Exit Lines: All My Shows

Written by Exit Lines, Theatre

Wrapping up the 2018-2019 Broadway season with a bit of Ink.

The 2018-2019 Broadway season ended with the usual pileup of shows. And so a summary of some of the hits, the misses…and maybe the weirdest production I’ve ever seen on the Main Stem. (And I saw In My Life.) 

Wicked fun is to be had at James Graham’s Ink, a West End import now at the Friedman. Aided by swift, semi-musical staging by director Rupert Goold (and, invaluably, choreographer and movement director Lynne Page) the play transports us to the year of original sin–1969, when a calculating Rupert Murdoch purchased The Sun of London and set Fleet Street on its ear. Key to all this is Larry Lamb, an editor with something to prove; with Murdoch’s tacit blessing, Lamb takes the paper into deep and murky waters, eschewing taste and ethics as sales at the last-place publication climb.

Murdoch creates a monster…but the cold brilliance of Ink is its implication that Lamb created Murdoch, who resisted but never backed away from ever-more sensational coverage, even when it hit close to the publisher. Squeamish only about sex, Murdoch looks askance when Lamb goes there, inaugurating the topless “Page 3” girls who would put the paper over the top with tabloid  buyers. The naked truth is that there is no bottom to what might sell, and it’s not spoiling things to say that the play ends with a postscript, as Murdoch plans to start a TV network in America. It’s the story of our lives, and Ink nails the biting, bitter truths of its origins, with a funky multitiered set (Bunny Christie) and lighting (Neil Austin), music and sound design (Adam Cork),  and projections (Jon Driscoll) that grab the eyes and the senses. Shattering the moral compass, Bertie Carvel (Murdoch) and Jonny Lee Miller (Lamb) are ferocious in the leads, all drive, swagger, and arrogance. Ink is not a play that runs dry.

(While we breathlessly, and I suspect fruitlessly, wait for Broadway fan Hillary Clinton to take an aisle seat for Hillary and Clinton, Murdoch has seen Ink–twice, in fact. He liked the set, with its tumble of vintage newsroom desks.)

Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me could not be more urgent. As a teen in Washington state the writer and performer earned college money by competing in Constitutional debate competitons across the country, held in mildewed town halls faithfully recreated by scenic designer Rachel Hauck. But as the headlines remind us the back and forth over the amendments is far from stale, and Schreck reenacts flashpoints in her life that intersected (and collided) with our founding document. While the play is sprinkled with historical tidbits this is very much a show about what the constitution means to her, and there have been walkouts from viewers who were perhaps hoping for a more conservative evening.

I take this as a sign of success: The whole point of the production is to get audiences talking, and maybe you’ll be encouraged to fashion a narrative about what the constitution means to you. In any case if you’re not offended by Schreck’s unabashedly leftist stance you’ll find her an engaging and fearless performer, discussing personal and family histories that most of us would rather not overshare with thousands of strangers. (Director Oliver Butler helps her maintain a steady pace as she gives special attention to the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments.) tAnd at the close of this one-person-with-other-people-show you’ll be treated to a delightful replication of an actual debate about whether or not we should scrap the embattled Constitution, between Schreck and a quick-witted high school debater. You decide the winner. (We decided to keep the Constitution, warts and all, with qualms.)

The last Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons was an avant-garde-ish disaster, one that constantly pulled focus from the text. The current revival was almost undone by a muddled controversy involving non-traditional casting, but the compromise of having African-American actors play two of its more clear-headed characters works well enough. What doesn’t quite work is what the last revival obscured with all its fancy touches: the 1947 play itself, which preceded Miller’s legendary Death of a Salesman. It’s an engrossing melodrama, thankfully steeped in naturalism this time by director Jack O’Brien and set designer Douglas W. Schmidt. 

But it’s not a particularly persuasive one, despite a stalwart cast. Joe Keller (actor and August: Osage County playwright Tracy Letts) prospered making aircraft parts during the war, and survived a scandal over defective equipment that sent his business partner to prison. Missing in action, literally, is his son, whom his steely, agonized wife Kate (Annette Bening, in her Broadway return) holds out hope for. MIA figuratively is his other veteran son Chris (Benjamin Walker), who is trying to rebuild his shattered civilian life with the help of Ann (Francesca Carpanini), the daughter of Joe’s ex-partner. Ann and her brother George (Hampton Fluker) come to learn the scarring truth about Joe, which can destroy both families…but Ann, whose romance with Chris feels forced (she’s gone from brother to brother in that regard), seems determined to hold steady, a position that makes little sense. More POV than person, Ann’s nobility, if one can call it that, is a constant drag on the play, and Miller would get past this sort of position-paper construct the next time out. Salesman is timeless; All My Sons, while animated by still-relevant issues, is stuck in place. That said this is as good an exhumation as we’re going to get, and Bening and Letts, bound by repressed secrets, blow the dust off the pages.

This season’s musicals were nothing to sing about, and were boosted by a last-minute save from the Off Broadway transplant Hadestown. The lively Be More Chill keeps the fires going for the young adult audience enthralled by Dear Evan Hansen, but audiences paying for their kids to see it may want to find something more age-appropriate. Do not, however, punish your family by making them sit through the dreadful Beetlejuice–if I could say his name three times and make him vacate the Winter Garden I would, as this is just the lowest ebb yet of the movie-into-musical, a hellish waste of talent. Revivals? There were only two–a hard-working, if still workmanlike, Kiss Me, Kate!, revised for our more sensitive era, and Oklahoma!, malformed for our more disruptive times.

Imposer (“director” doesn’t feel apt) Daniel Fish has tricked out Rodgers & Hammerstein’s warhorse with many sophomoric frills, as if he wanted to make a musical of Lars von Trier’s minimalist, Brechtian horror show Dogville but couldn’t get the funding. Corn as high as an elephant’s eye? No–Laura Jellinek’s set is barebones, with gun racks on the walls (statement alert!) and for the most part Scott Zielinski has the lights up high, interrogation-style, so we can’t look away (we will, however, sweat under them, so dress accordingly). Dressed in Old Navy OK garb by Terese Wadden, the actors are glum and defeated from the start, as if this this whole “American experience” thing is a fraud. I did like the bluegrass arrangements for the songs, played by a handful of musicians, which suit an Oklahoma! shrunk to Delaware size.

Everything else is questionable. Hulking Jud Fry is now a skinny, Jesus freak-type misfit, more sinned against than sinning, who was what I took to be a homoerotic encounter with his rival Curly in one of the few instances of darkness we’re allowed. Fish hasn’t changed the text but he has altered the scenes, so pore Jud is daid in a welter of gunfire, as Aunt Eller, reenvisioned as a Ma Barker of the Great Plains, looks on stonily. Other moments are just as curious. Take the Dream Ballet–please! As performed by a dancer in a “Dream Baby Dream” shirt and what looked to be a diaper, she hurls herself into the planked set as projections swirl about, representing Laurey’s confused mind–and who wouldn’t be confused, when your beaus are Jesus and his soon-to-be-assassin? It’s enough to make you choke on the free cornbread and chili doled out on set from a fleet of slow cookers at intermission. (I headed straight for the bar.)

Bloodshed, planks, prepared food–I’d seen it all before, mostly in the plays of Ivo van Hove (Network). This is the Poseidon Adventure of Oklahomas, turning the musical upside down to bring the subtext to the surface. All I got from its derivative efforts to stimulate and provoke was mild heatstroke, unrelieved by a few deft touches, like the casting of Ali Stroker as Ado Annie. Stroker, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, was in the excellent Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening, and here she’s about the only performer allowed to have fun. Then it’s back to the miasma that is this Oklahoma!, which will begin a national tour in the Sooner State. I’m sure it will appreciate the designation as I ride off into the 2019-2020 season, which commences with Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald in a revival of Frankie & Johnny in the Clair De Lune, opening May 30.