"Brighton Beach Memoirs" – An Elegy

Watching the family of seven in Brighton Beach Memoirs trip over one another, share dinners, get into squabble and fights and sort through the chaos of daily living made me smile knowingly as I recalled my own childhood. My mother, my father, my three brothers and myself lived together in a house in suburban Westchester, with rampant Irish Catholicism and its trimmings in lieu of Judaism. My father worked as a firefighter and house-painter while my mother tended to the household and make some extra money by babysitting neighborhood kids. Our financial situation was never as dire as the Jerome family, but I think back and wonder how we ever managed to survive together in the house, as I found myself sharing a bedroom with my brothers while six of us sharing two bathrooms. This is never more evident than when all of us reconvene at the family home and we find ourselves near claustrophobic. The chaos of my youth has turned into warm memories of days gone by.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising to discover that The Neil Simon Plays are closing up shop tomorrow after an unfortunately brief run at the Nederlander. Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound were to play in rep, with David Cromer making his Broadway directorial debut (and whose Our Town continues at the Barrow Street Theatre). However, ticket sales have been poor; last week’s average ticket price was $21.32. When the show opened to mixed to positive reviews last Sunday night, the writing was all but on the wall.

Originally I had planned to wait to see both shows in marathon, since The Norman Conquests proved that a full day at the theatre is most exhilarating. However, when I started to hear from the rumor mill that Broadway Bound would be canceled, I took the opportunity to see Brighton Beach Memoirs this past Tuesday. Much like my experiences with Coram Boy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Souvenir, I find myself looking back on a show that deserved a better fate and a longer run.

Loosely based on Neil Simon’s childhood, the plays are 2/3 of a trilogy (the other being Biloxi Blues) about the growing up of Eugene Jerome, a precocious kid from an impoverished Jewish American family in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn who simultaneously dreams of playing for the New York Yankees in the World Series and becoming a writer. The shows opened in the 1980s, where they were some of the longest running plays of the decade (with Brighton running for 1,299 performances) and established Matthew Broderick’s career (for better or for worse) and garnered Linda Lavin a Tony award (for Broadway Bound).

Cromer has directed his ensemble with pinpoint precision, finding great emotional depth in a play that could easily be played for cheap laughs. Showcasing the humanity of its story and its characters, these characters are fully-formed, dimensional and part of an American family, which also happens to be Jewish. Nowhere is this more evident than in the triumphant, ultimately moving performance of Laurie Metcalf as matriarch Kate who runs her harried household with tough love and a consistently stern exterior. However, it is in the nuance and specificity of Metcalf’s choices that make her a stand-out among the ensemble. There is a particularly striking moment as she descends the staircase while having a breakdown, leading into the first major argument she’s ever had with her sister. Her obvious one-liners and zingers come from a place of deep emotional resonance. Nazism is rapidly expanding in Europe, talk of war becomes more and more prevalent and all the while, she is left to make sure that a family of seven is sheltered and fed. Kate Jerome is a woman who is moving forward with the weight of the world on her shoulders. I only hope that the Tony nominating committee will remember her performance come June.

If Metcalf’s Kate is the rock upon which her family is built her performance is beautifully complemented by Dennis Boutsikaris as her husband Jack, the heart of the household. Jessica Hecht is virtually inrecognizable as Kate’s widow-turned-wallflower sister who lives with them and gradually finds the strength to become an effectual mother to her young daughters (Grace Bea Lawrence and Alexandra Socha). Santino Fontana is winning and winsome as Kate’s eldest son Stanley, who means well but often lands himself in trouble.

Then there is Noah Robbins. The young actor is nineteen years old and making his professional acting debut, let alone first appearance on Broadway. As the alter ego for the playwright, his character guides the evening as an observational narrator, a testament to the uncanny writing ability that he and other family members espouse. (And by extension, Mr. Simon himself). It was especially touching to see his wisecracks and commentary rounded out by his coming of age, and the metaphoric end of his childhood. With the show’s closing, I only wish him the best of luck as he embarks on what could be a most promising acting career.

It is disheartening for the show to fold so prematurely. The plays that are attracting the stars these days tend to be anything with major movie stars. It’s unfair that the show should suffer the stigma of a 9 performance run, but that is unfortunately part of the unpredictable nature of show business. It just seems as though there wasn’t great audience interest in these seminal Neil Simon works. Cromer is establishing himself as a director of merit in the New York scene, and his work here is consistent, compelling and often moving. One of the things I was most impressed was how he and his actors found a way to tell a nostalgic story without getting lost in a sea of diabetes-inducing sentimentality.

After the curtain call of Brighton Beach Memoirs, I turned to Noah and commented how much I was looking forward to seeing the second play. I feel for the entire ensemble, particularly Mr. Robbins and his Broadway Bound counterpart Josh Grisetti, a fresh-faced off-Broadway up and comer who won a Theatre World Award for last season’s Enter Laughing. One made an auspicious Broadway debut, and the other was poised to do the same. Beg, borrow or steal to get a ticket to see this one before it closes tomorrow afternoon – you won’t want to have missed it.

The question has been brought up whether or not Mr. Simon is still relevant to Broadway audiences, as his works have been met with indifference in recent years. I think it’s still to early to write him off just yet – he’ll be represented this spring at the Broadway Theatre with the revival of Promises, Promises, for which he wrote the libretto.

"Finian’s Rainbow" Shines on Broadway

The powers that be behind the Roundabout revival of Bye Bye Birdie, the new textbook example of how not to revive a second-tier Golden Age property, should look to the St. James Theatre to learn a thing or two. The seemingly unrevivable Finian’s Rainbow has made its way back to Broadway in a loving, vibrant production that illustrates the enchanting wit and charm that made the show a resounding success in its original production.

The musical, last seen on Broadway in 1960, has had something of a problem in receiving a full-scale revival. The libretto by Fred Saidy and lyricist Yip Harburg is generally considered the deal-breaker in resuscitating the show. While it combines elements of fantasy and whimsy with a satiric look at racial bigotry and capitalism, the book has long been considered dated, and rightly so. It is dated. Finian’s Rainbow was a period satire written in 1947 that surprised audiences with its storyline, which included a white racist senator being transformed onstage into a black man, with the use of black face. The stage trick worked for a 1940s audience, but would prove disconcerting to our more racially aware society. There’s also a leprechaun turning mortal while looking for a stolen pot of gold, a mute who communicates solely through dance, among other hijinks.

The Encores! presentation brought in resident script doctor David Ives to condense the problematic book, but in doing so left much to be desired as too much of the story was stripped away. A brand new adaptation has been arranged for the Broadway transfer, executed by Arthur Perlman which is a considerable improvement. While it doesn’t completely smooth out the script’s roughest edges, it manages to make them somewhat more palatable. (And I do love the exchange between Finian and Og involving popular musical theatre lyrics of the time).

Kate Baldwin is effervescent as Sharon McLonergan, a feisty colleen finding herself transplanted from her native Ireland to Rainbow Valley, Missitucky on her father’s whim. Sharon’s first song of the evening is the popular “How Are Things in Glocca Mora?” and Baldwin’s simple, lucid interpretation is the most spellbinding I’ve ever heard. Cheyenne Jackson is her paramour Woody, the town’s hero, who cuts a dashing figure and sings well, but is, dare I say it, wooden. Jim Norton ties together the entire production as Finian McLonergan, who incites chaos by stealing a pot of gold from a leprechaun in one of the more outrageous get-rich quick schemes known to drama. With a twinkle in his eye, and a skip in his gait, Norton appears to be having the time of his life.

There has been some recasting of roles since the Encores concert. Christopher Fitzgerald brings considerable comic charm and impishness to the leprechaun Og, and is a versatile improvement over his predecessor. David Schramm (Roy from Wings) plays Senator Rawkins with a vivacity reminiscent of the late Burl Ives, while his counterpart Chuck Cooper has a field day with the second act number “The Begat.” (It boggles my mind that no one ever thought of double casting the part before). Audience favorite Terri White belts out the rafter-shaking “Necessity,” repeating her duties from the Encores concert. However, one major difference – her performance on Broadway (as written and staged) was more of a genuine supporting turn rather than the glorified cameo it was at Encores.

Warren Carlyle’s staging and choreography are full and energetic, with “If This Isn’t Love” practically stopping the show. His earlier work from the Encores! production has been expanded and adds a certain clarity to what is essentially a convoluted story. He has the light touch necessary to bring his cast of 30 above and beyond what is normally expected from this show, and it would be interesting to see his work on top tier Golden Age material. (I wonder if he might be the man for Carnival!). The costume and lighting design are sumptuous, however, the set design by John Lee Beatty is surprisingly unattractive. There is a lovely patchwork show curtain, but the unit set is a gaudy extension of the Encores set up, which is unfortunate since the orchestra was moved to the pit.

As it was at Encores, the real star of the evening is the music of Burton Lane and lyrics of Yip Harburg. Harburg was known especially for his word play, and his tongue in cheek playfulness with the English language is complemented by Lane’s sophisticated use of melody. I dare you to leave Finian’s without one at least one of those songs running through your head. I’ve always admired its score. Harburg’s lyrics are always superlative (even his work in the flop Darling of the Day is better than most contemporary successes) and Lane is one of our most underrated composers (I enjoy On a Clear Day and even Carmelina). The score is one superb musical delight after another.

I should confess, I was never a big fan of Finian’s Rainbow. It’s story and script have left me rather cold over the years, and that certainly wasn’t helped by the tepid film adaptation or Ella Logan’s bizarre idiosyncratic performance as Sharon on the original cast album (one of the rare occurences where I prefer a revival album to the original). However, the vivacity of this production has made me reassess my opinion of the entire show, as I find myself hoping to make a return visit.

When the show played the City Center last March, I still wasn’t entirely convinced that it was worthy of a Broadway run. (The only Encores! I’ve ever felt was ready for Broadway was the superlative No No Nanette from 2008). However, in bringing Finian’s Rainbow to the St. James, much care has gone into making it a fully realized evening, and one with warmth to spare. For whatever quibbles there are with the script, the polish and poise in Carlyle’s production is enough to keep you smiling long after you’ve gone home looking for your own rainbow.

"Avenue Q" Rises Again

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but the final preview of the current Off-Broadway transfer of the Tony-winning smash hit Avenue Q was my first time ever seeing the show. There was really no excuse for my not having seen it before, as its been around for six and a half years. But sometimes even the good ones fall through the cracks – I didn’t see Hairspray until its penultimate performance. Anyway, this little musical that could, which famously upset juggernaut blockbuster Wicked for the 2004 Best Musical Tony, played 2,534 performances at the John Golden Theatre and closed up shop on September 13.

However, in the best closing notice coup since Roger Berlind announced the revival of Kiss Me Kate would remain open after 9/11, producer Kevin McCollum stunned all in the audience and onstage with the news that the show would reopen at New World Stages the following month. In this day and age of Twitter, Facebook, et al, it’s stunning that they were able to keep this secret so airtight.

But now the show, a Sesame Street style spoof on post-collegiate life in NY, has reopened at New World Stages 3, comprised of many Avenue Q alumni from the Broadway run and national tour. So while I don’t have much perspective of how the show played on Broadway, but I can’t help but feel that the more intimate the space the better. (I entered the Golden for the first time two weeks ago, and it felt even a trifle too big for even Oleanna and it’s one of the smallest Broadway houses).

So how did I miss this show? Well, I’ll admit. I get very excited for an original cast and try to see a show when it’s fresh and new. My first experiences on Broadway involved tired companies of juggernaut musicals that felt more like death warmed over than exciting live theatre (Miss Saigon and Cats). It wasn’t until my 3rd experience, with the revival of the aforementioned Kiss Me Kate (and its original cast), that I felt this post-show rush that can be best described as floating ten feet in the air. Ever since, I’m wary of any production once the originals leave – particularly in a musical.

Well, I am sorry I waited for so long. The show is what it is – a ribald, irreverent but timely pastiche. Its explorations of life in New York City aren’t exactly going to erase your memories of Company, but the creators use the familiar techniques employed by children’s shows to create an endearingly satiric portrait of adulthood. So instead of learning our ABCs and 123s, we are treated to such Tony-winning musical gems (courtesy of Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez) as “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet is for Porn,” and “Schadenfreude.” There are the instructional animated films, the requisite marginally older & wiser humans, and inevitably the life lessons (“There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and “For Now”). What truly impressed me was the strength of the Tony-winning book by Jeff Whitty, which is much sharper in focus than many of the other self-referential musicals that have come after Avenue Q.

The engaging cast is comprised of Q alums, many of whom were involved in the final Broadway company. Seth Rettberg leads the charge as Princeton & Rod and illuminates the stage with offbeat charm. I can’t decide which is funnier: his delivery of “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada” or the ensemble’s outrageous pregnant pause that greets it. Sassy beltress Anika Larsen as Kate Monster & Lucy T. Slut is a petite powerhouse, with an especially showstopping delivery of “Special.” Cullen R. Titmas scores big as Trekkie Monster and Nicky. Nicholas Kohn and the irrepressible Sala Iwamatsu comprise the incongruous couple of Brian and Christmas Eve.

However, for whatever reason, my favorite is Maggie Lakis, who mostly provides silent support as an extra puppeteer but scores the biggest laughs of the evening as one of the Bad Idea Bears. Whenever Ms. Lakis is onstage, I couldn’t help but watch her. Not that she steals focus, mind you. She is just that fascinating a presence in a unsung performance ripe with humor and stagecraft.

There were two unexpectedly personal moments for me in the show. One was Princeton’s opening “What Do You Do With a BA in English?” I actually picked up one of those some years back and am still asking myself that question on a regular basis. The other, and one a bit more poignant, was “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” a reflective moment where the ensemble contemplates what were arguably the best years of their lives. I turned to my friend and fellow blogger Jimmy mid-song and said “That was my weekend.” I was at my alma mater for an alumni weekend reception hosted by the Theatre Arts department, my other area of study (talk about a win-win…)

While greeting old friends and faculty, I had the chance to mingle with bright, optimistic and engaged theatre students who were anywhere from five to eight years younger than I am now. (I’m 26). In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago, but we (Roxie and myself) started pondering when did we get so old, and why do these kids look so young? In the six years since the show opened (and closed and reopened), life for the post-bachelor’s student has grown increasingly more difficult and how strange that most of the themes pertaining to the show are still relevant to most of the people I know under the age of 30. This show got me thinking about myself, where I’m going and what I am doing with myself. And all they had to do was use puppets. Not many shows have that sort of effect on me, the most recent I can think of being the short-lived Reasons to Be Pretty.

Kudos to the house staff at New World Stages, who go the extra mile to make sure that there are no cell phone interruptions during the show. (Including reminding someone in the press about the NYC statute against cell phone use inside a theatre). This was also my first experience with the in-seat drink service, something in which I might partake should I go back again (which, yes, I am already considering). Though, I wondered during the audience collection if alcohol was a factor in inspiring an audience member down front to throw a Nutri Grain bar at the cast…

The move to off-Broadway was surprising, but it makes sense. The show is built for intimacy, and it is more cost effective for the producers to run it in a 499 seat house outside of Broadway. (And apparently The 39 Steps may follow suit…? Who knew?) It’s also nice to see that the show is becoming a theatrical institution for the city. As long as there are fresh-faced college grads tackling the world head on, there will always be a place for Avenue Q. Especially in New York.

Revisiting "The 39 Steps"

When I first saw the delightful production of The 39 Steps at the American Airlines Theatre, I don’t think I could have anticipated that it would have run for two years. But it was the little play that could, and one of the rare plays to transfer not once, but twice. The show closes in January, but I decided that I should check in one last time before it goes.

Of the original cast members, only Arnie Burton remains. Sean Mahon (The Seafarer), Jill Paice (Curtains) and Jeffrey Kuhn (Assassins) have assumed the other roles. The show is still bright and vibrant, scoring many of the laughs. My enjoyment the first time I saw it was tempered by the fact that I was in a house with a great many Hitchcock-philes. This time around, there weren’t as many but it still managed to crack myself up, along with my show people SarahB and Byrne.

The play is still a mastery of theatrical invention and cleverness. Slyly self-aware, the evening moves at a rapid pace as memorable moments from Hitchcock’s original film are recalled, with nods and winks at many of the famed director’s other works. It’s still a jaw-dropping marvel watching Man #1 and Man #2 (Kuhn and Burton) switch off between about hundred roles throughout the evening, as they switch off hats or wigs, dresses for trench coats with razor-sharp precision and flawless timing. While not the doppelganger for Robert Donat that the role’s originator Charles Edwards was, Mahon brings charisma and bemusing wit as Richard Hannay, the “wrong man” at the center of the story. Paice is a pleasure to watch as his three leading ladies, with an especially hilarious over-the-top Scottish brogue.

The highlight remains the recreation of the chase on the Scottish moors, presented as a shadow puppet display. In a post show talk back we found out that that was a favorite moment for everyone in the show, as it is the moment involving the entire cast and crew. There’s even the Hitchcock cameo. These and every other moments are so innately clever and imaginative that during the moments you’re not laughing out loud, you’re grinning from ear to ear. Watching Kuhn and Burton re-enact the hotel lobby scene still blows my mind.

My one issue with the show remains: it would work better without an intermission. Granted, I’m sure the actors can use the 15 minutes to catch their breath and regroup for the second half, but it would just add to the flow of the evening if it kept going in one shot. The show’s final performance at the Helen Hayes Theatre is on January 10, 2010 after 771 performances, making it the longest-running non-musical play in seven years.


I’ve long anticipated a Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie. The 1960 show, which took on the national frenzy over Elvis Presley’s drafting, was a sleeper hit and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Its success made Broadway stalwarts of director-choreographer Gower Champion, composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Lee Adams and librettist Michael Stewart. The show brought Dick Van Dyke to the attention of Hollywood and made a bona fide Broadway star out of Chita Rivera. The musical has its share of detractors and granted it’s a well-worn property, but I’ve always found it pleasant. The score is quite memorable, in its mix of character songs and rock and roll parodies. The book has a great deal of charm and warmth, and in spite of some creaking it can still work. It’s never failed to entertain me. That is until now.

Bye Bye Birdie has been brought back to Broadway by way of the Roundabout Theatre Company in what is one of the most charmless, miscast and misdirected revivals of a musical I have ever seen. There was considerable hype surrounding this revival as it’s the first time the show has been on Broadway since the original closed in 1961. It is also the inaugural production of the new Henry Miller’s Theatre on 43rd Street. One can only hope that the theatre’s next tenant isn’t as colossal a disappointment.

There was excitement as the house lights went down and the orchestra struck up that familiar overture. That was short-lived. After a clever tableau establishing the MacAfee family behind a scrim came an unnecessary montage of video projections showing screaming fans and the revival’s Birdie, Nolan Gerard Funk, gyrating in period costume. For some reason, my heart started to sink. The broad, cartoonish nature of this prologue hinted that the powers that be didn’t trust the material. It turned out to be much worse.

TV star John Stamos is headlining as Albert Peterson, the nerdy mama’s boy composer and would-be English teacher. Stamos has tackled the Broadway musical in the revivals of How to Succeed, Cabaret and Nine, and his singing is somewhat pleasant, but too inconsistent. His acting consists of two-dimensional facial expressions and constant mugging. The show’s breakout hit song, “Put on a Happy Face” showcases Mr. Stamos in what looks to be an homage to Dick Van Dyke – if Dick Van Dyke suffered from St. Vitus’ Dance. The rest of the show he spends meandering around the stage pouting. Perhaps twenty years ago he might have made an appropriate Conrad, but he completely misses the mark as Albert.

Gina Gershon, who also showed up in Cabaret and scored good notices for her work in the very funny Boeing Boeing last season, is entirely out of her element. She cannot sing. She cannot dance. And she is entirely lost at sea performing musical comedy material. Instead of hitting the notes, she scoops, spins and rattles around the music with an unpleasant vibrato. On the rare occasions she’s actually on pitch, it’s still nothing to cheer about. She recently told reporters that the “Shriner’s Ballet” was cut because it was too “gang-rapey.” After several tepid high kicks and awkward spins, it became quite obvious that she just couldn’t have handled it. She also somehow manages to make Rose, for whom the audience should cheer, unnecessarily cold and unlikable. To her credit, Gershon was the hardest working of the leads, clearly trying to make sense of her character but ultimately falling remarkably short.

The role of Rose Alvarez was originally written to be Polish for Carol Haney. After Haney got sick, they signed Chita Rivera and made necessary rewrites. Rose is a Puerto-Rican American (by way of Allentown, PA) who is written without a single cultural stereotype, and in fact spoofs them in “Spanish Rose” late in the second act. Of all the talented actresses in New York City, there wasn’t one musical theatre actress of Hispanic descent that could have played the part? It would have been an ideal vehicle for Andrea Burns or Karen Olivo, et al.

Jayne Houdyshell, who gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in Well, is merely adequate as Albert’s overbearing, racist mother Mae. She scores a few laughs but seeming somewhat uncomfortable in the part. The immensely talented Dee Hoty is entirely wasted in the non-role of Mrs. MacAfee. While always a welcome presence, Ms. Hoty deserves a better part in another musical. Allie Trimm, of last season’s 13, plays the ingenue Kim MacAfee. She gets off to a winning start in “How Lovely to be a Woman,” but is the victim of the monotony going on around her. Matt Doyle mostly blends into the scenery as Hugo while Nolan Gerard Funk plays Conrad Birdie like Ricky Nelson on a bad day.

The most egregious casting is Bill Irwin as Harry MacAfee. The role was originated by Paul Lynde, who put a definitive stamp on the part of Kim’s irascible, put-upon father. Irwin hasn’t a clue what he’s supposed to be doing with the character or with musical comedy, and compensates with bizarre, unintelligible line readings. (Not to mention the gothic horror that is his singing voice). The only way I can think to describe his performance is as an unsettling hybrid of William Shatner on crystal meth and Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Mr Irwin was nothing short of brilliant with his Tony-winning triumph in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and fascinating in last season’s overrated Waiting for Godot. But his performance here is an epic fail for an otherwise stellar presence in New York theatre. The audience seemed to eat up his shameless, inappropriate shtick, but it also seemed that they were laughing at the show, not with it.

If there is anyone to blame for this mess, it is director-choreographer Robert Longbottom. For two and a half hours he has actors onstage singing and dancing without giving them any reason to do so. There is such incongruity and incompatibility that the principals seem more suited for a road company of Lifeboat. There is no chemistry between anyone and ultimately no reason the audience should care. The show is a heartfelt, gentle send up of late 50s culture and calls for someone like Gower Champion to guide it with a light touch and a stroke of genius. Longbottom’s presentation of period satire is akin to a child hammering a rectangular block into a circular hole. The show should be effervescent and fun. Instead it feels forced, contrived and joyless.

The dancing is bland and unoriginal, and some of the production numbers are distractingly unpolished. In the middle of the second act, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” comes out of nowhere and goes back there almost instantly. This particular number goes on far too long and lands with a dull thud, which applies to practically everything in this maelstrom. The powers that be pointlessly switched “Kids” and its reprise. “Spanish Rose” comes off as spiteful afterthought. By this point, no one cares. And just when you thought it was safe to leave the theatre, the show curtain flies up for a tacked-on rendition of the film’s insanely catchy title song leading into the curtain call.

The costumes by Gregg Barnes hammer home when the show is set, but instead of designing for character he has designed for cleverness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the migraine-inducing sea of color-coordinated pastels worn by the ensemble, who look like rejects from a flimsy Universal-International feature. Not helping matters at all is the hideous set by Andrew Jackness, which is made up of unsightly sliding panels and traveling set pieces. The iconic “Telephone Hour” is ruined by cluttered, busy phone booths that overwhelm the teenagers. Whether or not it was their intention, their work outwardly mocks the show and the period in which it’s set. While we’re talking design, the unflattering fright wig Ms. Gershon wears at the top of the show gives her an uncanny resemblance to Amy Winehouse.

Not everything was a total loss. It was nice to see teenagers playing teenagers and they sure give it their best. The ensemble boasts some folks I’ve enjoyed in other shows: namely Jim Walton (virtually unrecognizable as the bartender), John Treacy Egan and the always delicious Patty Goble. And then there was the precocious Jake Evan Schwencke as Randolph MacAfee, who was the only one with lines who seemed to have a grasp on what he was supposed to be doing.

In a big surprise, the orchestra sounds extraordinary with new charts by Jonathan Tunick that emulate Robert Ginzler’s originals. (Tunick was a protege of Ginzler, and the so-called “Ginzler flutes” in “Put on a Happy Face” are homaged in Tunick’s orchestration of “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” from Follies). There are a whopping sixteen musicians listed in the Playbill. An orchestra this large is an unusual change of pace for Roundabout, who are notorious for skimping on the music.

Don’t be fooled by the cutesy advertising – the show is a bomb from the world go. If you’re looking to revisit this classic musical, you’d be better off waiting for your local high school or community production. Or if you need a quick fix, I suggest getting your hands on the superlative original cast album and having a listen at home. It’s worlds better than wasting your time and hard-earned money on the egg being laid by this Birdie at the Henry Miller.

Grey Area

During my senior year of college, one of my English professors was arrested and charged with the sexual abuse and assault of one his students (who for the record, was a woman in her early 40s). We were all shocked by the allegations, considering the professor was 81 years old at the time, had been partially paralyzed by a stroke and was a well-respected member of our university’s faculty. The professor in question was permanently banned from entering the school campus and denied his retirement benefits. He maintained his innocence, contending that their sexual encounter was entirely consensual and that she was one who instigated their physical relationship. Brought to court, the case was ultimately declared a mistrial based on inconsistent grand jury testimony by the alleged victim, her history of previous sexual accusations which were proven false, and an audiotape made after the arrest in which she admits the relationship was consensual.

I couldn’t help but think about that case while reading about Oleanna in the days leading up to seeing it. It got me thinking about sexual harassment and, to a greater extent sexual abuse and rape charges. Especially when these incidents occur within a stratified environment, such as a university or workplace, where power becomes a factor. Should my professor have embarked on a sexual relationship with one of his students? No. At least, in my opinion – I see it as an abuse of that power. But as is often the case with two sides of the same story, the truth usually lies somewhere in that murky grey area called the middle.

There’s not much to like about either character in David Mamet’s volatile two-hander. John is a pretentious middle-aged professor too preoccupied with his pending tenure approval to focus on his students. Carol is a hypersensitive feminist who comes in search of his help, but ends up leading both down a path from which there is no return. However, likability isn’t in question here, nor is it relevant.

The play itself is slight, clocking in at around 75 minutes. But, oh does it get intense. It was actually my very first experience seeing a David Mamet play. I don’t know how I’ve missed any of his stage or film work, but there you have it. It took me about the first ten minutes to identify and understand the rhythm that is essential to his rapid-fire dialogue. As soon as I got used to it, I was riveted. And then enraged. (Possible spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned).

Oleanna originally premiered in 1992, only a year after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy and it was an incendiary piece of theatre that got people talking and taking sides. Mamet was tackling hot-bed issues such as sexual harassment and political correctness at point blank. Well, the conversation is still happening as evidenced the other evening when I saw the play’s first-ever Broadway production. Director Doug Hughes originally staged this production in Los Angeles with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles to stellar reviews, and it has now transferred to Broadway’s Golden Theatre with its cast intact.

The first scene shows the two characters in his office (which seemed more like a dean’s office than anything I’ve ever seen for a tenuring professor). She is worried about failing his course and is seeking additional help. He’s too preoccupied with the preparations for the new house he and his family are about to move into. One, of course, befitting his new tenure track and accompanying pay raise. Exasperated and desperate, she’s constantly interrupted by the phone calls he receives. He’s not giving her his full attention, which comes across as insensitive and down-right rude. In fact, in her most vulnerable moment, he snubs her for that ever-ringing cell phone and then surprise party in his honor that he’s late for. However, his actions toward her in the scene don’t prepare the audience for the second half, where she becomes the dominant force in their student-teacher relationship, complete with allegations of sexual harassment.

Pullman acquits himself well as the stammering professor whose seemingly innocuous, if insensitive, actions turn out to provoke Carol into action. While some of his earlier lines were inaudible, he gets into a groove with the dialogue and character. Pullman successfully shows his unraveling as the world around him steadily spirals out of control, as Carol’s actions push him to his limits. Stiles, who naturally exudes intelligence and strength (as evidenced in much of her film work), seemed a bit out of place in the first half, but becomes more believable as the play progresses. I hope Stiles, who carries herself well onstage, makes this the first of many appearances on Broadway.

When the lights came up at the end of the play, I felt contempt for Carol. I wondered why she would ruin this man’s career and life by misconstruing their encounters. At most, I felt perhaps he was too open about his family life, but didn’t see physical or verbal evidence to support her allegations. Why did she take the words he said and distort them to use against him? What was her underlying motivation? Was it just a misunderstanding blown out of proportion? His initial actions in the first scene, to me anyway, seemed rather casual. Perhaps he was a bit too forward in disclosing his personal life, but I didn’t see anything that really overstepped the boundary of teacher and student in terms of physical and emotional intent.

Now, Mamet has also stacked the play against Carol, making it more difficult to sympathize with her side of the story, as well as believe her interpretation of the facts. Plus, there’s an incongruity in how she claims ignorance at his phrasing and sentence structure , yet has the ability to construct rather complex, academic statements on her own. Another head-scratcher was Carol’s decision to revisit John’s office after filing her rape charge. It’s goes against what law enforcement officials and legal counsel would advise, plus it’s highly unlikely that anyone would do such a thing without a third party present.

I turned to Sarah to discuss all of these thoughts and ideas and immediately learned her perspective and perception was the exact opposite of mine, but was also completely valid. We saw the same performance, but a different play. And in this case, that’s a good thing.

Even more spirited was the post-show talk back. Every preview has featured special guests from various backgrounds – the night we saw it there were two sexual harassment arbitrators. With the help of a moderator, they offer their perspective, but more importantly the audience has the chance to get voice their opinions. The reactions cover the broadest spectrum imaginable. People were anxious and eager to talk about what they had seen with ideas popping up left and right. Theories abounded that Carol was calculated and manipulative, or that she has borderline personality disorder, or that she was a used by her unseen (presumably) feminist group, to enact a curricular rebellion. When the question was posed as to whether Carol represented modern feminism, there were more than a few woman who jumped out of their seats vociferously answering “No!”

It reminded me of the atmosphere that permeated the Walter Kerr Theatre four years ago after I saw John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (also directed by Hughes) where people were talking about the truth of the situation – who was right, who was wrong. In both plays, you have two lead characters completely at odds with each other over their perception of events. Both plays got audiences talking as the houselights came up, with people taking sides and hashing it out with one another. In Doubt, Shanley offers a level playing field for both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. His ultimate goal is to put us in that grey area. However, Mamet is being more provocative, daring us to take a side.

At one point in the play, John talks about how we see the world through our own screens. We interpret everything through our own critical lens, which is colored by our life experiences and personal histories. Mamet takes the issues at hand, creates tense situations and uses the ideas to create the onstage dialogue in what is ultimately (if you’ll forgive me for being momentarily Mametian) a dramaturgical mind fuck. There are no right answers. There are no wrong answers. In fact, there is no simple answer for any of the questions raised by the play, just a continuing dialogue of ideas and perspectives.

Oleanna will make you uncomfortable. It should also make you tense, nervous and very likely really angry. It is for these reasons, though, that it should be seen. Be sure to stick around for the talk back; no doubt it will just as interesting (if not more) than the play.

"Am I Center…?"

By the time the curtain came down on the Manhattan Theatre Club revival of The Royal Family, I just wanted to be member of the Cavendish family, or to work for them (this is one of those plays where the staff is an extension of the nuclear). No matter how egocentric or childish these actors behave, there is never a shortness of heart. Even the most exasperating family member is accepted and embraced as part of this circle that is based in love, family and of course, the traditions of the theatre.

This is most evident toward the end of the play, when the entire family is gathered around looking at plans for a brand new play. There is excitement about the idea of putting on a new show, what it will look like, what it could be. It’s an excitement so rich you understand how this family functions. However, while they are busy bonding over their art, two suitors are shown as clear outsiders who stand around aimlessly and stand out like sore thumbs. They don’t understand the marriage between actor and craft, and they never will. The play simultaneously lampoons and celebrates what makes theatre the unique world it is.

I was incredibly optimistic about The Royal Family, a comedy-drama about a celebrated acting family written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Now, I had never read nor seen the play before. All I knew was its history. It premiered on Broadway in 1927, where it was a big success with audiences who would readily make the satiric connections with the Barrymore family. The Barrymores themselves had varying reactions. John went backstage to congratulate Fredric March on his performance in a Los Angeles production. Lionel declined to comment, while Ethel unsuccessfully sued. That didn’t quell the popularity of the show. It premiered in London as Theatre Royal, so as not to draw parallels with the British royalty, with Laurence Olivier. It was made into the film The Royal Family of Broadway in 1930, with March recreating his stage triumph as Tony Cavendish (based on John) to the tune of an Oscar nomination. It’s probably best known to today’s audiences by its exceptionally well-received 1975 Broadway revival. Ellis Rabb won a Tony for his direction (and quickly assumed the role of Tony) and it starred Rosemary Harris and Eva Le Gallienne as daughter and matriarch of the eccentric stage dynasty.

Reflecting one of the play’s themes, the torch has passed. Harris is again starring on Broadway in The Royal Family, except this time she is stepping into the role of Fanny Cavendish, the matriarch. Jan Maxwell, one of Broadway’s greatest treasures is playing her daughter Julie. They are joined by Tony Roberts, Reg Rogers, Larry Pine, John Glover, Ana Gasteyer, Kelli Barrett in one of the loveliest revivals you’re likely to see this year.

The MTC has spared no expense in making this revival a feast for the eyes and ears. When the curtain rose on John Lee Beatty’s lavish unit set, a two-tier upscale Manhattan living room ripe with ornate period decor, the audience first gasped, then broke into enthusiastic applause. Complementing the scenery are the sumptuous costumes designed by multiple Tony-winner Catherine Zuber. The incidental music was supplied by Maury Yeston.

The show isn’t just a display of visual wonderment. Director Doug Hughes has done incredibly well by the script, finding a way to stage an 82 year old play without making it feel dated. The play does run three acts, and gets bogged down in the first act with exposition. However, don’t let that deter you – the second and third acts contain the best and most impressionable moments of the evening and are dominated by Ms. Harris and Ms. Maxwell.

I first saw Maxwell in the woefully short-lived Coram Boy (which I saw twice) and have been an ardent fan ever since. She doesn’t fail here, scoring magnificently as the middle-aged stage star of the family, upon whom much of the familial responsibility rests. She has a second shot at love with a man that got away many years ago because of the emphasis on her career, and seriously considers giving it all up for him. But a star through and through, Julie knows how to make an entrance and at one point while being melodramatic interrupts herself to ask “Am I center…?” before carrying on.

A highlight of the theatre season is watching Julie become unhinged late in the second act. It is here that Maxwell delivers the most brilliantly executed comic monologue I have ever seen in my life. It’s impossible for anyone to successfully describe it in print, but you will never forget the image of Maxwell face-planted against the lip of the Friedman stage. I’ve never seen a comic moment genuinely stop a show like it does here. All I know is that I was still awestruck when the lights came up at second intermission several minutes later.

The other indelible moment belongs to Harris, who is the matriarch who has been kept from performing due to illness. Throughout the play she patiently observes the family around her, accepts their idiosyncrasies as normal, and gets to deliver some choice Kaufman zingers. But Fanny is the heart of the play. It is her apartment in which everyone gathers and where the dramas and comedies of this family are acted out for one another. Fanny herself is something of a calming, elegant contrast to the insanity around her. Aching for the unlikely chance to return to the stage, Harris dominates the third act with an eleven o’clock moment that will haunt and move you from here to eternity. The final tableau is a most striking and affecting stage visual that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

While there are many other 82 year old plays that we are likely to never see again, this one works and holds up rather well, dated references considered. Most of that is due to its delicious depiction of actors and the playwrights’ sly satiric portrait of how they live. The play may never again get the laughs it got in 1927 when audiences was more readily aware of the Barrymores and their status within the New York theatre community. But it comes back to Hughes who imbues the entire production with class and elegance in its staging and characterization. However, underneath the slick superficial surface of show-biz is a loving family that is drawn together by its unique association with acting. As Gwen weighs giving up acting for marriage and family, Fanny drolly proclaims, “Marriage isn’t a career, it’s an incident.” Fanny and Julie then speak so eloquently of the privilege to do what they do that you begin to question your own career choice.

There has been a lot of press about Tony Roberts falling ill onstage during last Sunday’s matinee, but he was back onstage in time for Thursday night’s opening. He provides a voice of reason for the entire family as their long time manager. Reg Rogers is a favorite as the outrageous Tony, always on the run for drinking too much and womanizing. His eccentricity and larger than life personality are complemented by quieter moments where he’s with his mother and you get a glimpse at the loving child underneath all the trappings. The entire ensemble works very well with one another. Gasteyer, if a bit monotone, is perfectly gauche as Kitty. Glover’s character is trying to hang onto the last shreds of his dignity, while descending the show business ladder. Even the household staff have fully formed, interesting characters in spite of their brief stage time.

The production at the Friedman is such a tremendous hit that it’s already extended its limited engagement, but the revival is closing on November 29. You can bet that I will be going back again.

The throne of Denmark is desecrated by a bastard!

Or so I kept thinking as I watched the current revival of Hamlet, the second consecutive import from London’s Donmar Warehouse to play the Broadhurst Theatre. The first was last season’s well-received Mary Stuart (from which I’ve paraphrased for the title). While there is a different director and creative team behind Hamlet, there are elements in the scenography that are just too eerily reminiscent of the former play. The costumes are contemporized to complement a moody charcoal grey set set (complete with brick wall), except in lieu of Brooks Brothers suits, it was more Banana Republic meets Doctor Zhivago chic. Plus, certain key monologues were underscored by that same creepy synthesizer. It felt that at any moment, Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer would show up to throw Hamlet and his hot mess of a Royal Court out on its ear.

The play is performed frequently (this is the 66th known production on Broadway), has been filmed several times and is often taught in high school and college. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark is visited by the ghost of his father, who implicates that Hamlet’s uncle murdered him to gain the throne. Hamlet has been despondent over the death of his father, but pushed further into his dejection when his mother marries his uncle less than two months later. What follows is one of the most analyzed and dissected revenge studies in literature.

There is one reason for this particular revival and that is Jude Law. The film star and this production is making its third and final stop, after successfully playing in London and Elsinore, its original cast mostly intact. Mr. Law doesn’t offer the bookish introspect one tends to expect. His indecision to enact revenge against his murderous uncle is calculated out of his rage. Law is unexpectedly dynamic as the eponymous character, and most unexpectedly, he’s often quite funny. However, when his anger gets the best of him, he is at his most terrifying and cruel, particularly when he dismisses Ophelia with scorn and has a chat with dear old Mom about marrying Uncle Claudius.

He also has the matter of those soliloquies to tackle: seven in total. The character of Hamlet is one of the most psychologically complex in drama, with actions and words that not only bewilder the people around him but often the audience as well. It is through those soliloquies that the audience comes closest to understanding the tragic hero. He offers what is probably Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” but for as sumptuously as it was staged in the midst of an understated snow storm, and poignantly delivered by Mr. Law, it is overshadowed by his stunning execution of the previous soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I.”

Not all of the production is up to par. There is excellent staging with inventive visual images from director Michael Grandage, whose spare direction focuses on the text and makes it quite easy for newcomers to Hamlet and/or Shakespeare in general to understand what is going on. When it is Mr. Law and Mr. Grandage at work, the play works best. However, the production is marred by woefully uneven casting. As an ensemble, the actors are just not on the same plane as the star. Some fared better than others: Geraldine James grew on me as Gertrude as the evening progressed, scoring impressively in the bedroom scene as well as showing a reticence toward her new husband after seeing the effect she has had on her son. Ron Cook was amusing, but little else as Polonius. Peter Cook makes a better impression as the Player King than as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Kevin R. McNally barely registered as an endlessly remorseful and endlessly boring Claudius. Gugu Mbatha-Raw isn’t up to the demands of the part of Ophelia, with an ineffectual mad scene that seemed to be in another play entirely. The play starts to sag whenever Law isn’t onstage (which admittedly isn’t often), and clocking in at well over three hours, there are times when you realize the play’s length.

One of my problems however, was with some members of the audience. I tend not to be an elitist snob about such things, but I was annoyed by some audience members who snickered and giggled endlessly at every line or phrase that has become a colloquialism. I found myself being taken out of the play several times as a result. It doesn’t help that there are so many of the them. But then again, I guess that’s a testament to what is arguably the greatest play ever written in the English language. One of the real joys of any production is to hear those words – it’s a transcendent work. This revival is a strictly limited engagement and I’m sure will be a hot ticket due to the movie star drawing power of Mr. Law. This Hamlet departs Elsinore December 6. However, if you miss this one, I’m sure revival number 67 won’t be too far behind.

"America Will Be…"

What can I say? I love a good opening night. The stars are out, the excitement is high and you are usually privvy to a rather impressive night of theatre. As luck would have it, I took in my seventh Broadway opening with the official arrival of Tracy Letts’ engaging new play Superior Donuts at the Music Box Theatre.

I met up with Steve on Broadway and his partner Doug at Angus, where we enjoyed a pre-show champagne toast and were soon joined by Gil Varod of Broadway Abridged. As we made our way to the theatre, we encountered Tony-winner Elizabeth Ashley in the outside hallway of the restaurant, where she was casually seated. Perhaps it was the champagne or the opening night aura or both, but I decided I just had to talk to Ms. Ashley, having enjoyed her work last season in both Dividing the Estate and August: Osage County. She is everything you would hope for in a stage legend: warm, congenial and quite the character. We excused ourselves when her friend and former co-star Penny Fuller arrived (another surreality) and found ourselves at the opening night red carpet.

We made our way into the theatre, where we perched ourselves next to the concession stand which was ideal for people watching – and very similar to the way SarahB, Kari and I experienced the opening night arrivals for August: Osage County a couple years ago. I spotted Alan Alda, Joan Rivers, Stephanie March, B.D. Wong, Tamara Tunie, Adam Guettel, Richard Thomas, Jonathan Groff, Elaine Stritch, Amy Morton, Molly Regan, Jeff Perry, Brian Kerwin, Lois Smith, John Cullum, Jim True-Frost, Dana Ivey, Jeff Goldblum, Bobby Cannavale, Karen Ziemba, Rex Reed, Liev Schreiber and perennial opening night favorite Marian Seldes, with whom I had the privilege of speaking after the performance.

Letts has done it again. Only three months following the close of Pulitzer and Tony winning juggernaut, August: Osage County, the playwright is back on Broadway with another thought-provoking, incisive and wholly different new play.

It must be difficult to follow-up a success like August, given the overwhelming critical and audience response, but Letts has done what only the best of writers can do: he’s come up with something new and entirely different. Superior Donuts opened at Steppenwolf in Chicago last summer to positive reviews, starring Michael McKean as an out of touch, emotionally stunted former hippie going through the motions as he runs his parents’ donut shop in uptown Chicago. The show met with positive reviews and big box office as a result of the buzz surrounding Letts, and now the play has opened at the Music Box Theatre with its entire original company intact.

McKean is perfectly understated as Arthur, the son of Polish immigrants who has inherited the donut shop which has been in his family since around the time of his birth. While Arthur has great difficulties communicating with the rest of his world, he opens up to the audience in painfully revealing monologues that provide important insight to the character and the drive behind his motivations. A draft-evader and former hippie whose time has seemingly past, Arthur is sleepwalking through life until he needs to hire a new assistant, which ends up changing his life considerably.

Jon Michael Hill, in the most auspicious Broadway debut we’re likely to see this season, is that new assistant, a young black man desperately in need of a job (see the play to find out why). His character, Franco Wilks comes into the shop with bold ideas, intelligence and his great American novel consisting of a dozen or so notebooks unceremoniously tied together. The dynamic and energetic Hill imbues Franco with an ebullient idealism which starts to stir Arthur from his antisocial stupor. At the heart of the play is the conflict between Arthur’s jaded cynicism and Franco’s seemingly unending optimism. Arthur unwittingly becomes the closest thing to a father figure in Franco’s life, and Franco is standing in for Arthur’s estranged daughter. They should engrave Mr. Hill’s name on the Theatre World Award now to save time. Prepare to hear his name mentioned a lot this spring during awards season.

Kate Buddeke is perfection as the awkwardly self-conscious Chicago cop with more than a fleeting interest in Arthur. James Vincent Meredith provides ample humor as her uber-serious partner, also a Star Trek enthusiast. Cliff Chamberlain and Robert Maffia are unsettlingly menacing as two low-end hoods who have their eye out for Franco. Jane Alderman is touching as Lady, the alcoholic and seemingly homeless woman who offers unexpected pearls of wisdom. Yasen Peyankov is the brash Russian immigrant who’s invested himself 100% in the American dream, who when he gets what he wants proves that one person’s achievement of the dream usually comes at a loss for someone else. Michael Garvey is his nephew. Looking like he stood in for Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV, he’s quite possibly the purest character in the play, offering one of the most heartfelt moments onstage.

Director Tina Landau, who took on the project when Amy Morton decided to stay with the Broadway company of August: Osage County, has done concise work here in establishing the characters and the donut shop as the centerpiece of their world. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design is beautifully understated, while set designer James Schuette creates an atmosphere so realistic, you can almost smell the donuts being made offstage, and feel the chill of the Chicago winter.

In reading the reviews and commentaries about the new play, I find it inevitable that the discussion would include comparisons and contrasts to August: Osage County. While there are obvious parallels, they are innately two entirely different kinds of theatre. August is the sort of grand, epic theatre that recalls American drama of the mid 1950s leaving you numb with catharsis. Superior Donuts is a lighter comedy, with a much more uplifting outlook on life. The American experiment mourned in the former isn’t entirely dead in the latter, even after considerable personal setbacks. I can understand comparing Superior Donuts to a socially aware 70s sitcom, but it seems like a gauche generalization of what is actually happening onstage. The play is what every substantial comedy should be – a drama that happens to be very, very funny. Mr. Letts’ latest work only proves that he fast becoming the most important contemporary American playwright.