherwise this is a cold, fast Summer.

May 28, 2018
Angels in America:
A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

Neil Simon Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

It has been more than 20 years since Angels in America , Tony Kushner’s epic two-part dramatic response to the AIDS crisis, burst onto the world stage. In spite of its age and the fact that it takes place 10 years earlier (1985-1986), this epic remains startlingly relevant, and Marianne Elliott’s highly theatrical and insightful new production, now on Broadway after a smash run at the National Theater in London, is simultaneously massive and intimate. When the play opened (Part One—Millennium Approaches premiered in San Francisco in 1991, Part Two—Perestroika debuted on Broadway in 1994), critics predicted it would take its place alongside the masterworks of O’Neill, Williams, and Miller. This quirky, heartfelt revival confirms that status.
   Kushner’s saga chronicles the struggles of a diverse group of characters—including displaced Mormons, urban gay men, disturbed spirits, and actual historic figures—as they cope with a devastating disease, heavenly visitations, and political, religious, and sexual hypocrisy and oppression. The author’s complex and pointed observations on America’s schizophrenic attitudes toward its citizens can be applied just as readily to 2018. Though we have same-sex marriage, theoretical LGBT rights, and gender equality, powerful forces are still poised to roll the clock back. “The world only spins forward,” proclaims Prior Walter (a vibrant, wonderfully bitchy Andrew Garfield), the reluctant gay prophet, in the final scenes of the play. He is railing against panicked angels abandoned by God and desperate for humans not to progress. The same conflict between forward motion and stasis still exists, and Angels still addresses it.

As in her Tony-winning productions of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Elliott employs frankly theatrical elements such as puppetry and visible, Noh-like stagehands to underline the gradual stripping of the characters’ defenses. In the first part, Millennium Approaches, Ian MacNeil’s intricate set is full of revolving stages and showy effects. Paule Constable’s lighting creates eerie nightmares and dewy dreamscapes. But in the second part, Perestroika, artifices are removed and we are left with a mostly bare stage. The heavenly angels and the gods of the theater cannot save humankind. As Pryor proclaims, we’ll have to do it ourselves.
   This balance of realism and showmanship is spectacularly exemplified by the performance of Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, the real-life power lawyer who advances a right-wing agenda while living a closeted gay life. Cohn is the deliciously evil villain of the play whose politics of greed and narcissism are a feast of malice for any actor to chow down on. But Lane also captures Cohn’s charm and his confused paternal connection with Joe Pitt, the repressed gay Mormon (a brilliantly conflicted Lee Pace). (These elements were played down or missed by Ron Leibman who played Cohn in the original Broadway production, Frank Wood in the Signature Theater revival Off-Broadway, and Al Pacino in the HBO miniseries.) Lane is at once is the hissable creep delivering Kushner’s screamingly funny put-downs and the twisted human being reaching out for solace as he is struck down by AIDS. (It should come as no shock that Cohn was a mentor to the young Donald Trump, and Angels still blazingly depicts the American cultural civil war that our current president is waging.)

Another fascinating mix of verisimilitude and high art is provided by the depiction of the Angel who visits Pryor, played with daring sexual ambiguity by Amanda Lawrence. In the original New York production, she looked as if she had stepped out of a Renaissance painting. Here, costume designer Nicky Gillibrand has placed her in a rag-tag frock with a ruined American flag for a skirt and grey droopy wings. Rather than flying on Peter Pan wires, she is carried and manipulated by several black-clad “shadows.” She is a symbol of the sad state of the world and a breathing figure seeking a way to heal that broken planet.
   In addition to those already mentioned in the stellar company, Susan Brown captures the motherly strength of Pitt’s mother and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg; Denise Gough gives eloquent voice to the inner panic of Joe’s pill-addicted wife, Harper; James McArdle finds the shattered core of Louis, Pryor’s unfaithful boyfriend; and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is sizzlingly witty and razor sharp as Belize, Cohn’s sassy nurse and Pryor’s supportive friend.
   It is possible to see both parts in one glorious marathon day as this reviewer did. The whole seven-and-a-half-hour experience moves like a jet-propelled dream. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

March 25, 2018
Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo
Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Jerry Springer—The Opera
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Good for Otto
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Amy and the Orphans
Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Sternberg Center for Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The Pershing Square Signature Center is currently housing a diverse array of theatrical attractions Off-Broadway: one from the resident Signature Theater Company, and a pair from The New Group, which is renting two of the complex’s spaces. Signature presents its revival of Edward Albee’s double bill At Home at the Zoo at the Diamond stage, while The New Group offers the long-awaited Jerry Springer—The Opera in the Linney, and David Rabe’s new play Good for Otto is at intimate Griffin. Meantime, Amy and the Orphans runs at the Laura Pels.
   At Home at the Zoo consists of The Zoo Story, Albee’s shattering one-act of alienation and violence that put him on the map in 1959, and Homelife, a 2004 prequel. Zoo Story depicts the Central Park encounter of conformist textbook publisher Peter and wildly provocative drifter Jerry. As Peter attempts to read on an isolated bench, total stranger Jerry relentlessly pokes and prods, desperately seeking a connection of some kind. He forces Peter to question his safe, conventional lifestyle choices. After Jerry’s devastating monologue chronicling his desperately lonely existence, their meeting results in a fatal challenge. Paired with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in its original Off-Broadway premiere, this body-blow of a play asks disturbing questions about what it means to be a human being and how our materialistic society was changing our values.
   Almost 50 years later, Albee wrote Homelife, a curtain-raiser to flesh out Peter who spent most of Zoo Story silently reacting to Jerry. Before leaving his Upper East Side apartment and running into Jerry, Peter has an uncomfortable dialogue with his wife Ann who is also questioning their cozy co-existence. Homelife is definitely the lesser work. It follows the same template of many of his later pieces: an erudite pair quibbles cryptically and repetitively over their choice of words before finally getting to the meat of the conflict, which is usually, “We don’t get along, something’s missing, life is boring, boo-hoo.”
   Fortunately, director Lila Neugebauer injects the same vitality into these uneven halves. On Andrew Lieberman’s stark, Jackson Pollack–splatter set, Robert Sean Leonard’s exquisitely repressed Peter, Katie Finneran’s delicately disturbed Ann, and Paul Sparks’s spectacularly unbalanced Jerry play a frightening three-side chamber piece of dynamic despair.

While Albee’s Zoo Story retains its impact after half a century, Jerry Springer—The Opera is way past its sell-by date. The satiric tuner opened in London in 2003, winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical and running 609 performances before touring the UK. It was written when Springer’s tabloid-trash talk show was at its ratings zenith, and Brits loved its characterization of vulgar Americans descending to the lowest cultural depths. But, apart from two performances of a concert version at Carnegie Hall in 2008, the work has not been seen on a New York stage until now. John Rando, stager of such wacky works as Urinetown and The Toxic Avenger, is the perfect choice for this bizarre sleaze buffet. His staging is fast and furious, and the talented company—particularly Luke Grooms, Jill Paice, Tiffany Mann, and Sean Patrick Doyle—combine skilled vocals with unabashed comic abandon.
   The trouble is, in a world where a Twitter-obsessed, reality-show host is president of the United States, Springer’s vulgar antics are no longer shocking nor particularly funny. Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas’s almost completely sung-through libretto offers parodies of a typical Springer slugfest with double- and triple-crossing lovers, diaper fetishists, pole dancers, crack whores, and tap-dancing Klansmen (a gimmick Mel Brooks previously used to better effect with Nazis in 1968’s The Producers and less so with the Spanish Inquisition in 1981’s History of the World, Part I). Having a transgender character brag about an affair with redneck hetero fails to register as a surprise these days.
   After being shot by a guest just before intermission, Springer (a game Terrence Mann) descends into hell in the second act and hosts a grudge match featuring Satan (overplaying Will Swenson), God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Adam, and Eve. Predictably, these combatants parallel those of the earthly first act and the no-longer-scandalous behavior becomes repetitive. Thomas’s score consists of simplistic operatic takeoffs often repeating profanities (one number consists of variations on the “u” vowel in “fuck” for three minutes. It’s amusing once, but for two and a half hours? This once explosive hand-grenade of a show now comes across as an overlong and outdated SNL sketch. Kudos to Sarah Laux’s clever costumes, though.

Down the hall, David Rabe offers a more ambitious and sobering view of mass suffering. His new play Good for Otto focuses on the massive caseload of two stressed-out therapists at a rural Connecticut psychiatric center. Dr. Bob Michaels (earnest and intense Ed Harris) and Evangeline Ryder (flinty yet vulnerable Amy Madigan) work through the tribulations of half a dozen clients while battling insurance providers. We also get a look inside Dr. Michaels’s psyche where his mother (a sensitive Charlotte Hope), who committed suicide at a young age, wanders, and all of his troubled patients cheerfully join in group singing of reliable favorites like “On Moonlight Bay” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Most of the play consists of therapy sessions with counselor and patient sitting in old-fashioned swivel chairs center stage surrounded by the cast and members of the audience seated amid Derek McLane’s accurately institutional set (Jeff Croiter’s warm lighting helps set the intimate, dream-like mood).
   Scott Elliott’s staging and the performances of the large cast are appropriately realistic, but, at nearly three hours, the stories blend together and the play loses focus. Rabe needs a ruthless editor to separate the excess from the essence of his probing encounters. The shorter vignettes work best. These include a mother (an intense Kate Buddeke) afflicted by throbbing headaches after the sudden suicide of her drifter son (an affable, troubled Michael Rabe) and the attempts of the socially challenged Timothy (insightful Mark-Linn Baker) to fit into society. (The Otto of the title refers to Timothy’s pet hamster with whom he gets along better than with people.) Sterling actors F. Murray Abraham, Rhea Perlman, and Maulik Pancholy are trapped in overdrawn storylines.

While Rabe’s play rambles, Lindsey Ferrentino’s Amy and the Orphans at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Off-Broadway venue is more tightly focused and moving. Her darkly funny family drama centers on three siblings, each with coping issues. Jacob and Maggie are in their 60s, unsure and insecure. Ironically, their sister Amy, who has Down’s Syndrome, is the most centered of the three. She loves movies, and she has a job and a boyfriend. When their father passes, this mismatched family, along with Amy’s caregiver, the feisty Kathy, embark on a bittersweet road trip to his memorial.
   Amy, based on Ferrentino’s aunt, is played by Jamie Brewer who also has Down’s Syndrome. She gives an insightful and assured performance, sharply delivering Amy’s favorite movie quotes and her deceptively insightful observations of her confused brother and sister. Debra Monk and Mark Blum capture Jake and Maggie’s yearning resentment and need to be loved. Vanessa Aspillaga is a fiery cannonball as the opinionated Kathy while Diane Davis and Josh McDermott sympathetically play the trio’s parents in flashbacks. Scott Ellis’s direction skillfully balances Ferrentino’s bleak humor and compassionate pathos.

March 14, 2018

In the Body of the World
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I

He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box
Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

Two short, explosive new Off-Broadway works depict wars of race and gender with women’s bodies as the battlefield. Both are intense and earnest, challenging theatergoers’ expectations and perceptions. In the Body of the World from Manhattan Theater Club at City Center marks Eve Ensler’s return to the solo performance format after her landmark Vagina Monologues and The Good Body. Adrienne Kennedy is premiering He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, her first new work in a decade, at Theater for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Like her previous Obie-winning one-acts Funnyhouse of a Negro, June and Jean in Concert, and Sleep Deprivation Chamber, Heart is an abstract American dreamscape examining the devastation caused by racism. Each work has autobiographical elements, runs for less than two hours, and leaves us wanting for more.
   In Body, Ensler chronicles her struggle with uterine cancer as she works to open a women’s center in Congo for victims of rape. The figurative and literal overlap of the two crises provides dramatic and comic fodder. “Do you know who I am,” she cries to her doctor when receiving the diagnosis, “Have no sense of irony?” Here is a woman who has chronicled female empowerment through their sexual organs, finding out she has a poison in the very part of her body she has been celebrating. On Myung Hee Cho’s warm set, which combines elements of a cozy living room with an exotic jungle, Ensler weaves the narrative of her medical issues with world issues. Climate change, the #MeToo movement, the triumph of Trump—all are grist for her creative mill.
   At times, the parallels are a tad heavy-handed, but the author-performer quickly balances self-deprecating humor and cutting observations with her social commentary. (“Have I been talking too much about my vagina?” she quips at one point.) She adroitly plays with language, comparing the common Latin roots of hysteria and uterus, and how “an infusion suite” where she receives medical treatment sounds like an artisanal tea salon. Diane Paulus’s measured direction seamlessly guides us through Ensler’s multistage journey of horror and triumph, aided immeasurably by Jen Schriever’s evocative lighting and M.L. Dogg and Sam Lerner’s sensitive sound design.
   Ensler is a passionate advocate, spritely comedienne, and friendly host. She coaxes the audiences to stand up and dance one minute, then recounts the harrowing tales of the systematic rape of African women the next. It’s an intense, inspiring encounter.

Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box also recounts tales of violation and despair, but there is no reprieve of joy or connection. The 45-minute play chronicles the doomed 1940s romance of Chris, the white son of a wealthy Southern landowner, and Kay, a light-skinned African-American woman who attends the boarding school Chris’s father endows. Told in fragments on Christopher Barreca’s imposing set depicting the long stairway leading into the school, Kennedy’s poetic script has several intense images and concepts, but ultimately it’s too slight to stand alone. The two characters speak to each in a brief dialogue at the opening of the play, and then they alternate monologues relating their troubled pasts and uncertain futures. Kay recounts the tragedy of her mother dying mysteriously at 15 after a white man rapes her, and Chris simmers with rage at his father (represented by an onstage dummy) and leaves their Georgia hometown to pursue a New York stage career. The two plan to be together in the Northern city, but their ultimate fate is uncertain. The work ends with a shattering image of death; whether it’s actual or a metaphor is unclear.
   Director Evan Yionoulis creates a number of gripping stage pictures as Austin Switser’s videos blend with Kennedy’s hypnotic words. Snatches of Noël Coward songs intermingle with scenes from Christopher Marlowe’s revenge play The Massacre at Paris. It gets a bit confusing at times, but evidently Chris acted in these works in college. Juliana Canfield and Tom Pecinka bring reams of subtext to Kay and Chris, but the final result is a fascinating intellectual exercise rather than a visceral drama.

February 8, 2018
John Lithgow: Stories by Heart
Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The funniest moment on Broadway so far this season is not provided by a witticism from a beloved comic or a pointed political observation by an astute social commentator. It’s the incredibly accurate re-creation of a parrot’s expression as it asks a roomful of stuffy British types if they would like to share a nut. The priceless simulation of avian inquiry is provided by the incomparable John Lithgow in his solo show Stories by Heart, presented now by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre after previous versions had a short run at Lincoln Center and a national tour.
   Lithgow’s eloquent mouth twists and curves into an elongated bill, his eyes bulge and twitch, and he emits a sound between a bark and a squawk. The format of the show is simplicity itself: The actor performs two classic short stories, “Haircut” by Ring Lardner and “Uncle Fred Flits By” by P.G. Wodehouse (the parrot appears in the latter). Before each, he relates their significance during different points in his relationship with his father, also an actor and a director. It’s an intimate celebration of the art of storytelling, the actor’s craft, and the love of literature and family.

Lithgow has always been an exemplary artist who could read the phone book and draw plaudits for his interpretation. The most striking example of his limning skill was his six-season run on the goofy NBC sitcom Third Rock From the Sun. He managed to take the gimmicky role of an alien posing as a university professor and turn it into a tour-de-force comedy turn, full of subtext and depth. His base material is of higher quality here, but he performs a similar feat of alchemy, transforming raw materials into theatrical gold.
   He begins each act with a deceptively laid-back chat, explaining how each tale fit into his life. The Lardner was an early favorite read by his dad to young John and his siblings during their peripatetic childhood as Lithgow Senior eked out a career as a director of Shakespeare festivals in the Midwest. The Wodehouse lark was read by John to both of his parents as they were suffering the advances of aging and he had temporarily moved in to care for them. He starts each by reading from the very anthology of stories his family owned and gradually acting out each role and action.
   “Haircut” imperceptibly evolves from a folksy portrait of 1920s small-town America to a grim indictment of sexism and small-mindedness. The narrator is a gossipy barber unspooling the local scandals to a newcomer. Lithgow endows him with a giggly maliciousness as well as heartbreaking, unexpected empathy.
   “Uncle Fred” is a riotous romp satirizing British middle-class snobbery in which the author creates a roomful of varying citizenry representing a cross-section of physicalities, attitudes, and classes.

Daniel Sullivan’s subtle direction, John Lee Beatty’s handsome drawing-room set, and Kenneth Posner’s cozy lighting complement Lithgow’s tour-de-force turn perfectly. This one-man show has artistry as well as Heart.
January 15, 2018
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