Wednesday, May 12, 2010

 

Oh, The Plays You Can See


By Hannah W
Now that Tony nominations are out, we might be kicking ourselves for not seeing this play or that play, especially the ones that earned four, five or maybe even six of these honors. How can you predict the Tony winners if you haven’t seen the productions? Luckily, many of the nominated plays are still up and running on Broadway, and you have until June 13 to make your predictions.

Amazingly, every play that opened this season (and therefore is eligible for a Tony) and is still running has been noticed in at least one category. No matter what you decide to see, you’ll see a show that has earned a Tony nod.


As expected, Fences, the August Wilson revival that opened at the Cort Theatre on April 26, is the leader in Tony nominations. With a total of 10 recognitions, including Best Revival of a Play, Best Direction, Best Leading Actor and Actress, one has to assume that there is something to this production.

Though the commercial power of the show stems from its Tony nominated leading stars, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, the show has also been hailed for its scenic design, costume design, lighting design, sound design and original score. Yes, score. Though Fences Branford Marsalis wrote jazz music for the scene breaks that can have you dancing in your seat. This music is seamlessly incorporated into the production so well that you almost forget you’re really waiting for the actors to return.

Fences is the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), a trash collector in 1975 Pittsburgh. Troy is dreamer with dashed dreams. He constantly tells stories to his wife, Rose (Davis), and his best friend, Bono (played by Best Featured Actor nominee Stephen McKinley Henderson) of amazing things in his life, past and present. However, he is terrified his son, played by Chris Chalk, will go farther and become something more than Troy ever could.

Another leading contender that comes as somewhat of a surprise is Red, John Logan’s play about famed expressionist painter Mark Rothko. As with Fences, Red is up for Leading Actor, Featured Actor, Best Direction, Scenic Design, Lighting Design and Sound Design, but this play’s seven acknowledgements are rounded out by a Best New Play nomination.

Red is about Art. Through the years, we’ve seen a number of Broadway plays and musicals question Art, what it means to create Art and why Art exists. Perhaps the most well known is Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, last seen on Broadway in 2008.


Though both shows deal with artists struggling with what they want from their art, the Mark Rothko of Red has already achieved his fame. Red takes place during the two years he spent creating a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. The discussions that take place between Rothko, played by Alfred Molina, and his fictional assistant, Ken, played by Eddie Redmayne, unveil the two men’s opinions on Art, what Art means and the kinds of people who are able to see Art, versus the ones who should have that privilege.

The play is completely staged in Rothko’s art studio, with red paint on the floor and large expressionist paintings line the walls. During each scene break, a new painting is displayed to the audience, giving an idea for how Rothko wanted these murals to exist. The deep reds, crimsons and blacks of these paintings reflect the growing despair Rothko feels in sharing these murals with diners who can never appreciate them as he does.


Most of the time it seems that the only plays nominators take notice of are heavy dramas. Not this year. Ken Ludwig’s 1986 farce Lend Me a Tenor is up for Best Revival of a Play, among others. Though the cast consists of well known comedians such as Tony Shalhoub (TV’s Monk) and Justin Bartha (The Hangover), the standout performance is giving by Jan Maxwell, for which she has received a Best Featured Actress nod. Maxwell plays Maria, the jealous wife of a famed Italian tenor, who travels with her husband to Cleveland. A comedy of errors ensues in a Cleveland hotel between the opera manager, his assistant, his daughter, the chairwoman of the board, the opera diva and the bellhop. And we cannot forget the costumes in this production. If you remember Roger De Bris’s Anastasia (or Chrysler Building) dress from The Producers, be aware that it makes an encore appearance.


Making its Broadway debut is another comedy, this one dark, starring the Tony nominated Christopher Walken. Martin McDonagh’s new play, A Behanding in Spokane, might be a disappointment to those who loved his earlier work. True McDonagh fans might leave upset over the relatively blood-free stage (though this is not true of body parts). The true genius of Walken, plying a man who has spent half a century looking for his dismembered hand, is evident by his comic timing and dry humor, so that you might not miss the gore.

Two of the recognized plays, Collected Stories and Race, are structured to make you deconstruct both sides of an argument that doesn’t have a clear right or wrong answer. While that might sound like it can’t possibly result in entertaining theater, the performances give life to these very wordy plays. Collected Stories, the second Donald Margulies play produced by Manhattan Theatre Club this season, is essentially a series of discussions between two women, a celebrated author and her up-and-coming student. Linda Lavin, who plays the author, is up for Best Leading Actress for this strong performance. Race, the second David Mamet play to be seen on Broadway this season, uses the backdrop of a law firm defending a white man charged with raping a black woman to discuss the difficult topic of race relations. Noticed for Scenic Design, Race also received a Featured Actor nomination for David Alan Grier, playing the black lawyer on the case.

Much more plot-based than either Race or Collected Stories, Geoffrey Nauffts’s Next Fall is extremely thought-provoking in a different way. Next Fall presents two different ideas of Christianity and religion in general, seen from both an agnostic and Christian standpoint. The play centers around a gay couple, Adam (agnostic) and Luke (religious), as they try to overcome this major disparity in their relationship. At times funny (Jesse McCartney music makes an appearance) and at times heartbreaking, the struggle of these two men is shown without judgment. The audience members are the judges, most of whom picked a side before entering the theater. Next Fall is recognized for Best Play and Best Direction, due to Geoffrey Nauffts' ability to present different views on religion and write a compelling love story at the same time.


Originally a limited run at Manhattan Theatre Club, Time Stands Still closed March 27, but if you missed this Best New Play contender with Laura Linney, a Best Leading Actress nominee, you’re in luck. The first Donald Margulies play of the season is coming back to Broadway in the fall as a commercial production. Time Stands Still tells the story of photojournalist Sarah (Linney) and what happened to her life after she is injured while on assignment in Iraq. Sarah is so devoted to her job of observing the world that she finds it hard to participate and connect without her camera. We can’t escape the news reports of the war our country is currently engaged in, but rarely do we stop and think about those people who bring us our information. Time Stands Still places them firmly in our consciousness.

Of the eight plays currently running on Broadway, seven are Tony nominees for the 2009/2010 season, and God of Carnage, the only other play, is last year’s Tony winner for Best New Play, though it will close June 27. You have your pick of comedy or drama, new play or revival. The season has been kind to the playgoing theatergoer, as every play has something to offer. Which plays are you going to see?


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Comments:
This is a great article for those of us on a budget, trying to decide how to spend our limited entertainment money. Thank you Hannah W!
 
The clear overview of these eight plays and the succinct description of the plot is enough to whet your appetite or feel satiated and pass this course. Good job and I liked the buoyant tone of the article.. Zayde
 
Great piece, Hannah - I can't wait to see many of the shows you've covered; hopefully I can scrape up the cash to do so!
 
So well written, so succinct. Now I long to see all the plays you wrote about. Thank you!
Deborah
 
One of the great theater experiences of my life was seeing Collected Stories off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theater with the legendary Uta Hagen in the role of the author turned teacher. Even at her advanced age, her reputation certainly was still earned and watching her act was riveting.
 
Beautifully written and discussed. Found it exciting and informative enough to plan a (or several) trips from Washington to New York to get in on the fun.

Could easily convince my wife Sarah to accompany me.

Sam Stulberg
 
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