at the theatre: clybourne park

Two years after it’s premiere at Playwrights Horizons, Bruce Norris’ acid-washed Pulitzer Prize winning diptych about real estate and race relations, Clybourne Park, has made it to Broadway. It was touch and go there for a while after lead producer Scott Rudin beat a hasty retreat when a dispute with the playwright over an unrelated acting gig turned into an exercise in vindictiveness. Jujamcyn president Jordan Roth managed to save the day (and the limited run of the play) and the critics for the most part have lined up like good little soldiers to heap hosannas on the one that almost got away. Pam McKinnon directs the original off-Broadway company with a sure hand and everybody is uniformly top-notch, equally milking every outre moment for did-they-really-just-say-that laughs mixed with I-can’t-believe-they-said-that gasps. That said, the only real weakness lies in Norris’s too-clever script, which begins (and ends) with an interesting conceit: act one takes place in 1959, as a white community frets about the African-American family about to move in next door; act two flashes forward fifty years and the same house represents very different demographics, with gentrification now knocking on the neighborhood’s door. Climbing through the looking-glass of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the characters navigate the play’s shifts from political correctness to racial resentment, revealing how far our ideas of race and gentrification have changed. Or have they? Duh. Despite the gentleman in the Oval Office - or maybe because of him – we know the answer to that question all too clearly as of late. So sitting though Norris’s play, I’m sorry to say, is a bit like being forced to watch a special (funnier) two-hour episode of Thirtysomething. He’s preaching to the converted, yes. But does he need to be so painfully obvious about it?

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at the theatre: one man, two guvnors

That felicitous sound presently pervading the air on 45th street is an all-too rare commodity on Broadway: laughter.  But let’s not be coy about it – it’s the sound of an audience chortling, chuckling, cackling, crowing and collectively fearing for the state of their underpants as they convulse with bowel-shaking, tear-inducing, thigh-slapping, laughter of the most frivolous and fun kind. Praise be Carlo Goldoni, the 18th century author behind that commedia-inspired classic The Servant of Two Masters; it serves as rich fodder for One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s Anglicized adaptation of the stock-in-trade Harlequin story. The National Theatre of Great Britain production under the direction of Nicholas Hytner is cleverly set in end-of-the-pier Brighton, and references all the great English low-comedy traditions, like musical hall, variety, farce, and the  boobs and babes shtick of Benny Hill. At the center of the hilarity is Francis Henshall, the “one man” of the title who’s both the accidental architect of the story’s complications as well as its cynosure. James Corden repeats his praised London performance as the easily-confused Henshall, who agrees to work for a local small time gangster as well as a criminal in hiding, both of whom are linked in a web of  schemes and romantic entanglements – none of which he can keep straight. Doing everything in his power to keep his two guvnors from meeting – while trying to eat everything in sight – Corden performs comedic feats of physical derring do that recall the total corporal investment and precision timing of Danny Kaye and Donald O’Connor in their prime. It’s not a spoiler (I hope) to tell you that at one point Corden picks a fight – with himself, no less – which somehow manages to take over the entire width of the stage to gut-busting effect. Such is the gratifying pleasure (just one of many) of horseplay, which seeks to do little more than amuse. Though the title might suggest something to the contrary, One Man is far from a one-man show. The cast of supporting characters are all worthy of mention, each a small masterpiece of finely-tuned comic archetype: the saucy secretary poured into a too-tight twin-set (Suzie Toase); an all-too-serious wannabe actor with a curious musical talent (the fantastic Daniel Rigby); a woman disguised as her dead brother (Jemima Rooper); the posh public school prat with a gift for inventive declaratives (the brillianticious Oliver Chris); the sidekick with the recurring catchphrase (Trevor Laird); a physically impaired waiter called upon to balance one plate too many (a terrifically nimble Tom Edden). Why, there is even a buoyant onstage band, The Craze, a skiffle-flavored rock ‘n’ roll quartet, if you will, which swings into song every time the curtain comes down. To anyone who lives in fear of audience participation, however, buyer beware: you might want to consider the first few rows of the theater a no-go zone. To everyone else, I suggest you “hold your hand out, you naughty boy,” as the old music hall song instructs, and prepare to clap and laugh like it’s going out of style.

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at the theatre: long story short

Channeling the demise of the world’s great empires, Saturday Night Live veteran Colin Quinn’s new Broadway solo show is an articulate – and uproarious – romp through history.  Subtitled “A History of the World in 75 Minutes,” it’s much more than just another stand-up routine pimped out with a set and straining to look legit.  Of course it’s funny, but with the help of director Jerry Seinfeld – yes, that Jerry Seinfeld – the laughs come in service to Quinn’s thesis that for all of mankind’s self-avowed progress we’re still caught up in the great cycle of stupidity that started as soon as man crawled out of the ooze. Long story short: times may change, people do not.

From his personification of Caesar as the original Italian mobster to his complaints about Ancient Greece and Antigone giving way to Costco and Snooki, Quinn satirically takes on the attitudes, appetites and bad habits that toppled the world’s most powerful nations.  Anyone who was a fan of Quinn’s sardonic take on the news during a too-short stint as SNL‘s Weekend Update anchor will know his humor is sharpest when it’s cutting uncomfortably close to home.  To wit, on the cultural differences between the globe’s two superpowers:  In China they invite their old people into their houses to live with and care for them; here we give them a dollar off an early-bird dinner so we don’t have to look at them while we eat.

Long story short? I’d have happily stayed longer.

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