By Richard Seff, columnist – NY Theatre Buzz
It’s Award Winning Time in Hollywood, even though the Screen Writer’s Guild Strike has been keeping all those famous faces off the small screen. But here in New York theatre land, the working artists and artisans must wait till end of season in June for their recognition. January and February always have noticeably diminished numbers of Opening Nights, so I thought it might be a good time to have a look at the mid-season work going on nightly on stages around Gotham. In my last column, I mentioned the surprising number of worthwhile plays that reached us as the year ended. They are all still with us, and it’s the actors in them that are making the biggest stir. Yes, some of the plays themselves are remarkably adroit, but in one or two cases, it’s the magic in performance that raises the level of the script to sheer bliss.
Example: Playwright Mark Twain (in his Broadway debut), with the able assistance of David Ives who edited, added, subtracted and embellished the unactable Twain original, has himself a rollicking hit in IS HE DEAD? at the Lyceum. Director Michael Blakemore has assembled a cast of eleven actors, playing fourteen roles. They manage to turn a one-joke play into a riotous evening of revelry. Leading player Norbert Leo Butz, he of the unlikely name for a star, is fast becoming one anyway. After almost single handedly saving a flop called “Thou Shalt Not”, he continued to delight us in “The Last Five Years”, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Wicked”, and now he’s found a star role into which he can sink his teeth. Butz is so outrageously comic in a dress (he plays an artist and his twin sister; don’t ask) it seems likely that a long overdue revival of “Where’s Charley” cannot be far away. Butz is supported by an ensemble that seems to be having the time of its life. Michael McGrath, John McMartin, Byron Jennings, all of whom seem to find a play each season in which to cavort, are inventive and funny in this one.
Patricia Connolly and Mary Louise Burke are so ditzy as two biddies who spend the entire evening sprinting, they cry out for a new production of “Arsenic And Old Lace” to give them leading roles. And David Pittu – not enough praise can be showered on this not very tall actor, who is capable of making you believe he is fat, thin, short, tall, evil and regal as he pops up every few minutes as someone else. Only space constrains me, for all eleven actors are in top form.
When you leave the Lyceum, all you have to do is cross Broadway on 45th Street and walk a few steps to the Music Box to find another ensemble, this time nineteen actors, playing some forty characters. Here, in Aaron Sorkin’s THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION under Des McAnuff’s clean and inventive direction, seventeen of them support the two at the top – Hank Azaria as David Sarnoff, and Jimmi Simpson as Philo T. Farnsworth. Mr. Sorkin is back, in top form, after a losing battle to keep his “Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip” alive on TV last season. Best known for his “The West Wing” which occupied him for several seasons out West, he’s received many awards for his work in film and television. His most recent screenplay, “Charlie Wilson’s War” is on screens right now, but he hasn’t had a play on since his first, “A Few Good Men”, written when he was 28.
There has been some criticism of “Farnsworth”, but I found it absorbing, informative, and most entertaining. Yes, there’s a good deal of expository narrating in it, but when that’s being done by the likes of Azaria and Simpson, I promise you won’t be bored, not for a second. Hank Azaria is always a joy to watch on stage or screen, but the surprise was Mr. Simpson, of whom I hadn’t previously heard. It is such a joy to watch an actor able to take center stage and hold it. When you have two such in the same play, playing adversarial characters, there are fireworks. This time out, you won’t mind standing to cheer them at the final calls.
But, wait. All you have to do is exit the Music Box, turn right, and stroll down to the very next theatre on the block, the Imperial. Say “The Imperial” to me, and my mind flies to Ethel Merman hits with Irving Berlin, a few others by Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter and Frank Loesser. Even Harold Rome’s “Wish You Were Here” filled it for 598 performances way back in the l950s. “Silk Stockings”, “Almanac”, “The Most Happy Fella”, “Fiddler On The Roof”, “Carnival” – the list goes on, and nary a straight play among the titles.
The Imperial is large, and it takes a large play to feel comfortable in it. Well, it’s found one. The amazing AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY by Tracy Letts landed on both feet on December 4th, and astounded everyone. Even though Mr. Letts had impressed us all with his off/Broadway plays “Killer Joe” and “Bug”, we’d been unprepared for this epic play, this saga of three generations of the Weston Family of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Mr. Letts offers us thirteen characters; mothers, fathers, siblings, grandchildren, a patriarch, and a matriarch that makes Regina Giddens seem cordial and sweet.. Hell, this “Grandma Violet Weston”, played with fire and ice by Deanna Dunagan, makes Medea seem just slightly overwrought. Violet’s kith and kin run the gamut – Letts has filled the stage with richly drawn characters, and he’s been blessed with an ensemble out of Steppenwolf of Chicago that sets the stage ablaze again and again. I always thought “I hope you die. I hope you die soon. I’ll be waiting for you to die.” was a pretty good second act closer. But you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. This one has a second act closer (yes, it’s in three acts, as in days of yore) that will have you gasping for air.
Should you come visit us, these three evenings should satisfy any craving you might have for a theatre fix. But there is so much more. Harold Pinter’s THE HOMECOMING is back with us with a cast of six, headed by Ian McShane and Raul Esparza and Eve Best – well, I want to go on and mention the other three, for all contribute equally to the stunning effect of this Pinter master work. And THE SEAFARER which Conor McPherson wrote and directed, has another ensemble featuring Ciaron Hinds as The Devil, and will keep you on the edge of your seat as a poker game is played for a man’s soul.
If you’ve the time and the inclination, there is so much good work being done off the beaten track. I often have a fine time at the Mint Theatre in mid-Manhattan and at the Pearl, down at 80 St. Marks Place. They specialize in classics or long forgotten plays of interest. Coming up at the Mint is Ernest Hemingway’s “The Fifth Column” (never seen since its brief Broadway run in l940), and the Pearl is offering Niccolo Machiavelli’s hit from 1518, “The Mandrake” (“La Mandragola”) which does not show up too often, you must admit. So I’m going to see them both, and maybe at a future date, I’ll give you the low down.
I haven’t mentioned musical casts, because there are no new musicals running except THE LITTLE MERMAID (I haven’t seen it, but I understand little children are either crying or dozing when confronted by it). And there’s “Young Frankenstein” but the less said about that one the better. The sound system alone should keep you away. I heard the Original Cast CD this past weekend, so I can finally understand the lyrics, that’s not always a good thing. Again, a cast of dynamite performers present the adolescent words and conventional music as though they were fresh and fun. Megan Mullaly, Roger Bart, Shuler Hensley, Sutton Foster, Chris Fitzgerald, Andrea Martin give it their all, which is considerable, but “Deep Love”, “The Transylvania Mania” , “Join The Family Business” and “Life, Life” just don’t cut it for me. Were I you, I’d wait for IN THE HEIGHTS which is coming soon, and is full of vim, vigor and original ideas.
The streets in the theatre district here are jammed, and there is a carnival atmosphere around Broadway. It lifts the spirits just to walk about, ogling the signs and watching the human comedy in full regalia. And inside the theatres, as Stephen Schwartz wrote at the very top of “Pippin, ” “We have magic to do.”
Happy New Year to one and all.
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