The Broadway season doesn’t begin until Aug. 4, with the opening of a musical something called First Date. Off Broadway, the season is demarcated by awards shows; once the last prize is handed out in spring, we’re “off.” And you have to keep up. You’ve already missed the Public Theater’s first Shakespeare in the Park presentation this summer, The Comedy of Errors. Better known as the source of the Rodgers and Hart musical The Boys from Syracuse, this shortest of the Shakes’, an early play in the canon, was given a brisk (85 minutes), swing dance-filled production by director Daniel Sullivan, and the enduring appeal of twins antics (see The Parent Trap, Big Business, etc.) was continued by knockabout stars Jesse Tyler Ferguson (a stage veteran here long before Modern Family) and up-and-coming Public stalwart Hamish Linklater. It was a lighthearted evening that wisely began at the unusual time of 8:30 pm, all the better to enjoy a darkening evening outdoors. (Rainy nights can be even more fun; Ferguson reported on Facebook that inclement weather blew out the sound system last Thursday, so the waterlogged cast carried on without reinforcement to the delight of deluged die-hard audience members.)
For big screen Bard, Much Ado About Nothing is expanding its run. Like Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation, this, too, has an “all-star” cast, one drawn largely from the TV “Whedonverse” of director Joss Whedon. Which is probably why for some of the movie I felt I was on the outside looking in, at a family affair where I knew just a handful of people, and was wondering why some of them were even there (the Benedick of Alexis Denisof felt inadequate to me, not up to the task). I’m sure the movie is more fun, and more meaningful, if you get whatever associations the performers bring with them. Knowing little, I was still impressed with the fluidity with which Whedon has transposed the story to its contemporary setting (his Santa Monica home, as it happens) and how he framed what can be a dark story of supposed infidelity so lightly, with songs and slapstick bits that are entirely organic. (Filmed in two weeks’ time, in black and white no less.) I’m not quite getting the rapturous reviews it’s received, but for a literal home movie it’s aces, and the actors I do know from elsewhere (Clark Gregg, as Leonato, Fran Kranz, as Claudio, and Nathan Fillion, as Dogberry) come through. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for future appearances by Dollhouse star Amy Acker, who gives Emma Thompson a run for her money as the feisty Beatrice.
Family matters of a different kind are at the heart of Steven Levenson’s The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, now at the Roundabout Laura Pels. Beowulf Boritt’s set incisively tells the story, which has been directed by Scott Ellis. Stage left is the downstairs of an unkempt one-bedroom house owned by James Durnin (Christopher Denham), who, failed marriage behind him, makes do with a dead-end job in medical supplies sales. Stage right is a scrubby field and a billboard for a new housing development plastered with a foreclosure notice. The architect of some of this misery is James’ father, Tom (David Morse), who ruined the lives of his family and friends with a bogus financial deal. It’s 2009, and after a five-year prison stretch, Tom has returned to make amends. But takers are few, as he moves in with a reluctant James and tries to win over his angry ex-wife (Lisa Emery) and conflicted son-in-law (Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer), who works at his former firm. James, meanwhile, begins a tentative relationship with a woman in his creative writing class (Sarah Goldberg), from whom he hides the skeleton in his basement.
To ease the misery of the subject matter, Levenson spends too much time with James and his would-be girlfriend, Katie, in meant-to-be-awkwardly-funny scenes that come off as merely awkward, as they read from their amateurish stories. (I’ve seen this device, or devices like it, before, and they rarely work.) The show is best when focused on the desperate, manipulative, but troublingly sympathetic Tom. Acting, like sports, has MVPs, and Morse is one of those. (See him steal World War Z in a single scene.) Tom has done his time, and can’t figure out why anyone won’t give him a break–what does it mean to be rehabilitated if you’re still shunned? We see, though, that everyone has been decimated by his vampiric energy–maybe too much so, as Emery, usually a subtler performer, gives a colorless performance in a one-note part. Offering greater resistance is James, played by Argo co-star Denham, who some years back was indelible in Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter. Notwithstanding the patchy writing, Denham makes James’ trying to stand up for himself despite divided loyalties credible and moving, and his scenes with Morse put a play for our times on terra firma.
Speaking of fraught associations, there’s me and Annie. I never saw the original blockbuster production, but I did see the inert 1982 movie, and a truly terrible revival in 1997, followed by a so-so TV version in 1999, put me off it. Still, with decent reviews backing its third Broadway go-round, I decided to give it one more try last year, only to have my planned evening fall through. That was that, I thought, until 2027 or so, if I don’t see the “non-traditional” film planned for next year, and Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan isn’t exactly levitating me from my chair. But Shout Factory sent me a CD of the cast recording and I was charmed–better than being there, really, as I’ve always found the material besides the songs cloying. This is a first-rate recording of a hit-studded score, performed with heart, warmth, and sass, and impeccably produced. Plus it contains bonus performances by the current, more marketable Miss Hannigan, Jane Lynch, and though I prefer Broadway veteran Katie Finneran’s renditions, it’s good (and good business) to have them preserved, too. Perhaps Shout might issue MP3s of the great Faith Prince, who takes over from Lynch mid-month.
On Blu-ray, Shout this week issues a deluxe edition of Mel Brooks’ classic farce The Producers (1968), which eventually spawned a Broadway triumph in 2001 (and a flop film in 2005, which has its good points, too). Seeing that show was a highlight of my theatregoing life, an experience the movie couldn’t recapture. But, to my delight, another pinnacle has been revived for our viewing pleasure, this one more successfully. I saw Barrymore, Christopher Plummer’s one-ish-man show about his idol, John Barrymore, on Broadway in 1997, and while I can’t recall what I had for lunch yesterday I can still quote from William Luce’s play , which charts the alcoholic decline of the fading “Great Profile” as he attempts to mount a theatrical comeback in Richard III shortly before his death, at age 60. “My wife Katherine and I, Katherine and I had 27 good years…and then we met.” Great stuff, peerlessly performed by an actor in his later prime.
Plummer won a Tony for the play, which has gone on to have a half-life. A revised version was performed, and filmed, in Toronto in 2011, and Barrymore is now on DVD and Blu-ray. Director Erik Canuel has opened it up a bit (bringing on camera the play’s hitherto unseen prompter, who helps the legend through his lines, and adding a cinematic introduction and some projected scenery to augment some of the anecdotes) without pulling focus from Plummer’s astonishing performance, which has aged like the finest wine. An excellent, hour-long documentary, Backstage with Barrymore, encapsulates histories of the show and of Plummer, whose praises are sung by former co-stars Julie Andrews, Helen Mirren, and Zoe Caldwell. Buy or rent Barrymore today and celebrate Canada Day in style.