Under the Wire

I saw the following shows just in the nick of time. It seemed that my schedule might force me to skip them, but my gut instinct told me I had to see them, come hell or highwater. As a result, I saw all three shows on their closing weekends, two of which I attended the final performance. Jerusalem and Master Class both had extended limited engagements on Broadway, while Sammy Gets Mugged was scheduled for a five performance run as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.

Jerusalem – I love big British plays, so Jerusalem had been on my radar for some time when it hit Broadway this spring. Mark Rylance was offering his second tour de force of the season as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a performance which swept London by storm, and was also incredibly well received here in NY. The play had a surprising effect on me; it was visceral and surprisingly funny in spite of its vulgarity and the generally disagreeable nature of practically everyone on stage. Rylance is just staggering. I marveled at the sheer physicality of his performance. (He thanks his chiropracter and trainer in his bio). I am amazed that a single human being can deliver a performance like this just once, let alone that 8 times a week (and will do another four months in London starting this fall). On top of his physicality, it is a performance of extraordinary range and depth. I was startled by the play’s effect on me; the third act left me quite rattled and I left the theatre literally trembling. Strangely enough, Jerusalem reminded me of E.M. Forster’s Howards End in its exploration of the impact of social and economic change on England. Kudos to director Ian Rickson for staging the play with bravado. Able support was provided by the ensemble, most notably Mackenzie Crook and Geraldine Hughes.

Sammy Gets Mugged – I only saw one Fringe show this year, in my first real visit to the Lower East Side and the Living Theatre. There was supposed to be one more performance of Sammy, but Hurricane Irene made the performance I attended the closing. Playwright Dan Heching’s play is loosely based on his own experience being mugged in Paris a few years ago. Using that traumatic as a stepping stone, Heching explores subjective memory and perception  – and a la Rashomon we see different perspectives on the same incident. The cast of three was nimbly directed by Noah Himmelstein, who staged the play with imagination and clarity. Patrick Byas was simply superb as the Mugger, the most fully realized character in the piece. Stephanie Pope Caffey added grand support and a deft comic touch as the sole witness. Heching himself played Sammy, and while he was charming and likable, I feel that Heching needs to step aside and let another actor play the role in its next incarnation. I look at Sammy Gets Mugged as a work in progress, therefore stepping out of the play will allow Heching, the playwright, to fully realize the scope and potential of the play he has written.

Master ClassI will see Tyne Daly in anything. Mama Tyne, as I like to call her, is one of the most fascinating – and I think underrated – actresses working today. She is not typical casting for La Divina Maria Callas, but then again neither was Zoe Caldwell, who originated the role in 1995. Having seen her play various characters off-Broadway in Love, Loss and What I Wore and her delicious cabaret outing at Feinstein’s, I became convinced that Tyne can do anything. One of the things to remember is that the play is a fantasia on the life of the great opera diva and so those looking for a bioplay should just read a book about her instead. Tyne was in total command of the stage from her entrance to her exit. She was funny, she was scathing and ultimately she was captivating – especially during those two aria like monologues where we step out of the reality of the classroom and into Maria’s memories. She found the humor, pathos and heartbreak (you should have heard the audience sobbing toward the end of act 2) in the myth of a woman who may be the most legendary opera singer. It was fascinating to see her take the students, break them down and build them back up (especially Garrett Sorenson, whose acting may not be the strongest but whose aria brought down the house). Jeremy Cohen had quiet charm as the accompanist, while Clinton Brandhagen scored big laughs as the unimpressed stagehand. It was the final performance, and during the curtain call each actor presented Tyne with an orange, a reference to a gesture at the top of the second act. It was charming and lovely, and a beautiful way for Tyne’s towering performance to top off its acclaimed Broadway run.

Two a Day

After taking a two month hiatus, I finally made a triumphant return to the Great White Way. Alright, so it doesn’t actually call for a title song with high-kicks down a staircase, but it’s really good to be back in the Midtown area, inspite of the tourists. I convinced fellow blogger and regular partner in crime Roxie to play hooky from work (almost, she worked the morning) and have a two-show Wednesday with me.

First up was the Tony winning Best Revival of a Play, Boeing-Boeing (sad they relegated this to the off-air hour that wasn’t televised). It was my first time back in the Longacre since Well and the restoration is complete. Rox and I agreed that we didn’t particularly care for the peach-pink paintjob, but the hunter green seats are quite nice and more comfortable than I expected. All I can say about Boeing-Boeing is that it is a fast-paced, first rate and furiously funny production of a rather unremarkable farce. It’s a testament to the company that they can take something that in less capable hands would be lethal and turn it into a comic gold mine. The cast, extraordinarily directed by Matthew Warchus, stars my new hero, Mark Rylance in his Tony-winning Broadway debut, Bradley Whitford and Christine Baranski. The gist of it, Whitford is a savvy businessman in Paris is romancing three stewardesses from three different airlines (each from a different country), played by the gam-happy trio of Kathryn Hahn as the obnoxious American, Gina Gershon as the lusty Italian Gabriella and the scene-stealing, Tony nominated Mary McCormack as the German amazon Gretchen. (Note: Gershon was out, her understudy is the incredibly talented and uber-sexy Roxanna Hope). Rylance plays his childhood friend from Wisconsin, a naive sad sack type who gets thrust into the middle of the hectic day in which Whitford’s carefully calculated affairs collide with the inevitable date with oblivion. Rylance was endearingly funny, as he does his best to cover for his friend, getting more and more outrageous as the play goes on. Whitford excels as the swaggering businessman who suffers panic attacks when his careful existence is threatened. (One of the day’s highlights is when Whitford literally climbs the walls of his apartment while Rylance rolls himself under the carpet). Baranski is a delightfully droll highlight as the long-suffering yet chic maid Berthe. This is the first farce I’ve enjoyed in NY since the 2002 revival of the superlative Noises Off! and you know what? We could use more of this genre in NY. Whitford and McCormack leave the show this Sunday. The rest shall carry on the funny at the Longacre for hopefully quite some time. Here’s his hilariously offbeat acceptance speech at the 2008 Tony Awards, which consisted of his recitation of a prose poem:

In between shows we grabbed dinner at O’Lunney’s with my best friend Matt who happened to be in NY for some auditions where he and Roxie discovered the secret to interpretive dance in Sondheim. The results were nothing short of hilarious. Then as if the comedic gods were still smiling post matinee, an old guy walked into the restroom on Matt directly across from our table, at which point Roxie and I went into complete hysterics. (Who doesn’t love a little low comedy in real life?) Loving the O’Lunney pens, I made sure to grab a handful in the greatest tradition of Sophia Petrillo. (What? I love how they write!)

That night we took in The Marriage of Bette and Boo at the Laura Pels. So far, Roxie and I have taken in both Juno and Inner Voices because of great affection for Victoria Clark. Needless to say, we were going to continue the trend with this revival of Christopher Durang’s darkly absurdist comedy that deconstructs a complex marriage (ripe with Catholicism) over the course of 3o years. Clark was joined onstage by John Glover, Julie Hagerty (who shouldn’t be allowed to ever leave NY theatre), Kate Jennings Grant (whom I adored in Proof and is a decidedly lovely human being as well) and the standout, Terry Beaver, who dominates in the second act as Fr. Donnally, the family priest, with two glorious monologues about marriage and death (leading, respectively, a marriage counseling session and a funeral). One of the highlights of the entire day was the moment in which gives the congregation his impression of a piece of bacon in a frying pan. As someone brought up in the Catholic faith, with nine years of parochial school and countless years in choirs and as an altar server, I could relate to practically everything going on in the play, and laugh at it with knowing incredulity. Clark scored comedic pathos in a scene involving a birthday cake, quite possibly her best moment of the entire evening.

Non-sequitur: I was at one time an incredibly obedient practicing Catholic, so much so that it was thought I’d be a priest. Some even went as far as suggesting I’d be the first American pope. However, I had my “calling” in seventh grade when I decided that I wasn’t about to go through life without sex. Many people laugh when I relay this story.

Anyway, it’s definitely not a play for the faint of heart. The diabolically funny running gag of the play is that Bette constantly delivers stillborns, with the unceremonious dumping of the baby on the stage by the doctor, which eventually lends itself to swaddled bundle being tossed in from the wings. I imagine were I still a devout Catholic I might be offended at what was going on, but years of religious disillusionment open one’s mind to the appreciation of such goings on. (Oh the irony…)

As I type this, Adam LeFevre, who played Paul Brennan in Bette and Boo is currently on TV in a bit role on “Law & Order: SVU.”