A new play that reads very well on the page risks getting staged above its station. Sad to say, The Mystery of Love & Sex, by Bathsheba Doran, is that kind: engrossing in theory, a botch in practice. Commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater and given a top-flight production there, it might, ironically, have benefited more from shabbier treatment, a process that could have revealed its substantial flaws while there was still time and freedom to do something about them. But when you’ve got Tony Shalhoub and Diane Lane engaged to play two of the four leading characters, and Sam Gold directing, plus all the professional polish LCT typically provides, there’s not much to be done but leave the audience to enjoy what it can and wish the rest were better.
It seemed preordained that Robert Fairchild would one day play Jerry Mulligan, the World War II vet and expat artist portrayed by Gene Kelly in the 1951 film An American in Paris. “Without Gene Kelly, I wouldn’t be dancing,” says Fairchild, a principal at New York City Ballet. “In Singin’ in the Rain—my God, he’s incredible. I saw An American in Paris later on, and it’s the same magic.” Onstage, Fairchild—who started out doing jazz and tap before following his sister to ballet class—strongly calls to mind the Hollywood legend. “He’s handsome, slightly cheeky,” and has a “nonchalant, casual ease,” says Christopher Wheeldon, the choreographer and director of the new musical adaptation of An American in Paris (opening at the Palace Theatre on April 12), in which Fairchild makes his Broadway debut as Mulligan. But, as Wheeldon explains, “we’re not trying to replace Gene. It’s about finding a way to remain inventive while moving a plot that you can follow and that’s also enjoyable to watch.” Here, Fairchild, with a little help from Wheeldon, explains (and shows) exactly how he danced the character to life.
In an interview with the New York Times today, Elisabeth Moss revealed her favorite way to spend an evening: Dramatically expelling saline liquid from her lacrimal glands while being surrounded by hundreds of strangers who have paid for the experience. "I’m never happier than when I’m crying onstage," the actress gushed. "It’s super weird, and it’s what I love to do. Isn’t that strange?" The answer is yes.
In 2006, Sheila Heti started writing a novel about failing to write a play. The play, commissioned by a feminist theater company, was abandoned after five years of workshops. The novel, meanwhile, became How Should a Person Be? — an experimental, semi-autobiographical rumination on friendship and art that was published in Canada in 2010. The book was released in the U.S. two years later, where it found an enthusiastic audience among fans of writers like Chris Kraus. In fact, Kraus herself compared Heti to Mary McCarthy, whose work offered “an explosive and thrilling rejoinder to the serious, male coming-of-age saga," writing that How Should a Person Be? "exuberantly appropriates the same, otherwise tired genre to encompass female experience."
In a funny-awkward meeting that takes place near the beginning Verité, a pair of Norwegian publishers tell Jo Darum, our heroine, that she has a captivating authorial voice but the wrong kind of material. This is half right; she’s actually a dreadful writer, as we know because we’ve already heard her reading to her 8-year-old son from the YA fantasy novel she’s been working on since high school. (It’s about a “simple farm dwarf” out to save the world by, among other things, traversing the Fiery Lake of Boog.) Still, something about Dragonscape has impressed the Norwegians enough to scoop it off the slush pile and offer Jo an opportunity. They won’t publish it; they’re silly, not crazy. But if she will write a memoir that’s sufficiently dark and involves “interesting choices,” they’ll publish that instead.
I don’t mean to suggest that you’re unpatriotic if you aren’t moved by Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensational new hip-hop biomusical at the Public. But in order to dislike it you’d pretty much have to dislike the American experiment. The conflict between independence and interdependence is not just the show’s subject but also its method: It brings the complexity of forming a union from disparate constituencies right to your ears. It may confuse your ears, too: Few are the theatergoers who will be familiar with all of Miranda’s touchstones. I caught the verbal references to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Sondheim, West Side Story, and 1776, but other people had to point out to me the frequent hat-tips to hip-hop: Biggie Smalls, the Fugees, “Blame It (On the Alcohol).” And I’m sure that historians in the audience (the show was “inspired by” Ron Chernow’s 800-page Hamilton biography) will catch references that the rest of us fail to notice. (“The world turned upside down,” a repeated phrase in a number about the Battle of Yorktown, is the name of the ballad supposedly played by Redcoat musicians upon Cornwallis’s surrender there, in 1781.) But for all its complexity — its multi-strand plotting and exploding rhyme-grenades — Hamilton is neither a challenge nor a chore. It’s just great.
Though The Iceman Cometh is generally considered one of Eugene O’Neill’s greatest plays, it did not win (as four of his others did) the Pulitzer Prize; the Pulitzer is not, after all, awarded for Sadness. Nor do the judges give extra points for difficulty, and Iceman is famously difficult on the director, the actors, and the audience. It’s not just the length, all five hours of it (though the 2012 Goodman Theater production, now in residency at BAM, is relatively swift at four hours and 45 minutes). It’s the weight. O’Neill seems to have loaded the play, which was written in the late 1930s but not produced until 1946, with a lifetime’s worth of ambition to make a comprehensive statement about the human condition. A lot of statements and a lot of humans make for heavy lifting.
Note: Between Riverside and Crazy, which Jesse Green reviewed during its run in August at the Atlantic Theater Company, reopens this evening at Second Stage. The cast remains the same, with one change: Ron Cephas Jones is now in the role of Junior, formerly played by Ray Anthony Thomas. It will run through March 22.
Even on the rare occasions when they’re legible, the notes I take in the theater are generally useless — except in those cases where boredom causes them to mutate into to-do lists. I make no apology; there are plays to which a perfectly reasonable critical response may be “wash delicates” or “order Netflix.” In fact, it’s a lack of notes that’s most telling. After Between Riverside and Crazy last night, I checked my Gold Fibre Antique Ivory pad and found that once I’d gotten past my pre-show ritual of describing the set (an excellent revolving Upper West Side apartment by Walt Spangler), I’d written … nothing. As soon as the first scene began, I was gone: lost in its world.
When a play is about race, should the playwright’s matter? I found myself asking this question after seeing Rasheeda Speaking, a wild ride and a welcome surprise from the severely hit-or-miss New Group, now enjoying its first season at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The author, Joel Drake Johnson, is a fixture of Chicago’s theater scene, with five “Jeff” nominations for playwriting. (The Joseph Jefferson Awards are Chicago’s Tony equivalent.) But he’s little-known here, and perhaps that’s just as well. It was often too easy to approach Bruce Norris’s race-baiting Clybourne Park through the knowledge that he is white. If you’re like me, though, you will have to struggle to sort out your feelings about Rasheeda Speaking without being able to take offense at Johnson’s whiteness or cover from his blackness or context from anything else that may be true about him. In any case, it’s a wallop of a play, brilliantly acted by Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest, that leaves you scrambling to puzzle out its implications on your own.
In less than a week, Sienna Miller will take over from Emma Stone to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway. On a fear scale between one (getting stung by a bee) and ten (jumping from an airplane), she rates her current apprehension as an 8.5. “I’ve started having full anxiety dreams,” she says over coffee at Cafe Cluny. “I dreamt that the first show was a disaster. My boyfriend came backstage and said it was ‘really underwhelming.’ And Alan [Cumming] was furious with me for being so bad.” At one point in the dream, Miller was supposed to perform a sexy dance wearing a black officer’s hat, but the cast made her wear a chef’s toque instead, as punishment for bringing shame upon the production. “Like a dunce hat.” She shudders.
The Civilians call the work they do “investigative theater,” which sounds very high-minded; their name, too, suggests engagement in the real life of society as opposed to the artificial life of the stage. If that’s a false dichotomy, it isn’t a pose. Company members conduct hundreds of interviews, often involving years of research, before assembling the results into musicals that are collages of nearly verbatim text. (Even the lyrics are mostly “found,” which is why they’re often so clunky.) In recent shows on topics such as urban planning and evangelism, the surprise of vernacular song and unimproved speech helps to puncture the self-importance of the talking-heads dramaturgy, and the editing of characters and dialogue is understandably weighted toward the piquant and hilarious. The Civilians are, after all, out to entertain. But something odd happens when entertainment itself becomes the subject of their investigation, as it does in their latest production, Pretty Filthy, about the porn industry. The subject resists them; their technique goes limp.
Sometimes — and I mean this in a good way — the Encores! series at City Center seems like the musical equivalent of A Night at the Museum, making the dinosaurs dance. That’s certainly the case with its delightful 22nd-season opener, Lady, Be Good!, the 1924 comedy that featured George and Ira Gershwin’s debut score on Broadway. (Working alone or as a team, the brothers had contributed individual songs to shows since 1918.) True, the bones of Lady, Be Good! are so creaky, they must be held up with strings, but the mounting, and the superb restoration where needed, let you see something fascinating that would hardly be visible otherwise: how the American musical grew into itself.
It’s said that Chekhov was always trying to get the Moscow Art Theater to produce Ivan Turgenev’s neglected classic A Month in the Country instead of his own new plays. Was this homage, self-deprecation, or payment of a debt? So much of what we find great in Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, and the rest of the holy canon finds its origins in the earlier work. It’s uncanny, really: A Month in the Country, completed in 1850, already contemplates, as Chekhov would a generation later, the collapse of Russia’s idle aristocracy amid new money and peasant awakening. It pioneers a form of comedy we now call Chekhovian, in which no one is happy. It even investigates the intersection of those two ideas. And yet Chekhov lifted more than just Turgenev’s genre and themes. Broad swaths of plot are appropriated, whole casts of archetypes redeployed. Which is not to say Chekhov didn’t improve what he took; it’s an irony worthy of the great ironist that his plays have nearly completely eclipsed their chief inspiration.
The frequent collaborators John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett seem to be everywhere these days, not just geographically but narratively. Whether the tale they’re telling is psychological (as in the recent Broadway Glass Menagerie) or sociopolitical (Black Watch) or mytho-historical (the Alan Cumming Macbeth) or just groovy (What’s It All About?, the Burt Bacharach revue Hoggett put together) they almost always manage the difficult trick of cutting to the bone while raising the emotional temperature. To do this, they bring a certain amount of magic to their realism, as when Laura in that great Glass Menagerie made her first entrance and final exit through a kind of memory-wormhole in a sofa. But they also bring a certain amount of realism to their magic, and that’s an iffier proposition. At any rate, it’s a problem in their production of Let the Right One In, a vampire romance now at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo. The show — directed by Tiffany, with Hoggett as associate director and also in charge of movement — finds the pair at the top of their form visually and emotionally but intellectually overwrought, if not sucked dry.
Larry David regarded a brown leather messenger bag on the floor of a studio above West 42nd Street and announced, to no one in particular: “I never had a purse before in my life. Now all of a sudden I have a purse.”
“It’s not really a purse,” his co-star Rita Wilson assured him. “It’s a satchel.”
“No,” David insisted, “it’s a purse. There’s stuff in there that’s purse-y.”
“It has a long strap,” Wilson countered.
“How far do you ever really have to carry it?” Anna Shapiro, the director, asked. “It would be a purse if you ever had to carry it to a car.”
Looks like one more Mara Wilson movie is headed to Broadway: Alan Menken told EW Radio this week that he's currently hard at work writing the score for a Mrs. Doubtfire musical alongside the movie's own Harvey Fierstein, who's writing the book. (David Zippel is handling lyrics.) Menken cautioned that the trio was "in the early stages," but they were all "really enjoying working on it." As will, we imagine, Broadway's finest pyrotechnicians.
Like “humanistic Judaism,” the term “imaginative theater” ought to be a redundancy. (Shouldn’t all theater be imaginative?) Still, some troupes seek to differentiate themselves from the mainstream with the homespun, less literal storytelling techniques the term seems to imply: puppetry, shadow play, choral speech, mime. It’s no coincidence that these techniques are also cheaper than the ones you find on Broadway; imaginative theater exists in reaction against spectacularism, and often in reaction against the kinds of narratives that invite it. Though it’s a commercial run, The Woodsman, now playing at the 59E59 theater complex, is thus a perfect example of the genre, not only offering a marvelous, minimalist staging but also taking as its text the backstory of the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz books, a tale steeped in dawn-of-the-machine-age anxiety. The production, by the young troupe Strangemen & Co. — mission statement: “to simply honor what is truthful one story at a time” — looks like what might happen if Shakers put on Wicked.
Taxi alums Danny DeVito, Judd Hirsch, Carol Kane, Marilu Henner, James Burrows, Christopher Lloyd, Rhea Perlman, and co-creator James L. Brooks all turned out for their former cast maste Tony Danza’s star turn in Honeymoon in Vegas last night. After a post-show party at Hard Rock Café, the whole gang sat together at a long table, chatting and dancing late into the night.
“Those are the people I started with,” Danza told Vulture. “Those are the people who accepted a fighter from New York who never acted before on their TV show." He added, "I’m serious. That acceptance, that welcoming, is why I'm here. And so, for me, it was an incredible thing to have them here.”
The new musical Honeymoon in Vegas is a throwback, and not just because it’s based on a 1992 movie that was, even then, somewhat retrograde in its humor. Cancel the “somewhat”: The plot hinges on a man trying to discharge a gambling debt by pimping out his fiancée. Presumably, the backwardness of this affectionate glance at ring-a-ding-dingism was intentional; the screenplay by Andrew Bergman, who also directed, mines its humor from the kind of character who would exact such a deal (a slimebag named Tommy Korman) and the kind of character who would accept it (a commitment-phobic mama’s boy named Jack Singer). Naturally, the girl herself, Betsy Nolan, though the apex of the triangle, was not so interesting. She was just hot.
Would you like to see a two-hander in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays a hunky but bashful British beekeeper, hemming and half-smiling, while Ruth Wilson, so recently embaubled with a Golden Globe for The Affair, plays a charmingly ditzy astrophysicist? Would you like to watch the pair meet cute at a barbecue, grope their way toward romance, survive infidelity, and face tragedy together? I would; it sounds like an engaging play. Unfortunately it’s not the one now running at the Manhattan Theatre Club under the title Constellations, even though all those things do happen in it. But since Nick Payne, the author, is unwilling to give us that romantic trifle, this delightful, beautifully acted, and infuriating new drama is so much more, and less.