at the theatre: the lion in winter

No trip to London would be complete without a trip to the theatre and save the various stage adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol few plays are as mistletoe-festive as James Goldman’s family feud nonpareil, The Lion in Winter. Set during the Christmas holiday at Henry II’s château in Chinon, France, the play – made famous by Katherine Hepburn’s Oscar-winning turn opposite Peter O’Toole in the film adaptation – concerns the gamesmanship between the King, his three sons, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife he’s imprisoned for attempting to overthrow him. Henry’s favored male heir has died, you see, leaving the leftover Plantagenets to scramble for power. Will it be the childish, spoiled John, Henry’s youngest son? Or Richard the Lionhearted, Eleanor’s choice – and best hope for getting out of the clink? And don’t forget about middle brother Geoffrey, who’s scheming with the King of France to make war on England. Though the historical background is accurate, this is fiction for the most part – and campy good fun that doesn’t take the Dark Ages too literally or seriously. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy watching a family plot against each other – especially when it’s the holidays and that family isn’t yours? Best of all, Trevor Nunn’s production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket stars Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley. As the equally matched King and Queen they don’t just chew the scenery, they savor it like a brandy-soaked Christmas pudding.

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at the theatre: and the winner is ….

Tonight’s Tony Awards are a bit of a no-brainer: prepare for a Book of Mormon landslide. Yet while the Tony’s are always worth taping, this year it looks like they might actually be worth watching live due to the number of races that remain, well, races. First off, let’s get the obvious out-of-the-way. In addition to taking the top honor, Mormon will also claim prizes for Book, Direction and Score, despite the sentimental tilt toward Kander & Ebb’s last-ever score for The Scottsboro Boys. If two of those featured boys – Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon – cancel each other out and the Tony voters forget about the talented Laura Benanti and Patti Lupone from the long-shuttered and poorly-received Women on The Verge of Nervous Breakdown, expect Mormon to also cop Featured Actor and Actress trophies for both Rory O’Malley and Nikki M. James.  Unfortunately that show’s leads will suffer from what benefits their co-stars, leaving Priscilla‘s Tony Sheldon to deservedly squeak through to Best Actor glory – as well as putting a remarkable exclamation point on this season’s theatrical equivalent of Seabiscuit. Casey Nicholaw’s Mormon choreography is beyond clever but I think voters will give the award to Kathleen Marshall for the classic razzmatazz of Anything Goes, which will also win for Best Musical Revival. For her star turn in the same show, Sutton Foster will be adding a bookend to her earlier Best Actress win for Thoroughly Modern Millie.  In the play department all signs point to War Horse by a nose, despite the fact that it’s a stunning production of a pretty terrible script.  History shall prove out Jez Butterworth’s masterful Jerusalem – and you can expect Mark Rylance to say a few words to that effect when he picks up his second Tony for Best Actor in play.  Welcome to the Tony club, Frances McDormand, unless the still-running Born Yesterday somehow manages to turn the tide toward Nina Arianda’s widely praised turn. In the strongest group of the year, Featured Actress, my money is on The Normal Heart‘s Ellen Barkin to best Edie Falco, Judith Light, Joanna Lumley, and Elizabeth Rodriguez – deserving winners all.  And while there’s a lot of buzz for Heart‘s John Benjamin Hickey, Yul Vazquez is without peer in The Motherfu**er With The Hat – and it’s practically that play’s only chance to score a deserved award. Plus, Heart has a lock on Best Play Revival. That leaves us with the design awards – all of which will be handed out before tonight’s broadcast to make room for such essential viewing as Memphis, last year’s quote unquote Best Musical. Yawn. Perhaps TiVo is the way to go tonight after all.

 

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at the theatre: la bête & in transit

Occasionally, the weight of various expectations become a burden that no show should have to shoulder.  I saw the original production of La Bête when it opened on Broadway almost twenty years ago.  It was rumored to be in deep trouble as the notoriously fickle actor, Ron Silver, left the production on the road and was replaced by his understudy,  an unknown Tom McGowan.  Arriving with diminishing anticipation, I discovered a comic whirlwind of high style – told in rhyming couplets no less.  La Bête tells the story of Elomire – a clever anagram of Moliere, by the way – a 17th century French playwright, and his touring acting troupe. Due to the patronage of the capricious Prince of Conti they’ve come to lead and enjoy the artistic high life.  Yet when Valere, a swaggering braggart with delusions of artistic grandeur, becomes the Prince’s choice to join Elomire’s troupe, sparks fly. As the two face off, a comic battle of wits and witticisms reveals a biting commentary on the nature of art and the artist in society.  This was my kind of play:  on one level it functioned as an entertainment and on another it engaged the brain and engendered discussion.  Of course it failed miserably, no thanks to the lack of a bankable star.

Flash forward a generation and La Bête returns to Broadway at The Music Box, following an engagement in London with every producer’s favorite impulse: stars.  Having suffered through the Bush years and the rise of the Tea Party, author David Hirson’s sanguine assessment that the stupid shall ultimately inherit the earth is no less biting than it was coming at the end of twelve years of Reagan/Bush.  What is striking in this production, however, is the lack of balance.  Mark Rylance is a comic wet dream as Valere.  He enters the play with a 30-minute monologue of  such physical and verbal dexterity that it makes me want to watch him read the phone book one day.  Joanna Lumley – or as I like to call her, Patsy!! – embodies the now-Princess of Conti with an understated, idiosyncratic hauteur that stirs the pot quite nicely.  My issue is with David Hyde Pierce as the put-upon playwright, Elomire. He’s quite simply out of his league. Reaching into a bag of well-worn TV tricks he mugs his way across the stage to the point of inverting the play’s sympathies: we root for the idiot because at least he makes us laugh and can’t wait for the banishment of the prissy, insufferable playwright who doth protest too much. Ironic, isn’t it?

At the opposite end of the shifting scale of expectations, I found myself two nights later at Primary Stages for the opening of In Transit, a musical I knew nothing about, written by a group of people I’d never heard of.  Inspired by the rhythms and sounds of life on the subway, the show follows an aspiring actress, a fledgling financier, a street-savvy beatboxer, a cab driver, and a few others as they intersect underground, trying to find their way in New York City. The result is a charming tapestry of characters and a fresh take on the a cappella musical:  every note, every sound is created by what has to be one of the hardest working ensembles in town.  That they make it seem so effortless only adds to the production’s appeal.  Of course, it helps that I walked into the theater without a shred of expectation.  Next time I hear something’s been written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, I won’t be able to say that.

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