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NYC Theater Roundup: Broadway and Off-Broadway 

Reviews of The Other Place, My Name is Asher Lev, more

Thanks to the wonders of Groupons and public transportation, I was able to see all the shows I'd promised to cover when I leaked my Picnic review three weeks ago — despite the great blizzard of 2013. Unless otherwise indicated, the shows we saw are still running. I'll catch you up on the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall next week.

Broadway

The Other Place (***3/4 out of 4) — Former Charlotte Rep managing director Matt Olin harvested the kernel of this baffling, suspenseful, and fascinating drama while he was living here back in 2006. His family runs a senior caregiving company, and they ran across the afflicted woman that Olin helped playwright Sharr White transform into biophysicist Juliana Smithton, who begins to experience bizarre delusions at a Virgin Islands convention while delivering a pitch to fellow doctors on behalf of a pharmaceutical company.

The personality-pathology mix that results might be best described as a mash-up of the protagonists we saw in Wit and Next to Normal. Beside the acclaimed Manhattan Theatre Club, some high-powered talent has jumped aboard this hot property, including multiple Tony Award winning director Joe Mantello and Laurie Metcalf of Roseanne fame. But there isn't a sliver of sitcom in this high-strung, precisely calibrated performance by Metcalf as Juliana. Her unreliability as our proper Bostonian narrator develops at an admirably gradual pace, for Juliana's feelings of abandonment and hope are a volatile brew of reality, paranoia, and delusion.

By the time we reach the Cape Cod summer home referenced in the title, our grasp of what's real and what's delusion is as clouded as Juliana's. Metcalf, a sure bet for at least a Tony nomination, makes it all chillingly plausible. There is also a modicum of brilliance from the supporting players. Bill Pullman had already moved into the role of Juliana's stressed husband, oncologist Ian Smithton, by the time I took in the show, a less frowzy companion for Metcalf than Dennis Boutsikaris, who originated the role. He tunes perfectly into the main duality of Ian, the shared hurt of their teen daughter Laurel's disappearance a decade earlier and his frustration with Juliana's inability to get past it — among other hangups.

John Schiappa appears briefly in one of the many flashbacks as Richard, the man Juliana believes has taken Laurel from her. We do get a tantalizing view of Laurel, one of three pearls that Zoe Perry strings together. The other that I can mention without spoiling the suspense is the role of Juliana's therapist, called into action after the Virgin Islands fiasco. Like us, she has a lot of catching up to do before she can fully grasp the intricacies and dimensions of Juliana's dementia. (Closed on March 3)

Nice Work If You Can Get It (***1/2) — Two proven Broadway stars, Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara, are the ne'er-do-well New York heir and the tough bootlegging babe he meets in a surprisingly satisfying confection cobbled by playwright Joe DiPietro to bring 20 Gershwin tunes back to Broadway stage. Feeling the necessity to settle down and be worthy of his inheritance, plutocrat Jimmy Winter is indiscreetly betrothed to Eileen Evergreen, a snobbish Senator's daughter and an admired exponent of modern dance.

Jimmy is so ecstatic about the prospect that he gets blind drunk on the eve of the wedding, bumping into Billie Bendix outside a speakeasy. Misunderstandings and complications ensue. Billie and her gang have barely stowed their stash of contraband booze in Jimmy's Long Island estate, which the drunken fiancé had told them was abandoned, when the groom and his bride return from their nuptials. Jimmy discovers his true love and the motherlode of booze at about the same time, while Billie's crooked cronies, Duke Mahoney and Cookie McGee, must masquerade as the house butler and cook so they can keep a close watch on their merchandise.

Considering that Eileen's dad and the Senator's friend, Duchess Estonia Dulworth, are raging prohibitionists, intense trepidations fuel the crooks' ongoing charade until DiPietro sorts things out. My wife Sue didn't think that the comedy, particularly in Act 1, was substantial enough to veil the mighty Gershwin songbook motivating it. Yet Nice Work, like many of today's jukebox musicals, resurrects the kind of musical that once brought the work of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and others to prominence.

DiPietro also wrote the book for Memphis, so his mastery of the form comes as no surprise. Nearing midlife and putting on pounds, Broderick isn't the youngest or most dashing Jimmy we'll ever see. Nor is O'Hara the grittiest or most charismatic of Billies, so the criticism in Forbidden Broadway (see below) — that the supporting players are carrying them — isn't altogether off-target. The leads, rest assured, are quite fine: if not the soul of grace, Broderick masters all of director Kathleen Marshall's fine choreography and seems to have a good time with it, while O'Hara manages to project an Irish temper and a seething forbearance as Billie, receding believably enough (too believably for a comedy?) into the role of maidservant when it proves necessary.

With the likes of Blythe Danner doing a cameo as Jimmy's swinging patrician mamma, the supporting cast is potent. Brad Oscar, who once had the lead in The Producers opposite Broderick, has taken over as Cookie and feasts on the comedy. Jennifer Laura Thompson is so deliciously ditzy as the voguish artiste Eileen that I have little doubt she'd make a better Billie than O'Hara. So even if you catch Nice Work after Broderick and O'Hara leave, or when the show goes on tour, or when your local company can finally get the rights, you probably won't be disappointed.

For gems like "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "Do It Again," "'S Wonderful," and "Fascinatin' Rhythm" — all of these in Act 1 with the title song — Nice Work makes for a most congenial delivery system. (O'Hara does leave after completing a year on March 31)

Picnic (***1/4) – Find it here (http://clclt.com/theclog/archives/2013/02/06/theater-review-picnic). (Closed on February 24)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (**1/2) — I'd seen this musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' last unfinished novel back in 1990 when Tom Hollis directed a fine version for CPCC Summer Theatre at Pease Auditorium. Rupert Holmes had achieved a rare triple crown at the Tony Awards four years earlier — Best Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score — so the current Roundabout Theatre revival seemed to be a sure enough bet for Sue and I to take the plunge, buy a house seat, and bring my mom along to see this rich entertainment.

We looked at each other with complete bewilderment when the curtain fell at intermission. Sitting in the fifth row, none of us could figure out what was going on — the sound was that garbled. My mom was able to grant that the voices were marvelous, since volume wasn't the problem, and the show did become more accessible later on when the audience participation element kicked in. All sound — and action — abruptly stops in the middle of Act 2, where the Chairman, our narrator, informs us that this is as far as Dickens proceeded in his story.

From the outset, we have been transported from Studio 54 to London's Music Hall Royale in 1895, and the Chairman has begged for our close attention because it will be the audience's responsibility to decide how Dickens would have ended his story and the acting company's responsibility to execute our decisions onstage. Yes, there are multiple matters to be adjudicated, including whether Drood was murdered, who did the deed, and who the happily-ever-after lovers will be.

On the night we attended, it was pre-decided that Drood was the victim of foul play. Our crowd made a perverse choice for the lovers, pairing a brother and sister, and perhaps an unusual choice for the killer, since understudy Alison Cimmet was Princess Puffer, the role normally taken by the renowned Chita Rivera. Rivera had my vote for the confession monologue before I took off my coat.

Mom wasn't being kind. The voices are fabulous, beginning with Stephanie J. Block as Drood, a worthy successor to Betty Buckley, who originated the role. Our loyal heroine Rosa Bud, who introduces the power ballad "Moonfall," is also a treat when sung by Betsy Wolfe despite being drenched in virtue, and Will Chase makes John Jasper the obvious prime suspect, powerfully abrasive and melodramatic. Reverend Crisparkle, your perverse who-dun-it choice, is also blandly impressive in Gregg Edelman's hands, but he hardly gets to exude the color and charm of Jim Norton as our Chairman.

As for the siblings, I'm reserving judgment on Jessie Mueller and Andy Karl as Helena and Neville Landless until I can understand who they are and what they have to do with Drood. I only found out they were siblings just before the end, when they strolled off together into the sunset to commit their incest. (Through May 16)

Off-Broadway

My Name Is Asher Lev
  • My Name Is Asher Lev

My Name Is Asher Lev (****) — One of the reasons Aaron Posner's distillation of Chaim Potok's novel works so well on stage is that it remains an intensely first-person narrative. Ari Brand is both inside and outside the action as the title character, navigating instant changes from our storyteller to himself growing up as the child of Chasidic parents and maturing before our eyes to a painter of international stature. The conflict between Asher's art and his father's fervid religion is bitter and lifelong, with Aryeh dismissing his son's preoccupation as "narrishkeit" (or foolishness) until his canvasses begin to fetch astronomical sums.

Between these two powerful personalities stands Asher's mother, Rivkah, whose agonies become the subject of her son's most notorious masterwork, the "Brooklyn Crucifixion." But Asher's talent and Aryeh's importance are of such magnitude that the leader of the Chasidim, the Rebbe that Aryeh serves so diligently, also mediates — with a surprising empathy toward Asher that his own father cannot share. It's the Rebbe who hooks Asher up with the renowned Jacob Khan, the mentor who goads his apprentice into achieving greatness, even when it means forsaking religious principles and risking excommunication from his fellow Chasidim.

All of the supporting roles are performed by two actors, who must be as chameleonic as Brand and more. Mark Nelson is no less superb as the wise old Rebbe and the incendiary Khan than he is as Aryeh, zealously advancing the cause of Soviet Jewry. Jenny Bacon's portfolio is also breathtakingly wide, serving as Asher's devout mother one minute and his nude model the next. She's also Anna Schaeffer, the promoter and gallery owner who becomes the springboard for Asher's success and notoriety.

Nelson and Bacon bring a vivid energy to Asher's conflicts with religion, artistry, and commercialism. But it's Brand and his special intensity that steer us back to the realization that all these deep, sometimes angry conflicts are between strong altruistic good people, which is why I still find this story so moving and important. (Through May 26)

Collision (***1/2) — Lyle Kessler's new drama isn't altogether different from his enduring favorite, Orphans, which will shortly go into previews for a limited Broadway run starring Alec Baldwin. Both plays are noteworthy for their male lead, a charismatic man with the uncanny ability to quickly dominate others and radically change their lives. Grange is actually more of a loose cannon than Harold, the gangster tragic hero of Orphans — brilliant, arrogant, manipulative, and perversely bold.

Over the course of 90 taut minutes, Grange begins his wild ascent by bullying his timid college roommate, Bromly, and probing weaknesses that he quickly uses to his advantage. His second conquest is a malleable campus co-ed, Doe, whom he has sex with in one of the dorm beds while Bromly lies hidden in the other. Alerted to the indignity of being observed during coitus, Doe is somehow cajoled into rescuing Bromly from his virginity — minutes after they're introduced.

Grange's exploits continue to grow more wild and dangerous, for he is soon inviting his most challenging teacher to his dorm room, Professor Denton, and bending him to his will with the violent assistance of Bromly. There are more shocks to come as Grange is emboldened by each new conquest, but a further kinship with Orphans becomes clear along the way: Kessler wants us to look at Grange and his ragtag apostles as a family.

Although I found Kessler's attempt at a female character somewhat skimpy, the ensemble directed by David Fofi sustained a tension befitting a dysfunctional family. James Kautz had the steeliness and nonchalance to keep you ambivalent about whether Grange was a sociopath or a full-blown psycho, and Nick Lawson complemented him beautifully as Bromly, sufficiently hulking and puppydog-like to occasionally evoke Steinbeck's Lenny. Emphasizing her insecurities to the point where her actions didn't seem purely stupid, Anna Stromberg did a convincing rehab on Doe, and Michael Cullen as Professor Denton once again proved his aptitude for creepy decrepitude. (Closed February 17)

Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking! (***1/2) — Diehard fans and critics of Broadway musicals, plus the odd drama with a big-name star, will get a special kick from the latest Gerard Alessandrini assault on the current hits and misses on the Great White Way. But even if you don't recognize the references to Brigadoon in the "Fantasy Prologue" — including a song parody of the obscure "Down on MacConnachy Square," for heaven's sake! — the sheer outrageous fun and nastiness of this rambling revue will have your roaring when the talented quartet of singing hambone rogues reach full steam.

Doesn't take long, since they rev up with "Everything Blows." By intermission, the ensemble had mercilessly skewered Anything Goes, Follies, Annie, Newsies, Mary Poppins, and the reigning Tony Award winner, Once. When they could make it personal, they did, firing salvos at Sutton Foster, Bernadette Peters, and Catherine Zeta Jones. They took a detour beyond Broadway to pulverize the recent film adaptation of Les Miz, targeting Hugh Jackman's vocal travails with Jean Valjean's signature ballad, parodied as "It's Too High." They were so mean to James Broderick and Kelli O'Hara that I began wondering whether I should trade in my tickets for Nice Work If You Can Get It.

Yet I could console myself that they were far meaner to Ricky Martin's upbeat Ché Guevara and Elena Roger's colorless rendition of the title character in Evita. I'd listened to the cast album, so I knew that every word they said was true.

Act 2, if anything, is even more fearless and pointed, with Book of Mormon, Wicked, and Jersey Boys among the choicest prey — and a full pantheon of stars facing Forbidden's satirical cannonades. Megan Hilty, Audra Macdonald, Al Pacino, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mandy Patimkin, and Patti Lupone are all in this ensemble's crosshairs. Over the course of some two dozen vendettas, Natalie Charlé Ellis takes down Peters, Scott Richard Foster mortifies Jackman, Marcus Stevens eviscerates Broderick, and Jenny Lee Stern lambastes Anne Hathaway. Or she did until Lindsay Nicole Chambers took over the lambasting. (Through April 28)

Bunnicula (***1/4) — It's always welcome to have a new theatre piece from Charles Busch. Zaniness inevitably reigns. But this time Busch is tackling a project like none he's done before: he's adapting a work for stage that someone else has done before. Bunnicula ranked fifth in our Show of the Year listings for 2000 when Alan Poindexter directed Jon Klein's adaptation at Children's Theatre. That adaptation gave Jill Bloede and Jeff Schoenheit the opportunity to pile on the pet shtick as Chester the cat and Harold the dog — with the occasional lapse into musical harmony — while four other actors donned ridiculous jingling costumes as their owners, the Monroes.

Adapting the Deborah & James Howe children's book, Busch forces set designer Rob Odorosio to go beyond the Monroe kitchen and refrigerator. Special effects remain firmly in place when Bunnicula, the suspected pet vampire bunny, may be stealthily sucking the color out of the tomatoes — and yes, even the carrots! — by the light of the moon. There are also scenes in front of the movie theater where the Monroes first found Bunnicula (at a screening of Dracula) and, wilder yet, at an animal hospital where we encounter a hilarious menagerie. Scene changes of Odorosio's multipurpose designs bring confusion and clutter to the DR2 Kids Theatre stage near Union Square as the cast scurries around, pulling stagehand duty, adding to the fun while sustaining the scrappy pace.

But the improvements in the music by Sam Davis and lyrics by Mark Waldrop far outstrip Busch's upgrades, for the Chris Jeffries songs they supplant sounded like kidnaps from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Pulsebeat is notably intensified in the title song framing the show, with "White Tomato," "Hare from Hell," and "Danger Zone" as highlights along the way.

Robert Anthony Jones gets the best comedy bits as Harold the dog, but Prescott Seymour is excelling as the paranoid Chester, putting poor Bunnicula through hell. Busch's humans aren't nearly as dorky as Klein's, but they're tightly wound and highly stressed, exactly the neurotic suburban achievers these pets deserve. When we exit from the Monroe home, supporting players ham it up as an alley cat, a caged parrot, a pit-bull, and a vet. Bunnicula remains a puppet, handed from one actor to another, with beady red eyes that glow in the dark. (Through April 14)

Rain Pryor: Fried Chicken and Latkes (***) — No doubt about it, as the daughter of Jewish American mother and an edgy Black American icon, Rain Pryor has a story and a perspective that I want to hear. More than that, she has stand-up abilities of her own, plus singing and songwriting skills. But we're promised a special mix in the title of this one-woman show, reinforced by her opening "Life Is Fried Chicken & Latkes Too" (in the spirit of "Cabaret"). Pryor sprays a few Yiddish words our way in the early going, then drifts away fairly quickly from the latkes to a steady fried-chicken diet.

Even after she forsakes the original concept, there's plenty of material to mine when you're the daughter of the wild, self-destructive Richard Pryor. We do get a little of the odyssey we're looking for, backstage, behind-the-scenes, and among the comedian's kin. Most of what Rain delivers is glibness polished to a stand-up sheen with little confessional depth, pain, or continuity. It all plays like the star didn't sit down to write this show but instead pieced together a bunch of the best autobiographical stand-up spots in her inventory, tacked on the title, the opening song, and the Yiddish and opened for business.

It takes a little more glue for Pryor's concept to hold together than she was willing to apply, and if you have the chutzpah to start off by redefining life, you could at least have the fortitude to believe it for a full hour. Playing at the Actor's Temple Theatre, where you walk by racks of Jewish prayer shawls on the way to your seat, the setting couldn't be more perfect, with Pryor's sparkling backup trio led by Aziza Miller already jazzing as you enter. So it's a pity that Pryor hasn't fully risen to the occasion.

Zelda at the Oasis (**3/4) — Gardner Reed gave a rather sensational performance as the woman F. Scott Fitzgerald acknowledged as the prime motivation for his writing The Beautiful and the Damned, calling her "the First American Flapper." But encountering her sloshed and alone at an obscure New York City lounge, served by a bartender who doesn't readily recognize her, doesn't turn out to be the best way to present the essence and allure of the legendary Zelda Fitzgerald.

The Bar Man, played by Edwin Cahill, must be told about Zelda by Zelda. Though he deftly circles around the little Oasis, emerging as F. Scott, or Ernest Hemingway, or Edouard Jozan, the forgotten French pilot Zelda had a fling with while Scott was writing The Great Gatsby, Cahill merely enables Zelda to flesh out her narrative. We should be watching Scott's pursuit of Zelda, or hearing from him how desperate he was to marry her. Hearing it from a drunken woman fumbling in her purse for cab fare doesn't come close to capturing the flapper's glamor.

When Zelda tells the Bar Man that Scott swiped excerpts from her diaries, replicating them in his novels, it sounds like whining, and the value of all her artistic endeavors — writing, dancing, painting — sound like wishful thinking. But if P.H. Lin's script embarks with a set-up that's too faulty and frugal, it does allow Reed to achieve a certain poignant power. Hardly skimping at all on our heroine's native Alabama accent, Reed had me wondering at times whether Tennessee Williams might have based his regal and decrepit Blanche Du Bois on this fascinatingly bipolar Zelda Fitzgerald. (Closed February 16)

Clive
  • Clive

Clive (**1/2) — It was really a great idea. Take Bertolt Brecht's first musical drama, Baal, modernize it so the poet antihero of the original is now a snarling, dissolute folk rocker, and it ought to be a perfect vehicle for Ethan Hawke, though he's not the youngblood he once was. If you admire Brecht and Hawke, this is a perfect confection, but only if you're seated in the first five or six rows.

Dying his hair to iridescence, Hawke takes a cool approach to the charismatic Clive, who can have any woman he wants in a trice and is likely to toss her aside nearly as quickly just to keep proving it. Collateral damages such as drug addiction, pregnancy mean nothing to this artiste, who seems to fit in best with cheap hotels, powdered recreation, and lowlifes. There's just too little energy to his bravado and corruption for a large chunk of it to be audible. Clive's magnetic power is simply short-circuited.

Playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, who is also the "Third Man" in the cast, keeps all the Brechtian anti-theater we crave intact, but this charismatic disintegration was something that Brecht would depict more vividly — and pointedly — when he teamed up with Kurt Weill on The Threepenny Opera. Jumping into the audibility gap, Vincent D'Onofrio supplies some of the gusto this production so desperately needs. And in fact, Hawke as director presides over a wonderfully funky and outré spectacle, with Zoe Kazan supplying the most highly-charged sexuality.

It's a pity that there wasn't an assistant director taking note of Hawke's power outages. Then we might have seen ignition and lift-off in this devilish, punkish bacchanal. (Through March 9)

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