Triple Triumphs

The Glass Cage, Oklahoma! and Equus
by Richard Seff

The tiny Mint Theater, ensconced on the third floor of an office building in a 96 seat black box with stadium seating, should win all the prizes for impeccable productions of little known gems from the past. You have no idea how delicious can be the savoring of the words and ideas of JB Priestley, Leo Tolstoy, Harley Granville Barker, St. John Ervine, Rachel Crothers, Thomas Wolfe, Arthur Schnitzler, Rose Franken, A.A. Milne, not unless you’ve done your savoring at the Mint. Under the artistic direction (and I do mean artistic) of the appealing and unassuming Jonathan Bank, plays like The Power of Darkness, The Madras House, John Ferguson, Susan and God, The Voysey Inheritance, Welcome to our City, Walking Down Broadway, Soldier’s Wife, and Mr. Pim Passes By have been exumed and infused with new life via young and enthused directors, and casts seemingly snatched from the finest companies in the world. I admit that most of the actors are new to me, but they would match or better the quality of the National in London, and the regulars at our own Lincoln Center, Roundabout and Manhattan Theatre Club.

Last week I saw a play by JB Priestley, The Glass Cage. It had a short but successful run in Toronto in 1957, then moved to the Piccadilly in London for another limited engagement. End of story. It’s never been done since! By the mid-50s, Priestley was considered passé and  was thrown into the dustbin along with Terrence Rattigan, Noël Coward and a host of other establishment writers, brushed aside by the arrival of the angry young men and women, John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Sheila Delaney et al. Rattigan and Coward were re-discovered in the 70s and 80s, but it took An Inspector Calls and Dangerous Corner in daring new productions in the 90s both on Broadway and in London to resurrect the very fine Priestley, who left some 30 plays behind when he departed in 1984 at the age of 90. Somehow The Glass Cage, despite its excellent notices, was not even published except in a short collection of Priestley’s works put out by his son. Leave it to Jonathan Bank and his gifted associates to bring it to us in all its natural glory. The story of a comfortable establishment family in  Toronto, circa 1907, living lies so that all can seem calm and serene, into whose home arrive the three children of the long lost brother of two of them, the nieces and nephews whose mother was half Canadian Indian, whose father was an alcoholic and seemingly reckless and irresponsible man who’d long since abandoned them. They’ve been summoned to clean up an inheritance matter, but oh boy, do the tables turn.

The three have come with a plan to have retribution for what they perceive to have been a great betrayal of their father by their uncles and aunt. Priestley’s great gift is that he keeps the complicated plot twisting and turning, surprising us again and again right up to the final moments, when the play suddenly becomes terribly relevant, as it deals with the hatred we carry with us, sometimes for a lifetime, the “glass cage” from which we can never be free until we learn to listen to each other, to compromise, to reach out.

As I said, the actors were virtually all new to me, except for Jack Weatherall, who was splendid as Vick Grassi, Sharon Gless’ brother in the long running cable series, “Queer As Folk”.  But Robin Moseley, Gerry Bamman, Chad Hoeppner and particularly Jeanine Serralles, Saxon Palmer and Aaron Krohn as the visiting irritants, were absolutely splendid. An older character actor, Chet Carlin, brought vigor, interest and empathy to the central role of the family Dr. Gratton. If I left any cast member out, it’s only space limitation; it was an exciting ensemble, and praise for that must go to Lou Jacob the director, whose credits are vast, but as tribute to the vitality of live theatre despite its reputation, he too was new to me. The play will run through November 2, and it’s a very good reason to plan a trip to Manhattan. You won’t see this play elsewhere, unless some smart Washington artistic director spots it and brings it to you.

The Glass Cage has been extended at the Mint Theater through November 2nd.

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Oklahoma!

The Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, NJ, has been presenting musicals for decades, and each management has put its own stamp on it. The recent director, Michael Gennaro, never quite found his audience’s appetite, therefore could not satisfy it, and the Paper Mill almost went belly up. But the town council, realizing what a tourist attraction it had been for so long, found itself some sponsors, patrons and contributors, and Oklahoma! opened its sixtieth season last night. You could feel the gratitude and the excitement in the air.

OK, Oklahoma! may seem a safe bet, but so is Hamlet and that gets done a lot too. Nothing wrong with doing a crowd pleaser when you want to rebuild your subscription base. The point is to do it well, and on balance, I’d say they are off to a very promising start. I looked forward to last night, because I first met Curley and Laurie and Jud Fry and Ado Annie and Ali Hakim and Aunt Eller 55 years ago when they first showed up on Broadway, where they stayed put for over five years. By the time they left, they felt like family to me, for once I’d seen the show, I would sneak in for the last minutes again and again as I walked past their home at the St. James Theatre on my way back from some other evening’s outing. I was also in attendance at Liberty Music when Alfred Drake, Celeste Holm and others from the original cast showed up to autograph the 78 rpm. version of the original Broadway cast recording – a first!  Shows had had bits and pieces done before 1943, but never had an entire score been put down; it was an experiment. Some feared it would cut down on ticket sales to the show itself, but no – the album was a smash and only whetted the appetite for its listeners to see it in the flesh. 

I’ve run into these characters again and again through the years, in London, on Broadway; I even directed the show once at a boy’s camp when I was 17, which production I’m glad only about 35 relatives of the campers saw. But I approached Milburn with an anticipatory glow, for I wanted to see how these folks looked – after 65 years. 

Under James Brennan’s direction, and Peggy Hickey’s choreography, the earliest moments settled me down and put a smile on my face. The “Curley” of Adam Monley, the “Laurey” of Brynn O’Malley, the “Aunt Eller” of Louisa Flaningam were spot on, and the set, lighting and orchestra took us through “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey With The Fringe on the Top” and later, in the same set, the ebullient arrival of “Will Parker” (Brian Sears) and his pals gave us an “Everything’s Up To Date in Kansas City” that burst into quite thrilling choreography that was not Agnes DeMille (the original choreographer), but Peggy Hickey, who was making her Paper Mill Playhouse debut. I’m sure she’ll be welcomed back, for her contribution here and later in “Out of My Dreams” and “The Farmer and the Cowman” brought deserved cheers and whistles.

 I’m sorry to say there were blips here and there. Megan Sikora arrived as “Ado Annie” and seemed to be in some other show; something along the lines of Star and Garter or Peep Show.

With a voice that could shatter glass, she was not helped by the little microphone that peeped out from under her wig. She hit every word of “I Cain’t Say No” with a sledgehammer so all nuance went out the window. And you don’t get the laugh on “What’ll I do? Spit in his Eye” unless you serve it quietly. Blasting it out, hitting each word with equal force, becoming angry, doesn’t do it at all. Dear Ms. Sikora, may I suggest you listen to Celeste Holm knock it out of the park by playing it at half the speed and with half the volume? Many in the audience bought the Sikora approach, but I think ofOklahoma!! as a classic, and it’s best served when every character up there is real. Ado Annie is only 19, she’s never been further away from home than Claremore (which I gather is a couple of miles), but Ms. Sikora presents us with an Annie who’s been round the world – twice – and seen a lot!  Later in the show, when she does “All Er Nothin” with Mr. Sears’ “Will Parker” the poor man has no choice but to ratch up his performance to keep tabs with hers, and those very funny lyrics about “don’t want up fer me” and “nothin’s what you’ll git from me” need projected titles because they are blasted so, you just can’t hear the words. And there go the laughs. 

Ms. Flaningam’s “Eller” caught the fever too, and by the time she got to “The Farmer and the Cowman”  at the opening of Act II, she was flying. I don’t know what she did in the intermission, but she started the second act on such a high note that by the third chorus she was screeching like a banshee. John Jellison, who shared the number with her, was absolutely marvelous in the book scenes as Ado Annies’ shotgun totin’ pa, but in this song, the fever spread and he was screaming all those lyrics about “that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends.”  It’s odd, because James Brennan’s direction of the show in general, and on the three principals, Laurey, Jud and Curley, was so deft, it seemed like he left the room when the others had their turn.  

Even the ensemble played with gusto and truth – each boy and girl seemed to have a specific goal, a specific action in the big song and dance numbers. And they could all dance up a storm, which gave us four show stoppers, including the title song that lifts the second act. 

Oklahoma! is a brave musical, for it dares to break all tradition in musical theatre. We know now that it opened the doors for all sorts of innovative shows to follow. It starts small, it has no “chorus” (merely townspeople), it dares to deal with a complicated love triangle intelligently and more in keeping with a play than a musical of the ‘40s. There is murder in it, and potential rape, and psychological complexity. If we’re to be moved by these (and we are), the comical characters in the subplot must be just as real as the three leads. Andrew Varela’s “Jud” is a marvelous blend of malevolence and sadness, and his singing of the often skipped “Lonely Room” is powerful. Don’t misunderstand – Brynn O’Malley, Brian Sears and Louisa Flaningam are very talented and attractive performers; they all three have moments of great tenderness and reality. But the Big Sell is not necessary in Oklahoma!  It’s so fixable, and my suggestion is they get to that pronto, for some of the broadness is not up to the high standards  this production sets for itself.

For this is one of which the new artistic director, Mark Hoebee can be proud. I’m sure the word of mouth will be everything he hoped for, and I wish them well as they proceed with a season that will include The High School Musical, 1776 and The Full Monty as well as the plays The Importance of Being Earnest and Master Class.

Oklahoma! Plays through October 19th at the Paper Mill Playhouse.

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Equus

To complete the trio of goodies that my job offers me, I saw a final preview of Equus starring Richard Griffith and Daniel Radcliffe at the Broadhurst on Broadway. Heralded from London, where it enjoyed great success last season, it comes to us in excellent condition, deserving of all the hosannas from abroad. Peter Shaffer’s play about a boy on the brink of manhood who is obsessed with horses as he seeks religious outlet and relief from the confusion and rage within him, is stunningly original, based only on a tale Mr. Shaffer heard about an unsolved case in England in the early 1970s.  From this tale, he fashioned a play of his own devising, trying to understand the boy’s behavior.  Clearly he is concerned with the need for passion in a richly lived life, and the dangers that can come from trying to destroy them. As the mystery unravels before us, we are engaged and engrossed; he holds us until the end.

Mr. Griffith is the most appealing of character stars, and his Dr. Martin Dysart has all the colors Peter Shaffer has written into him. Wise, witty, self-aware, compassionate, questioning, all that and more. He makes acting look simple, for he never seems to be acting at all. When needed, he has the power to command the stage, and his final moments, in which he questions his entire raison-d’ètre are tremendously moving.  Young Radcliffe runs him a merry chase as Alan Strang, and all doubts about his adaptability to the stage after all those years as Harry Potter in the movies must now be forgotten. The kid’s good!   His well advertised strip to the bare bottom is so discreetly and imaginatively handled that there wasn’t a giggle in the house; the scene requires total submission on the boy’s part, and the house accepts it as inevitable and really quite beautiful. Shaffer’s lyrical play, which mourns the lack of passion in so many well-ordered lives, stands the test of time – a bit lofty now and then for early 21st Century ears, but a lovely reminder of times gone by, when eloquence was not something to be avoided at all costs.

A fine supporting cast delivers this Equus to us with its power retained. Beautifully lit by David Hersey, with effective sound design by Gregory Clarke.  (listen to what he’s done when the horses – well, I won’t tell you, for I don’t want to blunt the effect – but the sounds that come at us greatly enhance the effect of the scene).  John Napier’s set and costumes are simple and eloquent, and adapt easily so that the play flows smoothly throughout.

Carolyn McCormick and T.Ryder Smith are chillingly real as Alan Strang’s well-meaning and frustrated parents, and Ms. McCormick’s aria explaining her frustration is marvelously written and performed so that we are given a point of view we might not have arrived at on our own. Lorenzo Pisoni makes a stunning Young Rider and Nugget, the central horse that figures in Alan Strang’s obsession, and the actors who play the other five horses manage to create stunning effects as well. Anna Kamp, as the young lady whose attraction to Alan Strang takes us to the climactic act of the play, is sharp as crystal, totally convincing as a young woman far more secure in her sexuality than is her young swain.   Kate Mulgrew alone seems a tad out of  place. Fine actress that she is, she’s playing the Magistrate Hester Salamon on one note – cutting edge sharp, but little else. One can’t help but hear bits and pieces of her one-woman show on Katherine Hepburn, which for me interfered with the reality of the woman who prevails on Dr. Dysart to rid Alan Strang of his obsession.

The play is beautifully orchestrated by Thea Sharrock, who directed it in London. Not known here, Ms. Sharrock has done much on the London stage, and shows that she was in command of this one.  A welcome import, this – here for a limited run until February that will undoubtedly do very well. It’s nourishing, provocative, informative, beautifully acted and staged, and a welcome addition to the already nutritious season in New York.

Equus continues its run at the Broadhurst Theater,  through February 8th, 2009.

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Autumn in New York. The thrill of first nighting. The economy is crashing, the world is in turmoil, but the fabulous invalid called live theatre is sticking around to brighten lives. 

 

 

Richard Seff is author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.

 

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