Within the space of less than six months, I experienced a pair of highly unusual East Coast earthquakes. The first came last August, down here in my hometown, with the unnerving rattling of porcelain as I sat in my bathroom. The second was when my wife Sue and I came to New York last month for our annual performing arts pilgrimage and found a Broadway that had been stood on its head. Not a single new American musical – or a British import – that had opened since Labor Day was still running. Count Bonnie and Clyde as the most colossal casualty.
New American plays, on the other hand, have a new lease on life. Except for War Horse, last season's Tony Award winner, all five of the plays we saw this February opened this season, representing a new high-water mark for Broadway plays included in our round-up. We filled out our six-show Broadway lineup with Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark 5.0, reasoning that, after four postponed openings and a humongous $2.941 million holiday week at the box office, the producers and creative team must have gotten something right.
Off-Broadway, our refuge in past years for new comedies and dramas, continued to nourish us with more edgy and risqué fare. Here's what we saw and how I saw it, beginning with theatre this week and following up with opera, jazz, and ballet when I catch my breath:
Other Desert Cities (**** out of 4) – At the Wyeths' spacious ranch in Palm Springs, youngest daughter Brooke wends her way back from the East for the Christmas holidays after a six-year absence. During that time, she has suffered a nervous collapse and completed her first book, a soon-to-be published memoir that she hasn't told her mom and dad about. For good reason: the memoir centers on the relationship between Brooke's parents and their son Henry, who committed suicide instead of facing the consequences of being involved in a murder by a terrorist group opposed to the Vietnam War. Lyman and Polly aren't exactly modeled on Ronald and Mommy Reagan, but they're darn close. Lyman was an ambassador under Ronny and Polly remains on a first-name basis with Nancy.
Brooke isn't painting a pretty picture, and it's 2004, an election year with Republicans still ruling the roost. Younger brother Trip, a TV producer, leans toward the more openly rebellious Brooke politically but also sympathizes with Mom and Dad's desire to keep the peace. Completing the family gathering is Polly's sister, Silda Grauman, a soused reminder of Polly's humble non-country club Jewish origins – and a constant goad with her liberal politics.
The star-studded cast, directed by Joe Mantello, meshes beautifully. Stockard Channing's sangfroid as Polly nearly equals Hellman's Regina Giddens (a role Channing has played in The Little Foxes), almost too intense for the West Coast and the denouement. Stacy Keach, on the other hand, seemed curiously slick and enervated as Ambassador Wyeth – until his volcanic Act 2 explosion had me trembling. Judith Light as Silda is equally telling, often comically, deftly balancing the gadfly's piercing frankness with her sloshed weaknesses.
Two HBO stars ably handle the younger generation, Rachel Griffiths (Six Feet Under) as Brooke and Justin Kirk (Angels in America) as Trip. Neutrality be damned, Kirk has a wonderful monologue when asked to adjudicate the whole political-generational brouhaha. They all do in Jon Robin Baitz's pointed, plain-dealing script, with Griffiths getting the final say in a nicely matured 2010 epilogue. By the time she's done, we have seen a microcosm of the impassioned, polarized, and damaged nation we have become. We've also glimpsed the bumpy road that took us here from the quagmire of Vietnam.
War Horse (***3/4) – Brilliantly adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford from the Michael Morpurgo novel, this National Theatre import was by far Sue's favorite show on our 2012 trip. If you're thinking about a family outing at a Broadway show, this Lincoln Center presentation at the Vivian Beaumont is clearly your top choice. The story handsomely straddles World War I, introducing us to Devonshire lad Albert Narracott – winsomely played by Andrew Durand – and his beloved horse Joey, who is sold to the English cavalry by Albert's drunken dad to serve in France, a virtual death sentence. While 10 million soldiers were slain in "The War to end all wars," eight million conscripted horses were heaped onto the carnage, often dying horrifically under machine gun fire or galloping into barbed-wire fences.
Albert's quest to rescue Joey from the Western Front is truly epic stuff, but it's the simulation of the horses, in lifesize puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company and manipulated by three-person teams directed by Tony Sedgwick, that makes this a truly unforgettable theatre experience. Our hearts are with Albert as he seeks to track down his closest confidant, but we're more intensely invested in Joey (the narrator of the novel) from the moment we first meet him as a foal. After watching him grow close to Albert, expressing his loyalty by learning to pull a plow, we follow him on an odyssey that takes him from the British army to the German army and back – with an idyllic sojourn on a French farm before he's snared by a barbed-wire fence in No Man's Land.
Vastly more rewarding than Spider-Man, there's still a PG aura to this mighty tale that occasionally cries out for IMAX and Spielberg. But directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have flawlessly transported this deeply affirmative tale across the pond with a superb cast that never dilutes its essential James Herriot wholesomeness and authenticity – except for one blunder. Most of the folksongs presented by Tim van Eyken on the original cast album have been handed over to a Song Woman, Kate Pfaffl. Even if I hadn't eventually given up on understanding Pfaffl when she strayed from the score's "only remembered for what we have done" mantra, a man's voice would have better captured the soul of the story, whether it's Albert, the valiant soldiers who fought and died, or the indomitable Joey.
Stick Fly (***1/2) – More than a piece of the pie, the LeVay family has a substantial piece of the Vineyard in Lydia R. Diamond's new comedy drama. By opening a window on a black upper crust who haven't achieved wealth via music or sports, Diamond piques our curiosity from the moment we get our first peep at David Gallo's casually patrician set design showcasing the LeVays' spacious living room, kitchen, and rear deck, with a sliver of the beach. Cuing our wonder, Taylor, the daughter of a famed historian, visits Martha's Vineyard for the first time – as the fiancée of the youngest LeVay, Spoon, who has just gotten word that his first novel will be published.
This will no doubt prove to be a disappointment to the family patriarch, Joe, a neurosurgeon looking for a solid yield from the more practical degrees in law and business that he has paid for. Despite her impressive bloodlines and degree in entomology, Taylor worries that she will not be welcomed by the LeVays, because her father abandoned her long ago, so she and her mother haven't been swathed in high cotton.
Having set the table for skirmishes over class and self-determination, Diamond piling on further complications. Older brother Flip is also set to surprise Dad with a new girlfriend, Kimber, an "Italian" who turns out to be very moneyed, self-assured, versed on the dynamics of inner city schools, and white. Ratcheting Taylor's insecurities into an even tighter twist, she and Flip had a passionate one-nighter years ago in Atlanta. If that weren't enough, there's Cheryl, pinch-hitting for her mom as the family housekeeper, learning that she's really the boys' half-sister while setting the table for breakfast.
Yes, it takes a while for Diamond to load up all the reasons that Joe will go off on Spoon, Spoon on Flip, and Cheryl – reinforced by her newfound sibs – on Dad. In the meanwhile, the playwright has Taylor going off on Kimber for no good reason at all – causing Spoon to get pissed – so there's enough percolating to get us through Act 1 before all the fireworks of Act 2. Even then, the conflicts have enough to do with race, class, and parental responsibility to keep the trashiness from devolving into daytime drama.
Directed by Kenny Leon, the men onstage – Dulé Hill as Spoon, Mekhi Phifer as Flip, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Joe – seem to be coasting on their LeVay charms, which at least prevents us from pigeonholing Dad as a complete ogre. The women, all outsiders, give more interesting performances. Rosie Benton as Kimber is the friendliest, most open-minded, best-adjusted person in the room, reliably bolstering Diamond's even-handedness, and Tracie Thoms captures Taylor's tightly-wound skittishness without letting go of her lovable vulnerabilities. Condola Rashad (yes, she's Phylicia's daughter), perhaps corrupted by the glowing reviews she received, seemed to think the story was all about her in the early going when the DeVays are lording it over her, but she earned those accolades in Act 2 when she truly was the heart of the drama.
I particularly liked the ambiguity in Cheryl's negative attitude toward Kimber. Was it pure racism, or was the antagonism rooted in jealousy – her unrequited love for Flip? Either way, she'll need to get over it. (Closed on February 26)
Wit (***1/4) – Yes, it's already 13 years since Margaret Edson's drama came out of nowhere to nab the Pulitzer Prize. Many of us thought that Kathleen Chalfant gave the definitive portrait of Vivian Bearing, the John Donne scholar coping with the agonies of stage 4 cervical cancer and the equally excruciating effects of experimental chemotherapy. She had us from the moment she informed us, with professorial crispness and exactitude, "There is no stage 5."
Cynthia Nixon, probably best-known for Sex and the City, certainly doesn't supplant Chalfant. Nor does she imitate her under Lynne Meadow's direction. Her softer approach works well enough she's trying to make light of her sufferings, deriding the diction and attitudes of her physicians, or taking issue with the playwright as she addresses us, a twinkle in her eye. But at the core of this drama, Vivian is looking back on her own flickering life and discovering, with a mixture of shame and horror, that she has lived it almost completely with her wits and without her heart. That calls for more coldness in those flashbacks where she's being gently upbraided by her motherly mentor, Dr. Ashford, or when she's so cruelly rigid toward her own students.
Carra Patterson is a glowing presence as Susie Monahan, the RN who finally teaches Vivian the simple angelic virtue of lovingkindness. Likewise, Michael Countryman and Greg Keller are perfectly dialed into the physicians' well-intentioned cluelessness. Their heartlessness to her is a richly deserved payback. But here too Meadow's more benign approach skims off a little of the impact when Nurse Susie battles against her patient's caretakers when they seek to plug her in to life support. First-timers, however, will likely find this Wit more than sufficiently harrowing and melodramatic as Vivian's tribulations and biography unfold. In those qualities, it is nearly as powerful as the Charlotte Rep production, winner of our Best Drama award in 2001. (Through March 17)
Seminar (***1/4) – Manuscripts are cropping up on Broadway stages everywhere this season, but most profusely in Theresa Rebeck's newest dark comedy. Alan Rickman brings his saturnine acidity to a brilliant-but-disgraced writer reduced to giving private seminars to the crème de la crème of rich grad students who can afford him. Most of the action takes place in the embarrassingly luxurious rent-subsidized living room of Kate, who is in a deep rut, constantly rewriting and re-polishing a piece that will never be a gem.
Leonard, the seminar guru, is brutally honest about the safe diffidence of Kate's manuscript, but he's equally unsparing with Douglas, a talented novelist destined for a career of well-respected mediocrity. On the other hand, Leonard is deeply appreciative toward Izzy's prose – or is that merely a muse devised to get him past her panties? Leonard gets there, regardless of his true feelings, sparking flares of literary and sexual jealousy from the rest of the class. Nobody is more keenly hurt than Martin, the student most reluctant to have Leonard read his work.
It's an electric moment when it finally happens, Rickman reminding us how magical the theater can be when the right actor dominates our attention – silently, with only a sheaf of papers in his hand. Of course, having experienced the crucible of the Iowa Writer's Workshop for two years, I may be atypically susceptible to the impact of such riveting moments of truth, but Rebeck's depiction of the primal neediness, competitiveness, and ultimate fellowship of fledgling writers is absolutely on the mark. Piercing quips abound, leading to profound truths.
Dressed in the loudest of David Zinn's astute costume designs, Jerry O'Connell capably launches the comedy as Douglas, the writer who changes the least. Hamish Linklater doesn't soft-peddle Martin's salient weaknesses – the carping, the mooching, the sheepdog gutlessness – but he grows significantly in the strange ecology of this seminar. Rebeck's women are also flawed, rewardingly brainy and sexy. Hettienne Park is an enticingly Asian temptress as Izzy, fun-loving and cosmopolitan. As Kate, Lily Rabe plays off Izzy's seductive exploits – and Leonard's magisterial goading – with a crackling resentment that leads to a sexual/artistic awakening every bit as radical as Martin's.
Jeff Goldblum will replace Rickman on April 3, no doubt giving Leonard's shambling aspects more emphasis. I'm glad I saw Rickman's world-weary glamour, but with Sam Gold's sure-handed direction, I'm confident that Goldblum – and the two other newbies who arrive with him – will be fine.
Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark (**1/2) – When you've seen this notorious $65 million extravaganza, the first thing people will want to know is: did anybody fall? No, the dangerous flying of multiple Spidermen and his demented arch-enemy, The Green Goblin – flying across the stage, from stage to balcony, and most impressively, fighting each other over the orchestra patrons – went off quite flawlessly. I chose a Sunday matinee to make sure I sampled the impact of all this high-tech showmanship on the most juvenile crowd possible. If you or your child has a thirst that only a flying comic book superhero can satisfy, the afternoon will be enjoyable. Adults who were able to laugh at some of the silliest excesses probably had as much fun as the kids.
The confusion and miscalculations of Julie Taymor, the original director and co-writer, along with the perils faced by all those falling actors during Spider-Man's accident-prone gestation, have thrown a merciful mask over the music and lyrics of Bono and The Edge. Utterly drab and dreadful! Worse, the title song has fatally tied Spidey to the mythical Arachne. Taymor apparently hatched the lame idea of having this creature presiding over Peter Parker's mutation into a superhero. In Greek mythology, Arachne was a mortal transformed into a spider by the jealous Athena, but in Taymor's mythology, the ace seamstress becomes a goddess presiding over Parker's entire heroic career.
So Arachne must sing "Turn Off the Dark" with Peter from the center of her awesome gleaming web, hovering in mid-air. Elaborately staged, the duet stops the show... dead in its tracks, jaw-droppingly purposeless, tedious, and irrelevant. Amid the cartoon muddle, Parker's formulaic relationship with Mary Jane Watson, the dreamgirl next door, gives us a desperately needed infusion of humanity.
Along with wife-to-be Mary Jane, hard-bitten newspaper editor J. Jonah Jamison, Peter's employer and staunch Spidey naysayer, has been salvaged from the original Marvel Comics. Otherwise, the Spidey universe is unbelievably botched by the book writers. The Green Goblin spins off six supervillains besides himself, including a buzzing Swarm and an incredibly clunky Lizard, but the writers don't give this armada of doom – or the Goblin, for that matter – a single crime to commit. So there are no victims or police in Spider-Man's over-swollen budget, just a crowd of scurrying, panicking cityfolk. Then our hero dispatches Goblin's minions with slightly more difficulty than he would have had warring against a cockroach on its back. So much for suspense.
We did have a fully costumed Spidey greet us in the lobby when we arrived, and again at intermission amid the intense concessions crush. If you treat a kid to this spectacle, consider those choice "landing zones" up at the lip of the balcony, a far better sightline for your favorite anklebiter.
Silence! The Musical (***1/2) – Blessed vulgarity! I don't think I've seen a lampoon this irreverent, filthy, or incorrigibly nasty since the early movies of Mel Brooks when he was exuberantly taking down Westerns, monster movies, and sci-fi pics. The target here is one of the great screen thrillers, Silence of the Lambs, and there's no mockery or crudity that Jon and Al Kaplan aren't willing to toss at Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lector, Clarice Starling, and serial killer Buffalo Bill. No holds barred – and one shocking hole bared.
The project apparently began as a screenplay, but under the direction of Christopher Gattelli, the show is unabashedly low-budget, with the meanest assaults fired at Jody Foster. Jenn Harris plunges into her impression of Foster with a lusty lateral lisp, transforming our heroine into FBI cadet Clareesh Shtarling and her caged adversary into "Mishter Lecter, shir." David Garrison doesn't have to work nearly as hard to simulate the eerie calm and drone of Anthony Hopkins' equally Oscar-worthy Lecter. No, it's Stephen Bienske who truly goes wild in designer David Kaley's outrageous costume. Brace yourself as the already demented killer gets one extra twist.
Ah, but there's a soft side to the Kaplan brothers' takedown when a chorus of dopey lambs guides us to the darker recesses of Clarice's psyche. Yet the apex of the Kaplans' lyricism – and Gattelli's raunchy choreography – arrives with Lecter's unforgettable love ballad, "If I Could Smell Her Cunt." The high-security prison melts away, and a Dream Clarice and a Dream Hannibal dance onto the stage with all the deathless ardor of an Agnes de Mille fantasia set to a Rodgers & Hammerstein score. The Kaplans' songbook is rife with profanity, including Bienske's rampaging "Put the Fuckin' Poodle in the Basket," but nothing tops Garrison's baritone pouring out Lecter's passionate yearning. Unless it's Harris's profanity-laced monologue when Clarice's superior refuses to let her join a SWAT team about to arrest Buffalo Bill.
With songs and language like this, it's no wonder that the Kaplans' screenplay never made it to your local Cineplex before Hunter Bell adapted it for the stage. If you're averse to constant deluges of profanity, Silence! will not be an unmitigated joy, and I came out wishing that my VHS copy of the original film hadn't gathered quite so much dust over the years. A refresher viewing will help you to appreciate all the detailed allusions of the musical – beginning with those wholesome spurts of fresh semen.
Traces (**3/4) – This was supposed to be the way the world ends when Les 7 Doigts de la Main brought their highly developed circus skills and their snarling punk attitude to McGlohon Theatre in 2008. I hinted then in my review that the post-apocalyptic storyline described in the program ought to be bolstered with some palpable references from the actor/performers during the show. Traces was clocking at 80 minutes back then in its embryonic stage, so that kind of expansion wouldn't have hurt. But such trappings as exposition and plot – not to mention a beginning, middle, and end – must be anathema in the Cirque du Soleil capital where the troupe was born. Instead of fleshing out their tenuous storyline as the production evolved, 7 Fingers has tossed it away.
Vestiges of the original concept still appear when an old-timey microphone is lowered from the flyloft and the seven performers idiosyncratically talk about themselves. But up in New York at the grungy Union Square Theatre, we no longer imagine our protagonists as hibernating underground or their acrobatic acts as the last desperate expressions of a doomed race expiring beneath a nuclear winter. Sullen and resentful as they may remain, these performers are using the mic to talk to us, not some hidden overlord, and the concept – radically trimmed – is still "What are the Traces you'll leave behind?"
Although there has been a nearly complete turnover in personnel (only Bradley Henderson lingers on), directors Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider never listened to me when I suggested that a couple of the segments, the Soleil-like exploits riding a steel ring and a Barnum & Bailey teeterboard throwback, are at cross-purposes with the individualism espoused by Traces. On the other hand, routines with a basketball, skateboard and rollerblades, swivel chairs, and a piano retain their uniqueness and justify the troupe's hauteur. They also jibe more effectively with the personal, confessional tone of the show. There's also a little voting shtick near the end, like the contestants of Dancing With the Stars or American Idol pimping themselves, that struck me as fresh and welcome.
You don't have to go to New York to determine whether the critics' raves are more just than my appraisal. It's headed down to Charleston for a five-day, six-performance engagement at Spoleto Festival USA on June 6-10. The show won't be quite as intimate an experience at Sottile Theatre, but the clash between the Sottile's art deco elegance and the Doigts' grubby orneriness ought to supply a special frisson that Traces hasn't had before.