For all its celebration of personal liberty and countercultural fabulousness, Broadway is actually a fairly God-positive place. Producers are not, after all, in the business of alienating potential audiences with gratuitous sacrilege. The nuns in Sister Act are sassy, not schismatic; Tevye’s a hondler, not an apostate. Even The Book of Mormon, for all its nose-thumbing, ends up endorsing the irrational power of faith in the same way it endorses the irrational power of musicals. So it comes as quite a surprise that David Javerbaum’s An Act of God, which promotes itself as a lighthearted new comedy, is actually one of the most vehement takedowns of the deity ever to reach Broadway. Perhaps the tipoff is that it’s playing at Studio 54, where, as the title character recalls, Liza Minnelli once sniffed Mick Jagger off Elizabeth Taylor.
Rumors have circulated for years that Colin Firth would take on the role as phoneticist Henry Higgins, without any official announcements. Reviving the rumor, "Page Six" reports that Broadway tycoon James Nederlander Sr. said that the revival is on: “New generations never saw it. Colin Firth is already set. The female isn’t cast yet.” (In the past, young actresses from Carey Mulligan to Anne Hathaway have been linked to the role of Eliza Doolittle.) As to whether or not Colin Firth's vocal cords would be up for it, Nederlander said, “Rex Harrison didn’t either. And everyone wants to see Colin Firth.” We can at least confirm that that is true.
Jessica Lange will return to Broadway for the first time in over a decade next spring, with the Eugene O'Neill classic Long Day's Journey Into Night. Lange reprises the role of the morphine-addled matriarch Mary Tyrone, a character she played in London's West End back in 2000, for which she received an Olivier nomination. She'll co-star alongside In Treatment's Gabriel Byrne, who plays the patriarch of the family, James Tyrone, and John Gallagher Jr., as their son Edmund. But if you thought that this would be a Ryan Murphy–free universe, you would be mistaken! The New York Times reports that Murphy holds the stage rights to the play and approached Todd Haimes, the director of the Roundabout Theater Company, about producing the play with Lange, who is maybe playing Elsa Mars playing Mary Tyrone. After all, everything is connected.
From the outside, the “theater” looks like a shipping crate, the kind roadies roll around, except that it’s customized with various lights and bump-outs and a door that says AUDIENCE. Ushered inside by a guide in bright coveralls, you find yourself in a very red, very small space, perhaps four feet square; your seat is a sort of PVC throne, donated by a guy who usually makes them for peep shows. Another door, two feet in front of your face, is shut, but you know that the “stage” must be behind it because it’s surrounded by lights. Before you can really get your bearings, though, that door suddenly slides open, and a play begins. A short play, certainly; depending on which one you get (there are seven, presented in semi-random rotation) it may be anywhere from four to eight minutes. But even so — and even with just a black chair for a set — it’s a real play nonetheless, with a real character, a real theme, and a real actor. Perhaps two.
After attending a preview of Robert Askins’s new play Permission the other night, I can report that the cast’s padded undergarments, which got their own feature in the Times last week, are indeed worthy of notice. Or at least they are more worthy of notice than the rest of the play, which in trying to bridge incompatible genres — you’ll forgive my saying — falls between the cracks. Nominally, it is a comedy about Christian Domestic Discipline. (That’s a real thing.) Followers of this practice believe that in order for marriages to reach their highest potential, husbands must take seriously their role as heads of household by setting rules and, when the rules aren’t followed, applying punishments to wives who agree to the plan and thus are grateful. These punishments involve corrective lectures, Bible verses, and taking the wives “OTK” — over the knee — for a vigorous spanking, with hand, hairbrush, or belt. Hence the 8 of Hearts Shaper Panties: “a high-waisted garment made of sturdy mesh, with custom latex padding protecting the actors’ bottoms and spinal cords.” They also make a nice thwack.
In a Pottery Barned New York apartment, a postcoital couple awakens in the wee hours and stumbles through a discussion about their future. Have we not seen this before? Doug (an unrecognizably ripped Thomas Sadoski) wants to go for it, grab for the brass ring — or even the gold one — and take the big chance on love. Beth (lovely Amanda Seyfried) isn’t so sure. Oh, she’s into Doug, has been for years, just as he has wanted her from the moment she moved into his neighborhood during high school. But there’s a problem … somewhere, and it’s going to take exactly 42 minutes of the play’s 85 to find out what it is.
Note: Sam Gold's production of Annie Baker's play The Flick, produced at Playwrights Horizons in 2013 and subsequently awarded the Pulitzer Prize, returns tonight at the Barrow Street Theater with the same cast. We're reposting Jesse Green's review of that production.
Here are some things that do not happen in Annie Baker’s new play The Flick. A confessed love is not reciprocated. An unconfessed love is not reciprocated. (I think; much is mysterious.) A friend does not, in a pinch, help a friend. A sad person does not learn a happy lesson. The audience does not get a moral, or even a subject. Also missing in action: action. No one does anything generally regarded as theatrical.
A playwright is really asking for it when he creates, in a semiautobiographical work, a conflict whose glorious resolution is the writing of the play itself. This is what A.R. Gurney has done in What I Did Last Summer, a coming-of-age comedy about a 14-year-old Buffalo boy’s discovering his “potential” over the course of a few months in 1945. (Gurney was also 14 that summer.) The playwright’s stand-in is Charlie Higgins, a son of the local Wasp gentry, estivating on the Canadian side of Lake Erie during that last season of World War II with his mother, Grace, and his sister, Elsie. (His father, “cooped up on a destroyer escort” in the Pacific, remains ominously unheard from.) Bored with household chores and with studying Latin to make up for failing it in spring, Charlie finds himself working for 25 cents an hour — plus free lessons in art and self-actualization — for Anna Trumbull, the local scandal. Once part of the same Wasp elite, Anna, generally called the Pig Woman, has descended into a life of creative rebellion (as she sees it romantically) or charismatic eccentricity (as Grace sees it worriedly). There are many rumors about Anna: She is part Tuscarora Indian, she was the mistress of a wealthy doctor, she is “an artist manqué,” she doesn’t wear underwear. Sadly, only the last is false.
On a farm in South Africa, a large boulder stares down a local painter like a blank canvas. The painter — someone we would categorize today as an outsider artist — is Nukain Mabusa, an old black worker who has for years been turning an outcropping of rocks on the land of his Afrikaner boss into what he calls a garden of flowers. (They are very abstract flowers, more like woven patterns than anything botanical.) By 1981, when the first act of Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek takes place, Mabusa’s life’s work is almost done, with the exception of The Big One: that large, forbidding boulder. Despite encouragement from Bokkie, the 11-year-old boy who serves as his assistant, dragging a little wagon of paints and brushes behind him, Mabusa cannot face it, perhaps (he eventually realizes) because it has no face. The action only really begins when he understands that The Big One is not meant to be a final flower among his hundreds but instead the story of his own life: an expression, before death, and regardless of the conditions that limited and degraded him as a black man in apartheid South Africa, of the fact that he lived. (The play is suggested by the real Mabusa’s life and work, but is otherwise explicitly fictional.) Watching him (and Bokkie) erupt with creative passion, covering the rock face with a human face in bursts of orange, yellow, red, green, blue, black, and white, I was reminded of a similar (if less polychromatic) moment in the John Logan’s Red, when Mark Rothko, also with the help of an assistant, suddenly channeled a life’s worth of conflict into a thrilling moment of abstract portraiture.
Last week Robert Askins’s Hand to God garnered five Tony nominations, which has only served to fuel the already gigantic ego of one its stars, the foulmouthed puppet Tyrone. It’s understandable: If you looked like a deranged Fraggle yet somehow managed to build yourself up from being, well, a sock, you’d have some ego, too. Not to mention that he did it while attached to a puritanical — and kind of sad sack Southern Christian virgin (played by the brilliant Steven Boyer). Was there assistance from the Devil? Probably. Tyrone will be making a guest appearance at the Drama League Awards on May 15 alongside his Tony-nominated co-star Boyer, but first, he talked to us about his love for Helen Mirren, Satanism, and where he gets his best Bradley Cooper stories.
“I don’t find tech rehearsals excruciating,” says Annie Baker, whose 2014 Pulitzer Prize–winning play, The Flick, is starting a commercial run at the Barrow Street Theatre this month. “They’re endlessly fascinating to me.” For most people, tech is torture: days and days of glacial progress through a production’s every lighting cue, sound effect, scene change, and prop placement. The Flick follows the workers at a shabby movie theater near Worcester, Massachusetts, as they go about their jobs between shows — mopping up soda, removing gum, sweeping away the endless tides of popcorn — so there’s a lot to get exactly right. The play is three hours long, and Baker hates it when actors “fake clean.” Even the popcorn requires rehearsal: When the play was originally produced, at Playwrights Horizons in 2013, it was scattered between scenes by a special blower. Still, a mouse ran across the stage during a show and into the blower, which ate it up.
In a theater seating a few dozen on a stage crowded with spare canvases and Campbell’s Soup cans stuffed with paintbrushes, Andy Warhol, played by actor Ira Denmark in all black and a white wig, argued with Jean-Michel Basquiat, played by Calvin Levels in a slouching suit. “You kept avoiding me like I was some kind of street urchin,” Basquiat tells his idol turned mentor of his early days selling postcards in the East Village and haunting the Factory lobby.
Josh Groban is sitting in a quiet corner of the Greenwich Hotel, attempting to sip at a chamomile tea while occasionally dodging a fly. “This bug really likes me,” he says, grinning. “Maybe I should shower more often?” You may recall Josh Groban mostly as a quasi-angelic presence — halo of curls, singing in Italian with Andrea Boccelli, belting with Celine Dion — but it’s actually this Josh Groban, endearingly scruffy, tossing off quips about his bathing habits, that’s far more present these days. Last week, Groban shared his hotel-room workout tips with Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan (Bouncing on the bed! Leaping over the coffee table!) and sparred with Amy Robach (“You could just stay here and do stand-up all day!” she giggled). The night before we spoke, he sang the epic “Anthem” from the 1986 musical Chess on The Tonight Show, giving America a very intimate view of his throat: “Oh, he doesn’t have his tonsils anymore!” Groban exclaims in some mixture of mock delight and horror.
The question of how to make Americans listen to things they may not want to hear, especially from the stage, is smartly answered by the Public Theater’s production of George Brant’s Grounded. On its own merits, this cautionary tale about our increasing reliance on drone warfare might too easily be ignored, as there isn’t much exterior drama to it. Rather, an unnamed Air Force major simply delivers an 80-minute monologue recounting her downward trajectory (as she sees it) from fighter pilot to operator of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) after an unplanned pregnancy grounds her. Transferred from forward operating positions in Iraq to Creech AFB in the Mojave — from one desert to another — she experiences a moral trade-off that eventually begins to undo her. Yes, she gets to be with her husband and daughter after her 12-hour shift staring at screens each day, but the act of killing becomes so remote as to almost deprive it of meaning. We are meant to understand that the blank check we offer the military in order to protect us is just a more abstract version of the same trade-off.
Sixteen-year-old Zoe has come to New Orleans with her mother’s boyfriend, Greg, to visit the Hummingbird Motel. When Greg lived there, before he cleaned up his image and moved to Atlanta, he was called Bait Boy and made a marginal living as, among other thing, a karaoke wrangler. In his pressed chinos and tucked-in print shirt, he now looks incongruous among his former cronies: a group that welcomes (as one of them, called Sissy Na Na, explains) anyone down-and-out: “the drunks, the addicts, the ex-addicts, the hos, the super hos, the ex-cons, the soon-to-be cons, the bouncers, the strippers, the street musicians, the faggots, the poets, the activists, the dykes, the trannies, the super trannies — whoop whoop!” Zoe, with a privileged teen’s sense of entitlement, gets out her iPad to take notes as she asks for examples of the ways the members of this “tribe” have survived so much hardship together; she’s writing a sociology paper about subcultures. “An example isn’t the whole picture,” says Tanya, a kindhearted 60ish hooker. Rather more warningly, Sissy Na Na, who is evidently one of those "super trannies," tells Zoe that the “whole picture” is “not yours to get."
Whatever their nominal subjects, musical comedies today are usually about musical comedies. Consider three of the funniest of the last ten years: Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone, and The Book of Mormon. In The Drowsy Chaperone, an old Broadway tuner comes to life in the apartment of an obsessive fan; the other two shows draw most of their humor from the contrast between their settings and the musical comedy tropes that forward the action. Indeed, the surprise intrusion of a rap song or kick line into seemingly unrelated contexts is by now so commonplace it may fail to surprise. (Can we call a moratorium on boogying old ladies?) Yet a few savants, including the director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who worked in one or both capacities on all three shows mentioned above, are still able to pull off the trick. Nicholaw’s genius for reducing an audience to helpless giggles is on blazing display in Something Rotten! — a new show so steeped in the tradition that it often seems like a concordance. Anything you’ve ever liked in a musical comedy (and a few things you haven’t) are here, just waiting to sing-and-dance you into submission.
Can we please get this straight, Broadway? Sprawling European novels do not make great musicals. Sorry, Les Miz partisans and Phantomaniacs, but whatever the virtues of those shows — and they are probably the best of the genre — they are mere patches on the originals. How could they not be? When you’re adapting a doorstop saga for the stage, you’re obviously going to be making huge cuts. Usually this will mean excising the poetry, philosophy, and psychology in order to preserve a series of action highlights that will then stick out like angry pimples. The result is usually more of a medley than a narrative — Don Quixote’s greatest hits! — and thus unsuited to the musical’s work of grounding song in character and situation. Indeed, when New York convened a panel to come up with a list of the greatest musicals ever, not one of the top ten was based on a thick slab of fiction by Hugo or Stevenson or Cervantes or Tolstoy or Dumas or Dickens or Du Maurier. (Only two were based on novels at all, and both were American.) Original tales, or small-scale works like plays and short stories, generally produce more successful results and give the librettist something better to do than rip out pages and jimmy the segues.
It’s not fair to judge a play by its bloopers; almost everything that has ever appeared onstage has had its share of dropped lines, missed entrances, Parkinsonian sets, or plummeting Spider-Men. And yet sometimes the bloopers are too expressive of a play’s overall blooperishness to resist. At a recent preview of Living on Love, a comedy starring Renée Fleming and Douglas Sills, two bottles of Champagne, meant to contribute to the fizzy, farcical atmosphere of a mismatched romantic dinner, turned out, upon uncorking in the second act, to be empty. Symbolic enough, but when the actor Jerry O’Connell, also in the scene, hustled the bottles offstage to be refilled, and Sills then tried to pour a toast, a few glugs of what was evidently tap water was all that fell into his glass. “Flat!” he ad-libbed, to a big laugh.
I already thought that Fun Home was the best new musical of the year in 2013, when it opened at the Public Theater. It’s hard to imagine that its Broadway transfer, and transformation, will not make it the best of this season as well. I say “transformation” even though in most ways it’s nearly a replica: The librettist Lisa Kron has perhaps cut or tightened a few lines of dialogue, and the composer Jeanine Tesori, apart from excising one charming but redundant little song (“Al for Short”), has made only the kind of changes a fanatic would notice. Fun Home is still basically what it was when I reviewed it in 2013: the story, based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic memoir, of a lesbian cartoonist trying in middle age to understand her father, who killed himself shortly after revealing to her that he, too, was gay. Back then I called it “hilarious and crushing,” and it remains so now. Maybe less hilarious and more crushing.