The 2016-2017 Broadway season is over–but the 2016-2017 Broadway awards season is in full swing. This Sunday, my group, the Drama Desk, holds its annual awards, saluting the best of Broadway, and Off and Off Off Broadway, too. Broadway’s Tony Awards, hosted by Kevin Spacey, follow on June 11.
Kevin Spacey? Well, it was that kind of season, loaded with talent, but short on fireworks. Lacking a Hamilton, it was business-as-usual, with the assembly line of movies-into-musicals churning nonstop through April’s end-of-season cutoff. One, Amelie, wiped out quickly, and most of the rest are just trying to hang on for summer tourist traffic, hoping for a boost.
This measured assessment would seem to contradict what was a banner year for Broadway boxoffice. But the profits come mostly from higher and higher ticket prices. Like Hollywood, Broadway is facing an attendance slump, in part for the same reason–the same-old, same-old product, reboots of Groundhog Day, Anastasia, etc., all of which you saw at the movies during the Clinton administration. Music doesn’t take the must off the properties.
But there are pockets of wonder to be found. Broadway plays are in a slump with viewers, but you wouldn’t know it from an outstanding revival of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, which has survived its afterlife as a fine 1993 movie and a meme featuring Kevin Bacon and returned in a crackling production, paced by Corey Hawkins as Sidney Poitier’s duplicitous “son” and the great Allison Janney as one of several New York sophisticates (a big, stage-filling cast) who fall under his spell. Old-fashioned “identity theft,” with face to face rather than screen to screen contact, proves far more compelling in an excellent production, and dates not at all.
Kevin Kline gives Noel Coward’s warhorse Present Laughter a good, revivifying kick. He’s sensational as a slightly woebegone matinee idol with all matter of comic troubles, none that he can wash away with yet another drink. The surprise here is How I Met Your Mother and MCU Marvel movies co-star Cobie Smulders as the most attractive of his problems, in a smashing turn that helps bring us right back to the golden age of British drawing room comedy.
Reaching further back, to Ibsen, is Lucas Hnath’s uproarious “sequel,” A Doll’s House, Part 2. Liberated Nora (Laurie Metcalf), who is convinced that the institution of marriage won’t last another twenty years, returns to grumpy Torvald (Chris Cooper) with an agenda in mind. In 90 devastatingly funny minutes, on a mostly bare stage, a war between men and women that Ibsen would only faintly recognize breaks out, with their daughter (Condola Rashad) and maid (Jayne Houdyshell) obliged to drop their noncombatant status. They’re all great–but Metcalf is simply astonishing, finding comedy, pathos, and a steel edge in Nora’s sometimes condescending desperation. And, as much as I love Houdyshell (The Humans), I’ve never loved her quite so much as here, blurting “Fuck you, Nora!” and bringing down the house.
So there’s enough happening to give a multi-hyphenate like Spacey something to work with. The musical of the moment, Come From Away, hails not from New York but Canada, and tells the true story of the Newfoundlanders who sheltered Americans forced to land at their airport in the wake of 9/11. A show like this could be sap, or a dirge, but it’s neither–Irene Sankoff and David Hein have written hummable, likable tunes that soar when needed, and the cast, doubling and tripling up, ingeniously creates a whole world groping to find answers in a world changed by a single act. 9/11 was terrible, “9/12,” our ongoing response, is terrible–but Come From Away recalls that small and tender moment in between. This is the little show that could, and it has my vote heading into the last stretch of awards season.