I wonder if Will Eno saw Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, in which a character memorably says that families are terrorized by their weakest member. In any case, in The Open House, drolly directed by Oliver Butler, Eno demonstrates the idea with a vengeance. For the first half of the intermission-less 75-minute play, a horrible man (Peter Friedman) sits in a wheelchair in the family room of his suburban house, abusing his aggressively pleasant wife (Carolyn McCormick), his wounded brother (Michael Countryman), and his mystified adult children (Hannah Bos and Danny McCarthy). They are almost completely resigned to his blitzkrieg of snark, but what response could they offer to someone who says things like: “How many times do I have to ask you to never think about this family?” Any attempts they make to warm up their day together are mocked and dropped; even tiny insubordinations are quashed. Funny as this is — the man makes withering into an art — you quickly feel locked into the characters’ misery, just as they, in essence, are locked into their claustrophobic house.
Wozzeck, Salome, Sweeney Todd—it's the season of bloodied blades and cankered psyches, displayed in musical splendor. At the New York Philharmonic, the ceremony of innocence began with the rituals of concert hall decorum: white tie and tails, orchestra tuning, polite bows. The soloists filed on in oratorio-like stiffness, and then came deliberate mayhem. Bryn Terfel flung aside his binder of music, and the rest of the cast followed. Gowns were shredded and flower vases dropped. Demure choristers mutated into snarling toughs, a handful of whom flipped a piano, hoisted it into the air, and let it drop with a crash. Shorn of its upturned legs, the concert grand turned into a platform — another bit of topography on the stage’s fluid terrain.
In 1967, as Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was crumbling under the weight of Vietnam, a satire called MacBird! began a nearly yearlong run at the Village Gate. In it, Stacy Keach embodied a cartoon Johnson reconfigured as Shakespeare’s bloody thane, haunted by the ghost of his predecessor and bedeviled by the three “witches” of activism spelling his doom: students, blacks, and leftists. Controversial at the time for having its power-mad protagonist kill its Kennedy figure (“Jack O’Dunc”) just as Macbeth killed Duncan, MacBird! now seems astonishing for something else entirely. Was there really a time in our theater, and in our politics, when the two were so vitally engaged with each other? And when Johnson seemed the worst thing that could ever happen to our country?
The Public Theater, kindly giving local Shakespeareans a break from the exhausting parade of King Lears, is offering a “radical edit” of Antony and Cleopatra by the 32-year-old playwright and 2013 MacArthur fellow Tarell Alvin McCraney. Edited or not, Antony and Cleopatra, written around the same year as Lear, poses some of the same difficulties; its story, though brilliant in précis and overflowing with beautiful poetry, plays out like a deliberate exercise in diminishing returns. Some three dozen characters speak, not to mention supernumeraries; the action careens almost drunkenly about the Mediterranean; and what started as an exquisite rarity — a study of passionate love between great equals — winds up as a count-the-corpses Grand Guignol.
Not content to defy credulity, The Last Kiss — an astonishingly vapid 1932 play by the justly forgotten team of Erbmann, Landor, and Marmel — dares to defy mathematics as well. After all, a big fat zero of a script like this should not be divisible by three. And a mere handful of bad actors should not be able to manufacture, as they have in the revival just opened in New Haven, a lifetime’s worth of theatrical disaster.
Or so a reviewer might have responded to the dreadful play-within-a-play that makes up the first act of Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, opening now — in reality — at Playwrights Horizons. Happily, I can report that Stage Kiss itself is a gift and a rarity: a superb new romantic comedy that does justice to both sides of the genre equation. It’s moving, smart, and flat-out hilarious.
In 1982, I was a lowly intern on an ambitious Hal Prince musical called A Doll’s Life. With a book by (of all people) Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it was a very dark look at what might have happened to Ibsen’s Nora Helmer in the months after she infamously slammed the door on her husband and children in A Doll’s House — and what might have happened to womanhood in general in the hundred years since. This line of inquiry presupposed that the play could use updating: that its verities, shocking in 1879, were not quite eternal. I’m not sure that having Nora lead a strike in a herring cannery and then become a noted parfumier made her story more timely (or credible); in any case, despite glorious music by Larry Grossman, A Doll’s Life flopped big-time. Meanwhile, A Doll’s House keeps going, in many years still among the most produced plays in the world.
Biographical plays, when they fail, usually do so in one of two ways. Some, like the recent Becoming Dr. Ruth, are busy travelogues of the subject’s life, narrating the major events as if from a tour bus but skimping on current drama. Others, like End of the Rainbow, featuring Judy Garland at her sad-clown finale, focus a microscope on a moment of crisis that is almost by definition unrepresentative. David Henry Hwang’s Kung Fu, about the martial arts star Bruce Lee, somehow manages to fail both ways: It’s busy and false. Its many crises feel artificially constructed, even if they are biographically accurate, and it never achieves a recognizably human, in-the-moment texture.
Will everyone with ringside tickets kindly rise and proceed to take your places.” A boxing ring, with a burly announcer at its center, is descending from the rafters of the Winter Garden Theatre. “Welcome to tonight’s heavyweight fight! Live from Philadelphia …” The actor is interrupted by raucous cheers and applause—though not for him. It’s ten days until the first preview of Rocky the musical, and a particularly complicated piece of technological razzmatazz has made its debut without a hitch.
The orchestra of the Winter Garden—where the musical based on Sylvester Stallone’s iconic 1976 film will open on March 13—has been transformed into a kind of mission control. Half the seats are covered with tables, each a hub for the various departments—choreography, lighting, costume, set design, and on and on—involved in the tech rehearsals that lead up to previews. At the center table sits Alex Timbers, the 35-year-old ringmaster behind this $16.5 million circus, which debuted to rapturous reviews in Hamburg, Germany, in the fall of 2012. Timbers high-fives his production assistants on his way to the stage. “The trick with shows like this is to not get too bogged down in the minutiae or you’ll never get out of tech, like one of those crazy European shows that spend six months to produce 30 minutes of shadow puppetry.” He bounces down the aisle to discuss an errant spotlight, which apparently doesn’t fall under minutiae.
The lights come up, with no fuss or pizazz, on a plainly dressed farmwoman, the endless American heartland stretching behind her. Are we in Oklahoma? Or even Oklahoma!? No, it’s Iowa, but we may be forgiven for thinking of Aunt Eller with her butter churn. And though the thought is quickly dispelled as we learn, in a long musical sequence including barcaroles and waltzes and arias and chorales, that this woman, Francesca, came to the town of Winterset as a war bride from Naples, and that she is beautiful and sad and in a state of perma-longing, the connection to Rodgers and Hammerstein is not irrelevant. The Bridges of Madison County, though based on an insipid novel, is a very serious musical indeed, both rapturous and moral, with a gorgeous score by Jason Robert Brown. It is also one of the few recent Broadway shows to take up the challenge laid down by the great midcentury works of R&H and their cohort: to tell stories that weld important sociological upheavals to personal conflicts and somehow make them sing.
I worried when it was announced that k.d. lang, the anti-capitalist chanteuse, would be replacing Fantasia Barrino in After Midnight — a revue I found just about perfect when it opened in November. Not that it seemed likely the producers of such a delicious and tasteful production, celebrating the music and dance styles of the Cotton Club during its heyday, would rotate hordes of has-beens and never-weres into the guest-star role. I wasn’t actually expecting to see, say, Carrot Top, and then Joe Biden. Still, worse has happened on Broadway — I’m looking at you, Chicago. And it wasn’t clear how lang’s demeanor and voice would suit the material, or how lang herself, now 52, would be suited. Not, surely, in Fantasia’s stunning cut-to-there gowns by Isabel Toledo!
Too many contemporary plays, though chewy at the start, are stale by the end. Aggressively interesting premises use up all their dramaturgical energy, leaving nothing to grow on as the minutes tick by. And time is not good to them in the larger sense, either. After fading in the second hour, they then fade completely in the following year. A decade on, they are empty shells with interchangeable titles. But despite its generic moniker, that has not been the case with Donald Margulies’s Dinner with Friends, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2000 and a quiet stunner once again in the Roundabout’s radiant revival at the Laura Pels. It grows as it goes, and seems more substantial now than ever. Hard to say whether that’s because it has ripened like the tomatoes and wines it so obsessively considers — “What do you think of the Shiraz?” — or because time has ripened audiences into a deeper consideration of its sweet-and-sour midlife themes. Probably both. At any rate, it’s delicious.
Hugh Jackman will return to take over hosting duties for the Tonys this year, taking over for Neil Patrick Harris, who is likely busy starring in John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch Broadway revival (for which he is eligible for nomination). No matter: Jackman has been saving up those exuberant screams and enthusiastic arms for a few years now. No doubt you'll see plenty of both when he emcees the June 8 show.
She'll star opposite Ewan McGregor in a revival of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, which opens in October. Gyllenhaal will play Annie, the (spoiler, kind of) second wife who keeps going on and on about the guy locked in prison. We continue to look forward to this play!
Charles Busch is generally considered the most successful camp playwright of the last 30 years, but according to Susan Sontag’s famous definition, the idea of “successful camp” is an oxymoron. For Sontag, the essential element of camp is “a seriousness that fails.” Where does that leave Busch? He writes comedies. The “straight” ones, like The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which ran for two years on Broadway and had a healthy national tour, are arguably about campy people, so wrapped up in their own dramas they don’t know how ridiculous they seem. The others, like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and The Divine Sister, are satires of camp: movie pastiches featuring performers (almost always including Busch himself) who wear drag and impersonate beloved old divas. Neither variety is aiming for seriousness, and so can’t fail at it. Better simply to call Busch a comic playwright and let his work succeed or flop on its merits. His latest, The Tribute Artist, which tries to combine both styles in one package, does both.
Apologies to your aunt, who just shattered every bone in her hand trying to dial your mother faster than humanly possible to tell her about Oprah Winfrey's potential Broadway debut. The New York Times reports that Winfrey is in talks to appear in 'night Mother next year alongside five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, star of Porgy and Bess and A Raisin in the Sun. We're so glad that acting in Lee Daniel's The Butler last year finally got Oprah back on track to get her EGOT. It is going to be quite a ride.
Almost since the series began in 1994, Encores! has sparked arguments about what kinds of old musicals it should be reviving. If they’re still commercially viable, as Chicago clearly was, do they deserve the reconstructive effort? If they’re artistically minor but historically important, will they interest enough people to fill City Center? And if they’re in between, aren’t they too in-between? Myself, I haven’t cared what shows Encores! does as long as it does them justice. I enjoy understanding what even a creaky old operetta might have sounded like and meant in its time. Yet with Little Me, the first show of its twenty-first season, Encores! may finally have met a musical that doesn’t suit the mission. It’s neither great nor awful, revivable nor irredeemable. In some ways it’s barely a musical at all.
There are good plays about athletes but not about sports. For one thing, the big-world stakes are too low: A game, after all, is only a game. And although baseball (for example) is theatrical in the ancient sense of being a public entertainment featuring costumes, choreography, and even a few masks, it develops no argument. Strategies may be complex and subtle, the human interactions on the diamond as various as off it, but there are only two endings, a win and a loss. And barring bad weather, each engagement invariably produces both.
Let the rehearsals begin for Neil Patrick Harris, who's starring in Broadway's Hedwig and the Angry Inch this spring. "Today was our first music rehearsal with the band," he told Vulture last night, at the Drama League's annual gala, held in his honor. "They’re a rock band ... Tits of Clay. We don’t fuck around." (Here's Tits of Clay getting introduced on the musical's Facebook page.) Harris plays the title character, a transgender rock musician originated by John Cameron Mitchell, who also wrote the book for the show. "I’m doing all kinds of prep," Harris told us. "I’m studying Bowie and Iggy and Lou and Tina. I’m working; I’m dancing around in heels for hours, and wigs, and changing my posture and losing weight." His quads are okay, he assured us, but "it’s a lot of flection. I’m used to standing kind of in stasis more, but I’m realizing now that women in heels stand at attention a lot more than guys do. I’ve got to stick my tits out a lot." Tits of clay? "They'll be tomatoes, but similar," he says. "You’ll have to come and see."
Partway through the meal at Queen of the Night, a hunky performer who had just finished an astonishing series of leaps onstage approached my dinner table and looked around. It was like gym class all over again, only this time I was chosen. He motioned for me to follow him. When we reached a dim corridor, he took my glasses, started nuzzling my neck, and said, improbably, that I smelled like desire. What was the etiquette here? Should I have whispered, “Thanks, and you smell like an acrobat”? Should I have taken the opportunity to compensate for nineteen years of monogamy by nuzzling back? Or complained that another audience member had recently come to my table and stolen a lobster?
The playwright Thomas Bradshaw isn’t much interested in your pleasure, but he sure seems to enjoy your discomfort. Sex, violence, humiliation, and racism are not just themes for him; they’re stage directions. In works like Purity, Southern Promises, The Bereaved, and Burning, he took explicitness of all kinds to a level guaranteed to cause walkouts or worse. Scott Brown, writing for Vulture about The New Group’s production of Burning in 2011, used the words “turgid,” “psychopathic,” and “wartlike.” They fall short in describing Intimacy, Bradshaw’s followup provocation, also at the New Group. After all, Burning was merely (as the director of both, Scott Elliot, writes in a program note) “a seminal experience.” Intimacy, especially from the front row, is that and more.
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