Exit Lines: Popdose Goes To The Theatre
Amidst the 2012-2013 theatre season in New York comes a new column about the scene, long overdue. And Dw Dunphy, at least, is happy about it–he created this delightful graphic for it somewhere toward the end of the 2011-2012 one, and is probably wondering why it never opened, as it were.
We’ll begin “Exit” with entrances. Next spring Tom Hanks, who hasn’t set foot on a Manhattan stage since 1979, completes a fruitful filmic partnership with the late Nora Ephron by starring in her screenplay-turned-play Lucky Guy, about the tabloid reporter Mike McAlary. (Heirs of the Pulitzer-winning New York Daily News columnist, who died in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail was playing in theatres, are indeed lucky guys; Dan Klores’ bio-play The Wood had an Off Broadway run last fall.) With his more theatrically experienced bosom buddy Peter Scolari as co-star, Hanks isn’t the only star to hoof it to the Great White Way this season. Look for Tony winner Scarlett Johansson, in a revival (the third one in eight years) of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hit Tin Roof. (Williams is “catnip” for actresses–Chicago audiences enjoyed Diane Lane in a well-received return of the less traveled Sweet Bird of Youth, which I hope will be migrating east.) And Shia LaBeouf will join stage vet Alec Baldwin in a Broadway mounting of Orphans, a hit Off Broadway in the 80s, and in 1987 a film with Albert Finney and Matthew Modine. Career rehabbing? Sure, but on paper LaBeouf is well cast as a troubled street youth.
Numerous stars are already in play. Jake Gyllenhaal’s sagging film career got a bit of a boost with End of Watch, and in his New York stage debut he’s doing pleasing work in the Roundabout’s Off Broadway production of If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, which, given that unwieldy title, everyone calls “the Jake play.” Except it’s not–he’s part of a tight-knit quartet of actors, and disappears from the piece for a long stretch. Nick Payne’s play, a London import, overlays environmental metaphors atop a story of family crisis, as Gyllenhaal’s drifter drops in on his green-obsessed brother (the excellent Brian F. O’Byrne) and distracted sister-in-law (Michelle Gomez) as his weight-challenged niece (Annie Funke) falls to pieces. His relaxed, self-effacing performance helps anchor a piece that is charged with meaning, as he and his castmates unthinkingly toss parts of the set into a large trough placed at the front of the stage–but all are very nearly upstaged by an onstage flood that leaves the stage ankle-deep in water, a nifty (and appropriate) effect devised by scenic designer Beowulf Boritt. The show runs through Sunday at the Laura Pels.
Jessica Chastain gives an awards-worthy performance in Zero Dark Thirty, which opens this week. And she may be up to speed on Broadway at the Walter Kerr in The Heiress, the play that is the basis of one of my favorite movies. (So good that when Sydney Pollack and Tom Cruise considered a remake 20 years ago, they abandoned their plans when they could find nothing to improve upon.) That can happen after the critics have come and gone; Chris Rock received cautious-to-encouraging reviews for The Motherf**ker with the Hat, but was fully in sync with his fellow castmembers by the time I saw it. Chastain was however flat in a role that won acclaim for Wendy Hiller in 1947, an Oscar for Olivia De Havilland in William Wyler’s 1949 film, and a Tony for Cherry Jones in 1996, unable to transform convincingly from tyrannized to vindictive in Henry James’ moneyed Washington Square circa 1850. Maybe it was because her co-star, Downton Abbey heartthrob Dan Stevens, was so poor as the presumed fortune hunter who captures her heart–and yet he got the biggest hand of the night, proof that stardom can be blinding, even to a slovenly, gnomish performance. Better is David Strathairn as Chastain’s unyielding father, who fit right into Derek McLane’s gorgeous set, and best is Judith Ivey as Chastain’s aunt–but when the aunt is of greater interest than the heiress you don’t have The Heiress. The revival is scheduled to run until Feb. 10.
At least Chastain has good material. Katie Holmes, who made an okay Broadway debut in a misbegotten “modernist” revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, is stuck in the comedy-drama Dead Accounts. It’s moribund for sure, with Holmes as a Midwesterner whose life is upended by the unexpected arrival of her brother, a fast-talking New York swindler (Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz, working triple-overtime to find the tiniest laughs). Over two hours, ice cream, pizza, and platitudes about suburban life and the sinking economy are shared, and the two imgratiating stars plus the reliable Josh Hamilton, Judy Greer, and Jayne Houdyshell are wasted. Theresa Rebeck (whose last play, Seminar, at least had a star turn for Alan Rickman) created Smash, but this flop’s singing the blues. As tabloid attention turns away I’d say the Feb. 24 closing date is optimistic.
Drawing attention at the Cort in his first Broadway play since the Mary Tyler Moore Show era is Ed Asner, who has a couple of scenes in Grace, Craig Wright’s muddled melodrama of religion and its discontents. His character, a thickly accented German survivor of the Holocaust (this is laboriously explained), is a witness to the tragedy that explodes when an entrepreneurial evangelical (Paul Rudd) and his wife (Kate Arrington) relocate to Florida for their big score, and intersect with a scientist neighbor (Michael Shannon) who has a secret. The show has a certain something (my wife and I argued about it at length) but the dividing line between ambiguity and mere confusion is a thin one. (It did not, however, make us sick.) More solid are the expert performances by Rudd and Shannon, both experienced stage veterans; Shannon and Arrington (his real-life partner) share a particularly gripping scene. It runs through Jan. 6.
Troupers Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce are having a grand time in Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-flavored comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Off Broadway at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse through Jan. 13. Pierce and the always funny Kristine Nielsen are a brother and sister, so named by their literature professor parents, living lives of quiet desperation in their Pennsylvania farmhouse. Paying the bills is their glam movie star sister Masha (Weaver, dressed to stun), who arrives unexpectedly with her latest boy toy (Billy Magnussen, undressed to stun), with plans that will upend their humdrum lives. Durang’s most amusing play in a long while is a tartly written crowd pleaser, given a smart production dominated by David Korins’ set–and Pierce kills in his Seagull-inspired second act monologue, rattling on about the breakdown of society (“In my day we had The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet…which, come to think of it, weren’t adventures at all, unless you define ‘adventure’ as popping popcorn on the stove…”).
The star of the note-perfect revival of The Piano Lesson is its playwright, the great August Wilson. I’ve now seen six parts of his ten-play cycle about African-American life in the 20th century and this Pulitzer winner ranks as one of the very best, in which an ornately decorated piano with a long and tragic history dating back to the era of slavery divides a brother who wants to sell it to make a fresh start and a sister equally determined to keep it in the family. Wilson, a true poet of the stage, captures the full tragicomedy of life in 1936 Pittsburgh, in a fleet three hours that encompass musical riffs (some provided by the great Chuck Cooper, a favorite of mine since his performance in the brassy Cy Coleman show The Life) and an exorcism. The show, one of the season’s finest, runs Off Broadway at the Signature through Jan. 13.
Musicals Interlude. It’s not been the best season for “tuners,” as Variety calls them. Soon to depart the Barrymore is Chaplin, a showcase for the talented Rob McClure in the title role, sketchy and unremarkable otherwise. A cast album and national and international tours are promised, but I suspect some of this will be as illusory as the meals the Little Tramp thinks he’s eating in The Gold Rush.
Rupert Holmes, aka “The Pina Colada Song” guy, had a surprise Tony-winning hit with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which lets you solve various puzzles associated with Charles Dickens’ last unfinished novel. (When the cast more or less finishes its most rousing number in the second act, “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead,” the games begin.) It was fun in 1985, when I first saw it, and has returned to the Roundabout at Studio 54 with its virtues intact–not a great musical, perhaps, but great musical entertainment, with the proper music hall atmosphere and a tip-top cast that includes the delightful Jim Norton as our host, Will Chase (finally in a hit) as the two-faced John Jasper, Stephanie J. Block as the confounding Drood, Jessue Mueller (salvaged from last season’s ambitious and ill-fated attempt to revive On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) and the legendary Chita Rivera as the Princess Puffer. It’s got a Christmas setting, too, so now’s the time to see it.
Far more ruminative is the “revisal” of Working, Off Broadway in one of the 59E59’s intimate theaters. I saw a film of the original production, from Studs Terkel’s oral history of Americans on the job, on PBS in 1982; I was 17, and not unlike the fresh-faced fast food worker we encounter. Thirty years later I’ve been through the employment wringer, and as fate would have it I was seated next to an editor who fired me. (The New York theater reviewing community is a small one; happens all the time.) Not that this excellent show, updated with new material, needed any more resonance; you see yourself reflected many times in its struggling, sardonic, hopeful characters, 36 in all, who are played by a versatile six-member cast. This engagement is scheduled to end Dec. 30; I do hope it finds future employment.
Stocking Stuffers. It’s not too late to give the gift of theatre. Start with a CD: the Grammy-nominated cast album of Nice Work If You Can Get It, a potpourri of George and Ira Gershwin tunes served up by Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara (and their scene-stealing, Tony-winning co-stars Michael McGrath and Judy Kaye). Onstage I found the bootlegging shenanigans that surround the songs mildly tiresome; on CD it makes for a very pleasant listen, even Broderick, who is a fine comedian but not the most effortless song and dance man, even in The Producers. South Pacific and Light in the Piazza star O’Hara, however, could make Congressional regulations tuneful, and the orchestrations are inspired; she performs “Someone To Watch Over Me” machine gun in hand, which you don’t hear every day.
Joe DiPietro, who wrote the book for the show, was part of a team that labored for years on the musical Memphis, and he eventually won a Tony for his efforts. I didn’t see the production–partly because I was a new dad when it hit Broadway, and partly, frankly, because I have a low threshold for pain regarding Southern-fried tuners like the Urban Cowboy musical and the horrendous Johnny Cash jukebox musical Ring of Fire. But maybe I was wrong about Memphis, which has been preserved on DVD and Blu-ray and, courtesy of an outstanding cast, is a sassy, touching valentine to the bumptious birth of rock ‘n’ roll. The disc also has some interesting backstage reminiscing about the creation of the musical, which is slated for the big screen. If it doesn’t make it, though, this is a valuable souvenir–and more’s the pity that so many other shows aren’t preserved with such care.
Another that was is also good for gifting. Hugh Jackman, whose true X-talent is for musicals, storms the screen in Les Misérables on Christmas Day. On Blu-ray you can now revisit the West End theatrical revival that put him on the map in 1998, Oklahoma! From the get-go it’s clear that a star is being born; he takes the stage (and the video cameras, always properly placed) with ease as he tackles the legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein score. The 2002 Broadway transfer, with the reliable Patrick Wilson in his stead, wasn’t the same without his irrepressible , elephant-high energy. (He was preoccupied with The Boy from Oz.) But his co-star, Shuler Hensley, did cross the pond to re-deliver a scarily pitiable Jud, and I’m glad both performances are preserved here. (The two reteamed for the 2004 film flop Van Helsing, with Hensley as the Monster, a part he revisited for Mel Brooks’ musical of Young Frankenstein. I can make these stage and screen links all day, folks.)
The 2007 Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company was a cause for celebration. Not too shabby either is an elaborate concert staging by the New York Philharmonic, which is now on DVD and Blu-ray. Check out this cast: Neil Patrick Harris (showing why he’s so sought after for awards shows), Stephen Colbert (all that training at Northwestern’s Waa Mu productions came in handy), Jon Cryer, Martha Plimpton, Anika Noni Rose, Christina Hendricks, and, as a lady who lunches, the incomparable Patti LuPone. She eats some of her less experienced co-stars for breakfast yet this is one of the better concerts I’ve seen. Pick it up and compare it to the revival, with the great Raul Esparza, which is also on DVD.
What a difference a good adaptation makes. I hated Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe Off Broadway in 1998, finding it a distasteful Tarantino knockoff for the stage, despite a cast that included Scott Glenn, Amanda Plummer, and two actors who were new to me, Michael Shannon and Sarah Paulson. In the intervening years Letts has grown in stature, as a playwright (the awards-laden American Gothic, August: Osage County) and as an actor, now on Broadway in the acclaimed revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? One of his best plays, Bug, became a surprisingly good movie in 2006, directed by William Friedkin. Letts and Friedkin have reteamed to do the impossible: they’ve made an excellent film of Killer Joe, which hits DVD and Blu-ray on Friday. “Hits” is the right word, and the squeamish are advised to look elsewhere as this trailer trash noir aims right at the solar plexus, goes below the belt, and connects both times (you’ll never look at a chicken bone the same way again). Disturbingly funny and sensual as well, and unrated for several reasons, it’s another fascinating excursion into stage-to-screen for Friedkin, who will forever be known for The French Connection and The Exorcist but has had a sideline in theatrical adaptations since the start of his career. (It’s a shame he won’t do the A: OC movie, which is unlikely to be much more than all-star Oscar bait without his feeling for Letts’ particular rhythms.) Disc extras include one of his typically thorough commentaries and an interview with its superior cast, headlined by Matthew McConaughey in the standout performance of his stellar year.
I close with a true movie-movie, and one of the great films about the theatre, Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise (1945), which is now available from the Criterion Collection as a fully restored DVD and Blu-ray. I wrote a bit about it for Playbill this summer. Supplanting a prior edition with a refreshed transfer, the “French Gone with the Wind” is packed with extras, including a video introduction by Terry Gilliam, audio commentaries, and retrospective documentaries about its precarious shoot during the Nazi occupation. C’est magnifique. We’ll return to the New York theatrical demimonde in the new year.