Monday, June 01, 2009


2008-2009 Broadway Plays, Part 1

By Josh R
May is not a time of year that holds pleasant associations for anyone who’s ever survived a college education. Cramming for exams, grinding out term papers, fighting off the urge to procrastinate…to say that it can be overwhelming is the height of understatement (I would describe my mood at the tail end of my final semester as falling somewhere between immoderately frazzled and thoroughly deranged). It was never my intention to revisit this dreaded state of emotional dystopia, and yet, with a whole season’s worth of plays to discuss, and the Tony Awards looming on the not-too-distant horizon, I find myself in more or less the same spot as when I had to pull 30-odd pages on Dalton Trumbo and The Blacklist out of thin air in about 48 hours in order to graduate. The best approach — really, the only realistic approach at this point — is address everything as briefly as possible, with apologies to the shows I omit due to considerations of time, space and exhaustion.

The straight play reigned supreme on Broadway this year, with more than 20 revivals and a smattering of new works. Theatres that have traditionally housed musicals played host to tried-and-true favorites by Coward and O’Neill, as producers tried to adjust to a less friendly economy. Musicals cost money; with smaller casts and lower overheads, plays are here to stay — at least for the immediate future.

First up — the early-season entries that premiered in the fall, as well as the current crop of “new” plays (note the use of quotation marks) in contention for Tony Awards.

The most surprising production of the 2009-2010 season may well have been Ian Rickson’s glorious staging of The Seagull, in a production that transferred from London. Chekhov can be a rather dry affair, and The Seagull, while indisputably a classic, can seem pretty parched in the absence of a fresh directorial perspective. This was very much the case with the last Seagull I’d seen — a star-studded debacle in Central Park helmed by Mike Nichols featuring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman and a phalanx of other big-name talents. The fact that Nichols seemed more interested in throwing an A-list party than in interpreting the text was the least of that show’s problems — everyone seemed to be acting in a different play (and frankly, all but a few seemed mismatched with their roles). This was most assuredly not the case in Rickson’s masterful staging, which, while remaining entirely true to the spirit of the piece and the intentions of its author, didn’t treat the play like the kind of lofty classical opus to be treated with kid gloves and kept under glass like a priceless museum artifact. In much the same manner as Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, this was The Seagull brought down to earth and demythologized — a naturalistic staging which captured the emotional truth behind the words without getting wrapped up in the profundity of them, or aiming for the formal gloss of a Masterpiece Theatre production. With his complex portrayal of a woman who can be both passionate and aloof, engaging and off-putting, breathtakingly assured and wildly insecure, Chekhov seemed to have imagined the actress Arkadina as a Molotov cocktail blended from equal parts fire and ice — and that’s exactly the way Kristin Scott Thomas played her, embodying the myriad contradictions of the character with wit, verve, and a laser-like emotional acuity. Since the production ended its limited engagement way back in December — and since Tony nominators have notoriously short memories — The Seagull and its star were conspicuously absent from the list of contenders for the big prizes.

Also lost in the shuffle was Thea Sharrock’s hugely successful revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus — although whether that success owed itself more to the merits of the production than to Daniel Radcliffe’s highly publicized nude scene can remain a subject of debate (or not — something tells me all those teenage girls in attendance the day that I saw it were not hardcore Shaffer mavens). No matter how many times I see it, I’m never quite sure what to think of Equus as a play; while frequently fascinating and unfailingly provocative, it never quite seems to come together in the way that it should. Its central conflict is built around the contention that true liberation can be achieved only through madness — a conceit that the narrative doesn’t really seem to support, given that the lunatic in question seems less a free spirit than a desperately unhappy prisoner of his own warped mind. That notwithstanding, Sharrock’s highly polished staging kept the action moving even though the play’s overly cerebral passages, and Richard Griffiths delivered a performance admirable for its understatement (resisting the urge to mine so many flashy monologues for the stuff of actorly tour-de-force is no small thing). Inevitably, it was Radcliffe — in clothes and out of them — who attracted the lion’s share of the attention, although the performance lacked something in terms of shading and nuance. I’m not averse to an element of theatricality — but portraying a character who functions in a state of angry delirium doesn't necessitate shouting all of one’s lines.

The shouting was appropriate in Neil Pepe’s fall revival of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, a marvelously cynical look at Hollywood power players and the ambitious hangers-on who love them (or, at least, want to ride to glory on their coattails). As a play, Speed-the-Plow isn’t quite as rich in scope as some of Mamet’s more celebrated works — nevertheless, it is a smartly calibrated, vastly entertaining example of the playwright’s craft. The action is streamlined and concise, while the dialogue, consisting mainly of sentence fragments, manages to be blunt yet elliptical at the same time. In some of his plays — particularly, it must be said, in the ones where female characters are placed front and center — Mamet’s fragmented style seems to be at odds with characterization. It feels perfectly right in Speed-the-Plow, which centers around the interactions of two jittery, over-caffeinated studio execs whose motors run so fast they can only pause long enough to communicate in sound bites. When I saw the production, these two titans of industry were played by Jeremy Piven and Raul Esparza, while the role of the seemingly demure office temp who gets caught in the crossfire was performed by Elisabeth Moss. Piven left the production mid-run amidst some controversy — something about mercury poisoning after having eaten too much salmon — and was subsequently replaced by Norbert Leo Butz and Mamet stalwart William H. Macy. Better Piven had departed under fishy circumstances than Mr. Esparza, who, I suppose, may be capable of giving a performance that is less than brilliant — I only say “may” because his most recent performances haven’t provided any evidence to that effect. On the heels of his triumphs in Company and The Homecoming, the protean star of plays and musicals delivered yet another galvanizing star turn — one which went for the jugular, and hit its target like a guided missile.

As for new plays, the story remained much as it always has on Broadway — which is to say, ‘twas slim pickins. The season’s best and most interesting new works could be found in non-for-profit off-Broadway houses — venues where the risk factor is considerably less from a financial standpoint, and greater risks can be taken on the artistic front as a result. Female playwrights made a particularly strong showing this year. Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, a modern-day version of Mother Courage set in war-torn Congo, deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, while Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw was a sharply observed comedy of manners with a sleek contemporary twist. Sarah Kane’s Blasted — an audacious compendium of unspeakable behaviors — was perversely fascinating, while Annie Baker’s clever, inquisitive Body Awareness marked a particularly auspicious debut for an emerging playwright. If the women commanded the spotlight, the men were not entirely lacking in action; Lorenzo Pisoni’s Humor Abuse, an autobiographical account of growing up in the circus, and Chris Durang’s absurdist trifle Why Torture is Wrong and The People who Love Them were particular standouts in a off-Broadway season that offered more than its share of high points (the lows were there too…but that’s a discussion for another day).

To say that no new works to be seen on Broadway quite matched that standard is a bit misleading, since all but a few could be accurately termed “new.” The late Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, written and first performed in the late 1980s, made its belated Broadway bow in a limited engagement at The Booth Theatre last fall. A kindler, gentler cousin to August: Osage County, featuring a gaggle of contentious Texan siblings squabbling over their inheritance, it was warmly received by critics — if generating little in the way of excitement beyond that. Foote’s homespun, elegiac style can work to beguiling effect when plied in service of gentle stories about gentle subjects — Trip to Bountiful and Tender Mercies are the two that immediately spring to mind. It doesn’t seem entirely appropriate, though, when the subject is something as thorny as a family feud. As with many of Foote’s later works, Dividing the Estate seemed to consist mainly of rose-tinged anecdotes strung together to create a sort of careworn, dog-eared scrapbook — while the fire-and-brimstone antics of Osage County would have seemed completely out-of-place, the proceedings could have used a bit more in the way of tension and urgency. Still, the play did furnish the occasion for pitch-perfect ensemble work by cast led by Elizabeth Ashley and Gerald McRaney; deserving of special praise (and receiving the show’s lone acting nomination) was Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter and frequent collaborator, making a memorable impression as the passive-aggressive sister determined to grab off the biggest piece of the pie. Another “new” play — at least according to Tony eligibility rulings — was Richard Greenberg’s The American Plan, originally performed off-Broadway in the early '90s. The Manhattan Theatre Club revival, directed by David Grindley, featured expert performances by Lily Rabe, Keiran Campion and particularly the acerbic, husky-voiced Mercedes Ruehl as an imposing, fatalistic Teutonic mama who alternately coddles and smothers her hapless offspring. Fine acting aside, you could see The American Plan’s surprise twist coming from a mile away, and the pretensions of the dialogue weighed the proceedings down to a certain degree — it didn’t quite make sense for Jews on vacation in The Catskills to spend quite as much time waxing philosophical.

Something called Impressionism quickly established itself as the biggest belly-flop of the year — not even the marquee value of Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen, making their first Broadway appearances since The Real Thing and The Heidi Chronicles respectively, could keep it from closing two months ahead of schedule. Not all the news was bad, however, and other instances of starry casting paid big dividends. There was no reason to assume that Jane Fonda, who hadn’t set foot on a Broadway stage in some 40-odd years, would deliver one of the breakout performances of the season. She did just that in 33 Variations, a strange, diffuse work by I Am My Own Wife scribe Moises Kaufman, rising above the limitations of the script and showing that she’s still got the goods to take on multi-faceted roles of the non-monster-in-law variety. Fonda’s most exciting quality as a performer has always been her bracing, prickly intelligence — the performances that stand as her career high-water marks always examined the manner in which intellect can exist at odds with naked emotionalism. It’s a formula that still retains its potency; as a dying scholar trying to unravel the mysteries of Beethoven’s life and work, she was never less than compelling, even when the play itself seemed unfocused and inconsistent in its ambitions. A cutesy subplot involving a burgeoning romance between Colin Hanks and Samantha Mathis — appealing performers who work a bit too hard to be ingratiating — could have excised altogether without altering the narrative framework considerably.

If 33 Variations was, at least, a work of considerable ambition, the season’s one true non-musical smash was blissfully unencumbered by anything of the kind. I didn’t see Art, Yasmina Reza’s previous Broadway hit, or Life x 3, which did very well abroad but was less kindly received in its 2004 New York debut. Based on everything I’ve gleaned about the prolific French playwright and her oeuvre, God of Carnage doesn’t represent much of a departure for her. It’s simplistic in its aims, which is to say it has about as much depth to it as pan of water; if that statement smacks of reproach, bear in mind that, in certain instances, shallowness can be a virtue. Reza has a remarkably assured grasp of the mechanics of playwriting — one can’t fault her sense of structure, and God of Carnage is, above all things, a shrewdly constructed work of theater. It knows exactly where it’s going and exactly how to get there, moving along smoothly from start to finish without hitting any speed bumps or permitting itself to stall for a fraction of a second. If it is, essentially, a glorified sitcom given the illusion of sophistication by virtue of an upscale milieu and highbrow cultural references (a pigeon dressed up as a peacock), that doesn’t prevent it from qualifying as the most entertaining new work of the season. Two couples meet to discuss an altercation their children have had on the school playground — what begins as an informal meeting for dessert and cocktails, largely characterized by strained civility and forced politeness, quickly degenerates into a drunken, screaming free-for-all, with the type of juvenile antics that might embarrass Albee’s George and Martha (in case you were wondering, it is a comedy). It’s a foolproof recipe for success — everyone loves seeing grown-up people behaving like children, especially when those cell-phone-stealing, flower-throwing, projectile-vomiting heathens in Armani are played by actors as resourceful as the four person cast assembled by director Matthew Warchus. His rollicking, immaculately executed production gives each performer his or her moment to shine in turn — James Gandolfini and Jeff Daniels are perfectly matched as wildly contrasting combatants in what turns out to be the silliest of pissing contests, Hope Davis’ drippy passivity mutates into a kind of maniacal glee all the more hysterical for its unexpectedness, while the indispensable Marcia Gay Harden all but steals the show as the kind of self-important, highly strung culture vulture who couldn’t let any imagined slight pass if her life — or her sanity — depended upon it. You can insult her husband, but don’t dare to insult her taste.

If God of Carnage was the best production of a new work to be seen on a Broadway in 2009, honors for the best new play can be conferred upon Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty, currently playing at The Belasco Theatre. That may sound like a ringing endorsement, but honestly, when you look at the season’s new plays as plays — meaning what’s on the page, as opposed to what shows up on the stage — 2009 didn’t produce any classics. There were some good, solid efforts, but very little in the way of risk. Reasons to be pretty is about the gap in communication and between men and women, and specifically how that lack of understanding is fueled by male competition and insensitivity (a friend of mine remarked that all LaBute’s plays and screenplays revolve around the notion that men are pigs - she may be on to something there.) It’s a worthy effort, with sharply drawn characterization and a dramatic intensity most of the year’s other new entries lacked — and yet, it feels a bit like the writer is spinning his wheels. If you’ve seen LaBute’s other works — in addition to being a prolific playwright, he’s had success as an independent filmmaker (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) — you know that he’s traversed this terrain before, and isn’t breaking any new ground at this point. There’s a sense of déjà vu that comes with seeing so many different variations on a single theme; LaBute is too talented a writer to get stuck in place, striking the same notes over and over again in slightly different arrangements. While his latest effort a lot to recommend it, it can’t avoid seeming remedial.

To avoid seeming remedial myself, I’m going to leave things there for now….the portion of our program where Josh is generally underwhelmed by everything and impossible to please has reached its conclusion. Next up, I’ll tackle the flurry of revivals that arrived in the spring — which is when the wow factor really kicked in, with some marvelous productions I fully expect to bore everyone to tears going gaga over. Stay tuned…

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I know I'm late to this party, but tihs was great reading - thanks!

For the first time in my life, I wish I lived in New York...
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