at the theatre: the anarchist

When David Mamet writes a play with emotionally driven characters and a plot hinging on dangerous points-of-no-return and vigorous debate the results are often visceral, whether you appreciate the mise en scene or not. This playwright specializes in unflinching drama and, yes, it is often riotously funny and startlingly vulgar, too. The point being that love him or hate him – and Mamet has his fair share of vocal champions and detractors – there is no arguing with his skill as a dramatist when he delivers to an audience people living his or her own desperate emotional truths. When Mamet chooses to write a dialectic, however, the results are often less than engaging. His chief skills as a master storyteller drop by the wayside – as they should, the dialectic method is a dialogue in search of the truth and not a debate. Disguised as drama, however, it has little resonance below the neck. The Anarchist, Mamet’s latest play, now in previews at the Golden Theater, unfortunately falls in to the later category. For a man whose reputation has often (maybe unjustly) been said to rest upon a propensity to display his dramatic balls, so to speak, it makes for a doubly disappointing evening at the theater. What’s most frustrating is that the premise doesn’t lack the potential for dramatic fireworks: Cathy, a longtime inmate with ties to a violently anarchic political organization is up for parole. Her warden, Ann, wants to be certain that if Cathy is released it’s for the right reason. What follows is an almost Shavian point-counterpoint on the individual’s responsibility to society versus the state’s responsibilities to the individual, which would make for fascinating reading but not, alas, compelling viewing. Stars Patti LuPone and Debra Winger do their level best to inject a human element into the arguments but the drama onstage is not anarchic or revolutionary or even radical. It’s confused.

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at the theatre: cock & tribes

Coincidentally, two of the more satisfying evenings I’ve had at the theatre this summer took place off-Broadway. (Perhaps coincidentally is the wrong word. Looking back on Broadway’s mostly disappointing season “inevitably” seems the more realistic choice.) Both of these plays do something most commercial fare would rather eschew: look at how we define ourselves – and where we belong in the social order. Mike Bartlett’s Cock is the more aggressively titled of the two and gives you a pretty good idea that you can expect to be grabbed by the dialectics. Should John stay with M, his longtime male lover or commit to W, the first woman he’s ever slept with? Far from the navel-gazing psychobabble you might expect, Bartlett’s take no prisoners approach doesn’t just hold up a mirror, it pile drives it into the audience’s face, proving that sticks and stones ain’t nothing next to a well-crafted equilibrium that’s been wholly upended. The four cast members are well matched but I found Jason Butler Harner especially heartbreaking as the older lover:  a man so clear-eyed about himself yet fatally blinded by his love. Reconfigured to provide the most uncomfortable seating imaginable, reviewers have commented how the space at the Duke Theater cleverly resembles a cockfighting pit but for me it was aesthetically far grander – like a Roman amphitheater. Gladiators of love, these people are lucky to escape with their heads – if not their hearts – intact. Nina Raine’s Drama Desk Award-winning play Tribes is equally combative, though it’s the bonds of family that come in for a right bashing. Billy, the fantastic Russell Harvard, was born deaf into a hearing family, and raised inside the fiercely idiosyncratic and unrepentantly politically incorrect cocoon of his parents’ house. He has adapted brilliantly to the family’s unconventional ways, but they’ve never bothered to return the favor. It’s not until he meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar, equally exceptional), a young woman on the brink of deafness, that he finally understands what it means to be understood. Director David Cromer directs the intimate, in-the-round production, which has gone on to become the sleeper hit of the season. Raines covers a lot of ground, so much that clarity is often sacrificed in the face of so much sparkling badinage. Yet what makes it so compelling is the real family at its core and the divides they face. The struggle to hear and be heard proves a painful endeavor for all the characters. And ultimately some of their greatest triumphs of understanding occur, ironically enough, without resorting to language at all.

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at the theatre: a streetcar named desire

I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much from the current revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Something about the African-American casting struck me as a trick, a shtick, an effort to cash in on a trend that started with a sub par Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few seasons back. Plus, there was the luminous spectre of Cate Blanchett – an achingly fragile Blanche in a production of the play that arrived from Australia last season at BAM – still figuring so vividly delicate in my mind. How exciting then to find myself at the Broadhurst Theatre the other night hearing Williams’ play as if for the first time. Led by the inquisitive mind of director Emily Mann, this is not a production that trusts in (or cares for) ghosts. It does, however, believe in the transformative – and destructive – power of desire. Slick with sweat and trapped in a threadbare tenement hothouse, Nicole Ari Parker’s Blanche is no broken butterfly: she’s a carnal animal unable to hold herself in check. Blanche may pretend to be otherwise but Stanley, a virile Blair Underwood, sees her for who she really is – something his wife Stella (the pitch-perfect Daphne Rubin-Vega) cannot bring herself to do. When Stanley succumbs to his own desires, telling Blanche “we’ve had this date from the beginning,” the brutal animalism that follows – here, a graphic scene of anal rap only alluded to in the original stage directions – is a consummation that (finally!) makes sense: there’s a price to be paid for running amok. Consensual desire  – such as that between a husband and wife? – when fulfilled can be transportive – but wantonness is a threat to the social order. That you still feel such powerful empathy for Blanche in the light of her self-destructive concupiscence is a testament to the multi-layered performance of Parker.  Her Blanche is seriously damaged goods – but then again, aren’t we all?

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at the theatre: leap of faith

Despite an almost complete lack of imagination on behalf of director Christopher Ashley, Leap of Faith – the latest late-entry in a season rife with Broadway musicals created from the ashes of fair-to-middling films – mostly succeeds if you’re willing to – wait for it – take a leap of faith. As anyone who has seen the Steve Martin film of the same name knows, the story of fraudulent faith healer Jonas Nightengale ends with not just one miracle but two: the cripple boy walks and a crop-killing drought ends. Everybody wins. In spite of any previous misgivings - and there are many – only the most cynical of theatergoers could fail to find the redemption afforded by such a manipulative one-two punch to the gut. (Yes, I know, more often than not that cynical old git c’est moi) It is the journey – or lack thereof – that gets us to that point, however, that is at times tiresome and borderline unbelievable, testing the mettle of even a seasoned believer. Where to start? To quote John Guare’s great comic creation, Bunny Flingus: How do you pick out a branch out of a redwood forest? The first act of this show is a hot mess, from yet another of composer Alan Menken’s bombastic gospel choirs to the many, many subplots in librettist Waren Leight’s book to leading man Raul Esparza’s overblown hetero-swagger. It’s the theatrical equivalent of throwing a half-boiled pot of spaghetti against the wall and hoping enough of it sticks to craft a meal. Almost lost in the mix is Jessica Phillips as Marla, the small town sheriff and Jonas’ romantic foil. I say almost because Phillips’ winning presence often liberates her from the surrounding handcuffs. No one else in the large supporting cast is quite so lucky. Yet something seems to happen during the act break. Everyone begins trusting in the tale they are trying to tell: Menken allows his secondary characters to deepen the boy-meets-girl story, singing of doubt, hope and final chances; Esparaza stops trying so hard and eases into  the role, allowing his naturally winsome charm to bubble up; and even Leight’s book, so full of plot and subplot, manages to successfully tie it up with a bow – delivering bonbons and bon mots along the way. Leap of Faith might never quite rise to join the Broadway canon but by the rousing, rain-soaked finale it’s more than atoned for any sins committed along the way.

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at the theatre: newsies

There’s enough mediocrity on stage at the Nederlander Theatre to fill two overproduced Broadway musicals never mind the lone, lame Newsies which currently finds itself in the headline grabbing position of raking in the money faster than the Disney Mouse can count. What baffles me still – and mind you, I saw this show before it opened – is the near-hysterical response with which it is being greeted by the audience. Every sloppy step of not-quite-synchronized choreography, every rousingly bland anthem of the ragamuffin 99%, every familiar moment from the charming hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show film of the same name is met with, at various times, full-throttle screaming and/or spontaneous standing ovations. I’m not being dramatic when I say it reminds me of when George W. Bush was elected (then re-elected) and huge swaths of the country seemed to suddenly start reveling in the righteous glory of their own ignorance – it’s like watching the blind lead the blinded all the way to the gift shop. The only thing missing from this show is a call and response chant of “USA! USA! USA!” Old fashioned book musicals with what was once referred to as pluck are rare these days. And say what you will about Newsies, it’s stock in trade is pure pluck. What it doesn’t have, however, is a director with enough panache to pull it off. Jeff Calhoun certainly has the blood of a first-rate showman running through his veins, but he’s deficient as a storyteller, unable to tease the subtle charms from Harvey Fierstien’s book or push Alan Menken’s score in a direction beyond bombast. Big sets and even bigger dance steps are his default. Mind you, as noted, that doesn’t seem to phase the crowd which is as drunk with a familiarity for the story as those Bush supporters were of their old time religion. Who needs annoying details pointed out when you already have a general idea as to the gist of things? Now hold your flag high and sing out, Louise boys! Not since Wicked has there been a family friendly show that got so much so wrong. About the only thing that does work on stage is leading man Jeremy Jordan (not the gay porn star, if you’re wondering) who brings effortless charm to the role of a dreamer who reluctantly organizes the titular newsies against the union-busting media magnate Joseph Pulitzer and in the process, gets the girl, too. If only the show that constrains him had half his charm it’d be something worth singing, if not shouting, about.

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at the theatre: happy birthday

Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre turns 100 today. The smallest of Broadway’s venues – just 583 seats are sold for the current tenant, the Tony Award-nominated musical Rock of Ages – The Little Theatre was officially renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre in 1983 to honor America’s “first lady of the stage.” It was a fitting tribute given that the first theatre bearing the name of Helen Hayes, on West 46th Street, had in 1982 – along with the Morosco Theatre - been torn down in an act of vandalism to make way for the ungainly Marriott Marquis Hotel. I’ve always had a bit of a sentimental bent for this theatre.  It was at The Little where I saw one of my first Broadway shows: Harvey Fierstein’s breakthrough Torch Song Trilogy with Estelle Getty, a very young Matthew Broderick, and Harvey himself.  Later, I spent almost a decade toiling in the neighboring Sardi’s building, at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Walking daily past what had since become the Helen Hayes I never failed to be fascinated by the ever-changing marquee which heralded the parade of plays and musicals that attempted to settle in and call it home.

Borrowing from Playbill’s “At This Theatre” (Louis Botto and Robert Viagas’ history book of Broadway venues on sale at PlaybillStore.com) here’s a very abridged look at the early years of the old theatre, as well as the all-too-common fate of its passionate producer:

A century ago, The Little Theatre was built by producer Winthrop Ames. An aristocratic New Englander, Ames rebelled against Broadway commercialism and built the Little, then with only 299 seats, as an intimate house for the production of noncommercial plays that were too risky to stage in large Broadway theatres. The New York Times admired the theatre’s red-brick, green-shuttered exterior, its Colonial-style lobby with a fireplace, and the auditorium, which had no balcony or boxes and was built on an incline that afforded an unobstructed view of the stage. Ames’ policy — to produce “the clever, the unusual drama that had a chance of becoming a library classic” — continued to be reflected in the Little Theatre’s fare. Among the early productions, all financed solely by Ames, were George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer (1913); Prunella, a fantasy by Laurence Houseman and Harley Granville-Barker, starring Marguerite Clark and Ernest Glendinning (1913); and Cyril Harcourt’s comedy A Pair of Stockings (1914). By 1915 Ames was having financial problems with the Little. Because of his theatre’s small seating capacity, the impresario was losing money, even with hits. On March 11, 1915, The New York Times reported that Ames was in danger of losing his house. To prevent this, Ames planned to increase the seating capacity to 1,000, add a balcony, and make the stage larger. In 1920 Burns Mantle reported that the Little had been remodeled and the seating capacity was now 450 seats.

The true purpose of the Little Theatre, to present new playwrights and experimental dramas, was fulfilled by its next two bookings. In January 1920 Oliver Morosco presented Mamma’s Affair, a first play by Rachel Barton Butler that won a prize as the best drama written by a student of Professor George Baker’s famous “English 47” class at Harvard. Morosco presented a cash award to the author and mounted her play successfully with Effie Shannon. The other drama was Eugene O’Neill’s first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, which had been playing matinees at other theatres before it was moved to the Little. It starred Richard Bennett and won the Pulitzer Prize. The Little next housed one of its gold mines. The First Year, by actor Frank Craven, who starred in it with Roberta Arnold, proved to be a sensation. It opened on Oct. 20, 1920, was produced by John Golden and ran for 760 performances. Brooks Atkinson reported in his book “Broadway” that by 1922 Ames had lost $504,372 on the Little Theatre. His other theatre, the Booth, which he built with Lee Shubert in 1913, was a commercial house and is still successful today. When Ames died in 1937, his estate had dwindled to $77,000, and his widow was forced to move from the sprawling Ames mansion to a small cottage on their estate.

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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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final down: lombardi

Few stories get the heart thumping like a tale of sporting guts ‘n’ glory and for sheer up-from-the-bootstraps brio it’s hard to best Vince Lombardi’s rags to riches triumph with the Green Bay Packers. When the play Lombardi announced it would be closing after a Broadway run of almost eight months at Circle in the Square, I felt a need to give it it’s due. In a season ripe with new American plays – and a fair share of well-regarded imports – this one somehow got unfairly lost in the shuffle. Drawn from the best-selling biography “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi” by David Maraniss, the play shifts back and forth in time over the course of a week in 1965 — five years before Lombardi’s death from colon cancer. Dan Lauria – an eerie stand-in for Lombardi – doesn’t narrate the 90-minute play but he does address the audience as if we are in the locker-room with him. Which means off the bat we’re revved up and inspired by the passionate son of Brooklyn -  not to mention man-crushing enough to secretly harbour thoughts of what it must be like to score the winning touchdown. As Lombardi’s understanding yet conflicted wife, Marie, the estimable Judith Light is superb. She doesn’t so much accept her second-fiddle fate as slowly drink it in, one highball after another. Keith Nobbs has the thankless job of playing the reporter from Look magazine who has come to stay with the Lombardis. He’s the machinery as it were; the entry point for the audience to see Lombardi, the man. Therein lies the trouble: we start the evening as members of Vince’s precious Packers, both supplicants and gods of the stadium. When the play shifts to Vince’s home life it’s a bit of a dramaturgical come down. (Especially in the context of Lombardi, the myth: revered football coach who won the first two Super Bowls alongside an unprecedented sweep of championships in five out of seven seasons.) And yet like any good biopic, it still makes for compulsive watching despite this imbalance.  This is due in no small part to Lauria’s almost Rabelaisian characterization. Lombardi may indulge in a little theatrical hagiography, yet that doesn’t make its successes any less enjoyable. After all, it ultimately has little to do with football and everything to do with summoning the best when you’ve got nothing left to give.

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