Gerard Alessandrini, creator, writer and director of the Forbidden Broadway series of small revues designed to skewer the Broadway of its current season, has announced that the series will end. The latest, called Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab, will be the last. If this turns out to be true, it’s good to be able to report that Rehab is among the top five of the Forbiden shows which first appeared in l982.
Alessandrini has devoted his entire career to these 4-actor, one-piano cabaret pieces which is only sad in that it would have been wonderful to see what he could do with a book show of his own, something somewhere between Into the Woods and Dames at Sea. A brilliant parodist, he manages to cut to the heart of the weak spot in even the mightiest of divas, leading men, and musical hits. I’m certain he might want a rest from the hard work he’s been doing these past 26 years, but I think too the recent crop of new musicals have been so bland, the recent crop of leading ladies and gentlemen have been so interchangeable, there’s not a lot to satirize. He does manage to make mince meat of A Tale of Two Cities, but there isn’t enough size in shows like Legally Blonde, Cry-Baby. The Wedding Singer or the small 90 minute one-acters that are the main courses on the off Broadway straight play menus of late. Give him a meaty play like August :Osage County, a juicy revival like South Pacific, a surprising performance like Daniel Radcliffe’s in Equus, a triple threat like Lin-Manuel Miranda (composer, lyricist leading player) of In The Heights, and Alessandrini turns serial killer. But he’s so clever I do believe even those he flattens are flattered and amused by his view of them, because it’s all done with love (I think).
In the current version, playing to capacity in the small 47th Street Theatre just off Eighth Avenue, he’s managed to take pot shots at a couple of dozen sacred cows. Gina Kreiezmar has an uncanny way with Patti LuPone, Liza Minnelli and “Mary Poppins” among others. With Gypsy for example, she sings “Everything’s Coming Up Patti” to the tune of you know what, and receives deserved roars of approval. Her take on Minnelli’s speech and movement patterns are as clean and accurate as any drawing Al Hirschfeld ever made of her. Diminutive Christina Bianco goes from the gamine Bebe Neuworth singing “All That Chat” to the adolescent boy “Billy Elliot” to Kelli O’Hara singing “Some Enchanted Species” from what I guess you’d have to call Southwest Pacific.
The two gents involved are no less adept at adapting to the needs of “Emile deBeque” , to the brilliant but non-iconic actor Boyd Gaines in Gypsy. And more, much more. If there is a lapse once in a while, not to worry, they will all bounce back in a moment with another home run to keep you listening and laughing . Michael West and James Donegan are the actors this time out, and they follow a long line of performers, some of whom have gone on to great acclaim post-Forbidden Broadway. This delicious two-act review will only be with us through January 21st,, so if you’re planning a trip to Gotham, I highly recommend you include it in your theatre plans. It costs half as much as a Broadway ticket and is twice as much fun as most of its competitors.
Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab continues through January 15th at the 47th Street Theatre, 304 W. 47th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit forbiddenbroadway.com.
I know Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull well, for I had a crack at it as an actor in Circle Rep’s production in 1983. I played “Shamraev”, the estate manager, not very well I’m afraid, but it was great fun trying on a character with whom I had little in common except perhaps age. But I love the play, and it was a growth experience for me, working with such fine actors as Richard Thomas, Michael Higgins, Barbara Cason, Edward Seamon, Robin Bartlett and others. But with Chekhov it’s always fun to see how others will approach the good Doctor’s characters, for they are complex and can be played in any number of ways. At the moment, New York is playing host to Ian Rickson’s British take on an adaptation by Christopher Hampton, brought to us from the Royal Court in London. It features Kristin Scott Thomas as “Arkadina”, Peter Sarsgaard as “Trigorin” and Mackenzie Crook as “Konstantin”. Mr. Sarsgaard is new to the production, and is making his Broadway debut.
The simple set by Hildegard Bechtler tells us we are in another century, and the costumes by the same artist have the proper Russian flavor, seasoned with an English overlay. The stage is almost bare as we first see the light of evening onstage, but there is a sense of something about to happen as servants rush to and fro preparing a crude stage, formed from posts and tree limbs gathered from the forest. Slowly, Chekhov introduces us to Konstantin (called “Kostya” by his friends and family), to Jacov, a family servant. Masha, the estate managers’s daughter, arrives with her suitor, the hapless Medvedenko, to tell him and us that she always wears black because she is in mourning for her life. But instantly we realize that this company is going to deliver us a Seagull that is, as Chekhov always insisted, a comedy. For Zoe Kazan, who plays Masha, delivers this oh so sad answer to her suitor’s question by spitting it out so that we laugh in spite of ourselves. When Medvedenko prattles on about the sad condition of his own life, with his lack of money, the family he must support, the pressure he is under to fulfill his obligations on his meager schoolteacher’s salary, we are touched, we care, but again, we laugh. And so it goes through the 2 l/2 hours it takes to tell this tale of a long weekend in the country which is inhabited by a dozen relatives friends and servants, all of whom are coping even though none has found fulfillment in life, all are trying to manage though all are deeply disappointed in their lot, and it is the playwright’s genius that allows us to get to know, understand and find empathy for all of them, right down to Jacov the servant who, with perhaps three lines to speak, is allowed his moment center stage so that even he engages us.
Though the cast has been highly praised, I found it uneven. Mackenzie Crook conveys the deep pain that Kostya feels, with no outlet for his creative juices because he is stuck in the country with no money, torn between his love for his mother, the actress Arkadina, who supports him frugally, both financially and emotionally. He does love his Uncle Sorin, but the poor old gent has problems of his own, and can not offer the boy more than a good ear. Crook is intense, but one can understand Nina’s lack of romantic interest in him; he’s just a bit too unhappy with himself and the world around him to arouse ardor in her. Peter Wight as Sorin is physically right, but I only saw one note in his performance. Masha is in love with Kostya, and Kostya yearns for his neighbor Nina, but she is under the spell of Trigorin, who is Arkadina’s consort. Masha’s mother Polina yearns hopelessly for Dr. Dorn, who was once the catch of the season around this estate’s lake, but he feels that in his fifties, he’d rather remain a confirmed old bachelor, so Polina is stuck with her husband Shamraev. Of all of them, only Dr. Dorn and Shamraev seem to have found peace accepting themselves.
For the most part, the performances are luminous. Kristin Scott Thomas, who won the Olivier Award last season in this production in London, is fascinating. From her first entrance, in which she is pretending to listen to Shamraev babbling on about some obscure actor while at the same time sizing up the setting in the forest where her son’s play is about to be performed, we are aware that here is a charmer who always has a secret agenda to benefit herself. She is artful, but she is only happy when she is in complete control and for the rest of the evening we watch her with her brother, her lover, her son, her possible competitor, and manage to have her way with all of them. All this, and we still find her charming, attractive and very good company.
Peter Sarsgaard’s Trigorin is crumpled, insecure, but tirelessly ambitious. Though he’s achieved great popular success as a novelist he is fully aware that, though popular, he will never be “as good as Turgenev.” He is not strong enough to fight Arkadina, so he sticks with her when she virtually demands it. But he is weasel enough to seduce and abandon Nina on a whim without losing Arkadina in the bargain. I liked this performance a lot, for it created the perfect yin to Ms. Thomas’ yang, and the unlikely paring of this fading Star Actress and the Popular but empty Novelist rang true from start to finish. Nina is a tough nut to crack, for in the early acts she is slightly hysterical and Carey Mulligan can’t do much to make that quality appealing. But in the fourth act, when she returns to tell Kostya that she’s aborted Trigorin’s child, that she’s finally become a true actress, that she’s committed to a career that will undoubtedly prevent her ever having a rewarding private life, Mulligan is powerful and convincing. One can see Kostya dissolving before her, as he now knows that the beautiful, untouched youngster who’d won his heart has become something else – something he finds abhorrent. Though he has himself achieved some success as a writer, he’s lost the love of his life. Mr. Crook is at his best in this last act. And Chekhov’s brief and brave conclusion to his play leaves the viewer stunned, but a believer. If you see this production, I assure you you’ll be discussing it with others long after you’ve left the theatre.
The Seagull plays through December 21st at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit seagulltheplay.com.
Which brings us to now. It’s so good to sense the return of hope and confidence in homes, in the streets, in the cafes, in the theatres. On that note, I wish you all the happiest of Thanksgiving holidays, for it seems to me we have more than usual for which to be grateful as this one rolls around. I’m told Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, which is as tender as you can get, has already sold out the first three of its six week New York engagement. A return to tenderness? Wouldn’t that beat the last fifteen years or so? Onward!
- DCTS Podcasts featuring Richard Seff:
- Interviews with and about Chita Rivera, Love and Love Alone
- Interviews with and about John Kander, With Complete Kander
- Richard Seff: A Lifetime on Broadway
- Inside Broadway: A Return Visit with Richard Seff