Disgraced Theater Review: Bluntly Provocative, Dramatically Satisfying

disgraced-large-643x441When Amir was a child, he spit in the face of a Jewish classmate, a girl he had a crush on, he says in “Disgraced,” Ayad Akhtar’s bluntly provocative play that has now opened at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater. Amir is explaining to his nephew that he had been imitating his Pakistani-born mother, who had spit in his face when she discovered an affectionate note the girl had written to him in class. “You will end up with a Jew over my dead body,” his mother had said to him.

Now Amir is a successful, hard-charging corporate attorney in New York working for a largely Jewish law firm. He has angrily rejected the Islamic religion of his childhood because of attitudes like his mother’s, changed his name so it is not recognizably Muslim or Pakistani, and married a white woman – not a Jew but a blonde WASP.

His wife, Emily, is an artist who not only incorporates motifs from Islamic art into her paintings but defends Islam from her husband’s attacks. She also inadvertently sets into motion the two plot lines that climax, at a dinner party with another couple, in the most explosive surprises of the play (which I refuse to give away.)

It is easy to argue that the playwright exerts an almost mathematical craftiness in his work: His wily navigation through charged terrain includes putting the anti-Muslim arguments into the mouth of the Muslim character, and giving the non-Muslims the reasonable counter-arguments.

But it is hard to dispute that “Disgraced, which debuted at Lincoln Center’s experimental LCT3 two years ago, introduces a fresh and important new voice to the American stage; the play is in my view deserving of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that it won. What makes this all the more astonishing is that “Disgraced” was the first play Ayad Akhtar ever wrote (after twenty years of writing fiction and screenplays.) He’s already on his third play, The Invisible Hand, which opens December 8 at New York Theater Workshop.

Akhtar does not shy away from the kind of in-your-face beliefs that confront us daily in the world outside the theater, and that have even escalated into even greater relevance since its Off-Broadway production; he includes a character (Amir’s nephew) who credibly voices the extremist views of some Muslims. There are fierce debates about Islamic terrorism and of Islam itself.  But what he has created is not just a needed exploration of an urgent clash of world views, but a deeply satisfying dramatic experience.

And, in the Broadway production directed by Kimberly Senior, he has lots of help in making that happen.

Hari Dhillon portrays Amir as somebody who has donned the identity of an arrogant corporate player in order to shield himself from the resentments and vulnerabilities of his ethnic identity. As the play progresses, we see his ambivalence and internal conflicts apparently more clearly than he does. Gretchen Mol,who was so dazzling as Gillian Darmody in the just-completed HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” is completely transformed as Amir’s demur, intelligent, well-meaning blonde wife Emily. Similarly,  Josh Radnor, who played Ted Mosby for nine years on the CBS series “How I Met Your Mother,” is unrecognizable as Isaac, the bearded Jewish museum curator who is interested in Emily’s art work — and in Emily. He is persuasive as he turns from nerdy and complacent to enraged.  Karen Pittman,  the only one of the actors who is a holdover from the Off-Broadway production, makes the most of her role as Jory, who is Isaac’s wife and Amir’s colleague — and, as it turns out, rival — at the law firm.  That Isaac is Jewish and Jory African-American adds another (crafty) layer to Akhtar’s exploration of ethnic identities and tensions. Rounding out the cast is Danny Ashok as Abe, Amir’s nephew, who has changed his name from Hussein, but, by the end of the play, changes it back.

John Lee Beatty’s set and Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s costumes establish the outwardly comfortable life of these affluent residents of the Upper East Side. There is never a feeling that the play is satirizing these characters, even when Emily is serving a fennel and anchovy salad or chirping with Isaac about the London art scene. But what “Disgraced” does do, smoothly and theatrically, is confront us one by one with our assumptions and pieties about the culture clash that is defining our era.

Disgraced

At the Lyceum Theater (148 West 45th Street)

By Ayad Akhtar; directed by Kimberly Senior; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting by Kenneth Posner; sound by Jill BC Du Boff.

Cast: Hari Dhillon (Amir), Gretchen Mol (Emily), Josh Radnor (Isaac), Danny Ashok (Abe) and Karen Pittman (Jory).

Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission.

Tickets: $37.50 – $138.00

Disgraced is scheduled to run through February 15, 2015

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The Last Ship Review: Sting’s Hometown Tale on Broadway

Sting’s songs are haunting and lyrical, the creative team is made up of Broadway royalty, the acting helps lend a sense of authenticity to this heartfelt tale based on the struggles of the shipbuilding community where the rock star grew up in Northern England. So why did “The Last Ship” ultimately feel to me so much like an overlong commercial for beer or aftershave lotion — all manly fellowship and honest, muscular effort, without much purpose except to work up a sweat?

The opening scenes promise much more than that.

 

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Gideon (Michael Esper) is returning to Wallsend after 15 years of self exile to attend a funeral.

“Someone close?” a fellow sailor asks on the ship bringing him to port.

“No,” Gideon replies. “Just me dad.”

In the song “All This Time,” Gideon explains why he went away.

So I ask myself why the hell would I stay?
Just churches and pubs where ye drink or ye pray, and the sky’s still the same old battleship grey,
if only the pubs stayed open all day

Once back in town, he goes first to the church, to confession with the local priest, Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), who reminds him of the promise he made to his girlfriend Meg to return for her.

GIDEON: Aye, a promise I broke.
FATHER O’BRIEN: Or that you haven’t kept yet.

He then goes to find Meg (Rachel Tucker) at the Ship at the Hole Pub. There, the laid-off workers from the closed shipyard, led by former foreman Jackie White (Jimmy Nail), have just rejected a businessman’s offer of working at his scrap yard.

“You can keep your blinders on as the world leaves you behind,” the businessman says, “or you can face reality and apply for a new job with me.” They choose the former.

We’ve seen this set-up before in musicals, gritty, atmospheric tales of plucky British workers challenged by an industry in crisis – in Billy Elliot, The Full Monty, Kinky Boots.

But while the others set sail, this two-masted ship stays waterlogged.

In one of the two plots, Father O’Brien, who has just discovered he is dying, gives the town a mission – build one last ship, and sail it “out into the wide world.” In the other plot, Gideon discovers that Meg is now in a couple with another man, and that Meg has a 15-year-old son – Gideon’s!

Now, the book, by John Logan (Red) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal, If/Then), reportedly borrows from two separate real-life incidents — involving Scottish shipbuilders who staged a “work-in” in the 1970s, and more recently by a Polish priest who illicitly funded unemployed workers to assemble a ship that was to sail around the world.

So, shouldn’t this be as inspiring on stage as it was in real life? But it isn’t. Perhaps this is in part because we do not see:

  1. much point in their building the boat
  2. their overcoming many obstacles to do so
  3. their spending much time in the actual construction – a couple of shifting around of two-by-fours, some welders emitting orange sparks, and lots of synchronized stomping and jaunty thrusts in the air (giving me a momentary urge to shout out “Stop your prancing and build the boat already!”)
  4. the boat

David Zinn’s industrial-looking set suggests the immense size and power of a shipyard, but we never actually see a boat. The design team only suggests it, climaxing with one special effect at the end.

The ship-building must compete with the love triangle, which offers opportunity for some lovely ballads – oddly enough, most notably “What Say You, Meg” by Gideon’s rival, Arthur (Aaron Lazar, last seen on Broadway as the rival in A Little Night Music!)

Here is a video of the song as sung by Sting

and a snippet of the song sung by Lazar in the Chicago production

Some have suggested that it was Sting’s modesty that prevented him from making this story more obviously autobiographical, turning Gideon into a rock star returning to his blue collar hometown. That might not have worked, but the current Gideon seems to have done very little in the 15 years of his absence except…be absent. There’s none of Sting’s charisma built into the character; you almost wonder why Meg, having found a more mature, loving partner and lovely balladeer in Arthur, would feel conflicted after meeting the man who abandoned her as a teenager. Esper, who was terrific on Broadway in both American Idiot and in The Lyons, makes the most of Gideon and does it in fine voice.

Indeed, the cast of almost two dozen is full of first-rate performers. Applegate is a delight as Father O’Brien, the Irish-born unorthodox (foul-mouthed), caring and beloved priest of the town, even though my tolerance for twinkle-eyed Irish priests with irreverent wisdom is not what it used to be.

Standouts include four performers making their Broadway debuts:

Jimmy Nail, a well-known singer-songwriter in Europe who came out of retirement to help Sting with the songs, is channeling his father, who was a foreman in a Newcastle shipyard. Rachel Tucker is silver-voiced and persuasive as a Meg who has hardened on the outside, but remains softly romantic underneath it all.

Collin Kelly-Sordelet plays Gideon as a young man, and also the son Gideon didn’t know he had. He is the 19-year-old son of stage fight director Rick Sordelet, and exhibits a grace on stage that will serve him well.

Shawna M. Hamic as the feisty barkeep Beatrice Dees who leads the Act II opener, “Mrs. Dee’s Rant” with its much-needed humor:

When I was a maiden truly,
Such dreams would fill my head
I thought I’d marry a goodly man, to keep me warm in bed.

A goodly man, a shapely man,
of noble heart and true, instead I married a shipyard man and the rent’s always overdue.

If to an untrained ear, too much of the music seems much the same, I’ll wager that theatergoers who did not know of Sting before might be moved to explore his music further; for his fans, the lilting, sweet-sad, folk-tinged music might be enough to satisfy.

I suspect “The Last Ship” will be a future Encores! concert, treated like rediscovered sunken treasure.

 

The Last Ship

At the Neil Simon Theater

Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey; Music by Sting; Lyrics by Sting; Associate Music Director: Dan Lipton; Musical Director: Rob Mathes

Directed by Joe Mantello, choreographed by Steven Hoggett

Cast: Michael Esper, Rachel Tucker, Jimmy Nail, Fred Applegate, Aaron Lazar, Sally Ann Triplett, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, Eric Anderson, Ethan Applegate, Craig Bennett, Dawn Cantwell, Jeremy Davis, Bradley Dean, Alyssa DiPalma, Colby Foytik, David Michael Garry, Timothy Gulan, Shawna M. Hamic, Rich Hebert, Leah Hocking, Todd A. Horman, Sarah Hunt, Jamie Jackson, Sean Jenness, Drew McVety, Johnny Newcomb, Matthew Stocke, Cullen Titmus, Jeremy Woodard.

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes including intermission.

Tickets: $55 to $147. Lottery: $30.

On The Twentieth Century Revival with Kristin Chenoweth – first photo

The first photograph of Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher in Roundabout Theatre Company’s On the Twentieth Century, which opens March 12, 2015 at the American Airlines Theatre.

This will be the third production of this musical comedy, which was written by Comden and Green (“On The Town“), in which a bankrupt theater producer tries to lure a Hollywood starlet into playing the lead in a new epic drama, while they take a luxury train from Chicago to New York.

The show is reportedly based on three sources – the 1934 Howard Hawks film Twentieth Century; the original 1932 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; and another play Napoleon of Broadway, written by Charles Bruce Millholland about his experiences working for theater producerDavid Belasco.

20 Musicals That Won The Tonys: Ken Davenport’s Infographic

Theater producer Ken Davenport looked at the shows that won the Best Musical Tony over the past 20 years, sliced and diced facts about them, and produced the infographic below. Most interesting to me:
*Almost half of the Best Musical winners were based on movies.
*The vast majority did not feature stars.
*All but one (“Rent”) were written by a team, rather than a single individual.
*Three-quarters of them made money. (Three-quarters of Broadways overall don’t make money.)

musicalsinfographic

The Freaks of Side Show

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The “freaks” (cast) of Side Show, which opens at Broadway’s St. James Theater November 17th.

On The Town Broadway Review: Sex and Art DO Mix

The audience at “On The Town,” the thrilling Broadway revival of the 1944 musical that brought us “New York, New York, it’s a helluva town,” doesn’t wait until the end to give a standing ovation. They stand before the show begins.
That’s because, before the curtain rises on the story about three sailors meeting three dames while on shore leave for 24 hours in New York City, a 28-piece orchestra plays the national anthem in front of a curtain festooned with a giant American flag — one with just 48 stars.
This is how the original musical started, during wartime, a show that marked the Broadway debuts of four now-legendary musical theater artists – composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins and book writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

If “On The Town” does not hold the kind of sacred place as the flag or the Star-Spangled Banner, it is part of its own American tradition – an early American musical comedy classic: The show opened on Broadway just a year after Oklahoma and six years before Guys and Dolls. Not every production has been able to rekindle the original excited reaction to this savvy mix of silken song, dazzling dance and silly story – high-brow art in a pas de deux with middle-brow entertainment. This fourth Broadway production does.

There is no wholesale updating of the material a la It’s Only A Play (The 1949 film of “On The Town” with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra was significantly altered from the stage show, including the elimination of much of Bernstein’s luscious bluesy, brassy score.)  But director John Rando (Urinetown, A Christmas Story) stamps it with his own brand of cheerful vulgarity, with the help of two writers (Jonathan Tolins and Robert Cary), given credit for “additional material.”  Choreographer Joshua Bergasse, making his Broadway debut, pays tribute to the airy jazz-inflected style of Robbins, but turns it more earthy and sensual. “On the Town” was inspired by a ballet, Jerome Robbins’s “Fancy Free.” It should tell you how splendid the dancing that one of the leads, Megan Fairchild, making her Broadway (and theater) debut, is a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.

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Fairchild plays Ivy Smith, a small-town gal herself recently arrived in the big city, who won the title of Miss Turnstiles of June, awarded by the New York Subway System. The three sailors spot the poster for Miss Turnstiles in the subway, shortly after descending from their ship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Gaby (Tony Yazbeck) takes one glance and decides this is the girl of his dreams. His two shipmates decide to help him find her, even though Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) wants to go sightseeing. But he and Ozzie (Clyde Alves) run into complications. For starters, they are hijacked by sex-starved females — Alysha Umphress as taxi driver Hildy takes on Chip in an aggressive and gymnastic seduction scene in her cab, accompanied by the raunchy “Come Up To My Place” and then the suggestive “I Can Cook Too”; Elizabeth Stanley as  an anthropologist as Claire spots Ozzie at the “Museum of Anthropological History” (I guess the Museum of Natural History threatened to sue) mistaking him for a pre-Homo Sapien (a “Pithecanthropus Erectus” which sounds like it should be censored.) But despite this — and her engagement to an upright judge — her nymphomaniac tendencies get the better of her, and they get (and sing) “Carried Away.”  We eventually see both Ozzie and Chip in their underwear. (These are not the innocents from the film.)

“Sex and art don’t mix,” Madame Dilly, a drunken vocal coach played by Jackie Hoffman, tells Ivy, her student, trying to get her not to go on a date with Gabey. “If they did, I’d have gone straight to the top.” 

That’s where “On The Town” is.

On the Town

At The Lyric Theater

Music by Leonard Bernstein; book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, based on an idea by Jerome Robbins

Directed by John Rando; choreography by Joshua Bergasse; music direction by James Moore; sets and projections by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by Jess Goldstein; lighting by Jason Lyons; sound by Kai Harada; hair design by Leah Loukas; makeup design by Joe Dulude II; associate choreographer, Greg Graham; production stage manager, Bonnie L. Becker; additional material by Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins; music coordinator, John Miller

Cast: Tony Yazbeck (Gabey), Jay Armstrong Johnson (Chip), Clyde Alves (Ozzie), Megan Fairchild (Ivy), Alysha Umphress (Hildy), Elizabeth Stanley (Claire), Michael Rupert (Pitkin), Allison Guinn (Nun/Singer/Lucy Schmeeler), Phillip Boykin (Workman/Miss Turnstiles’ Announcer/Dream Coney Island Master of Ceremonies/Bimmy), Stephen DeRosa (3rd Workman/Bill Poster/Figment/Actor/Nedick’s Attendant/Diamond Eddie’s Master of Ceremonies/Conga Cabana Master of Ceremonies/Conductor) and Jackie Hoffman (Little Old Lady/Maude P. Dilly/Diana Dream/Dolores Dolores).

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including one intermission

Tickets: $37 to $150

It’s Only A Play Review: Nathan Lane, Selfies, and Sniping

It’s Only a Play Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

Outside, on a shingle hanging from the marquee of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, Ben Brantley is quoted as saying: “Deliriously Dishy…It’s a Hit.” But inside, on the stage, Brantley is quoted as saying: “This is the kind of play that gives playwriting a bad name.”

Both Brantleys happen to be right.

Yes, the first is from the actual review by the New York Times critic of the star-studded revival of Terrence McNally’s backstage comedy “It’s Only A Play” at the Schoenfeld, while the second is from the fake Brantley review of the play-within-the-play, entitled “The Golden Egg.”

But what better way to describe a show whose first half hour is the funniest I’ve seen all season, and whose overlong second act is among the dullest? I’ll credit Nathan Lane for the first, and blame Terrence McNally for the latter.

“It’s Only A Play” takes place in the townhouse of the producer of “The Golden Egg” on the night of its Broadway opening – in the first act, the characters wait for the reviews; in the second act, they react to them. Nathan Lane plays James Wicker, best friend of the playwright, who has flown in from the West Coast for the opening. James turned down the play because he has become a star of a TV series—but also because he thought the play was a turkey. He is the first guest to enter the upstairs room, in search of a phone (the updated script has him explaining that his cell phone is broken), where he meets the temporary party help, Gus, a newcomer to New York (portrayed by newcomer Micah Stock, making an impressive Broadway debut), who describes himself variously as “an interdisciplinary theater artist” and “an actor-slash-singer-slash-dancer-slash-comedian-slash-performance artist-slash-mime. I have a black belt in karate and can operate heavy farm equipment.”

One by one the other party guests enter this inner sanctum (while the real party is supposed to be going on elsewhere in the house.) Stockard Channing plays Virginia Noyes, a washed-up, coked-up Hollywood movie star who took the part in the play to revive her career, and feels guilty that her ankle bracelet went off during her performance.

Megan Mullally is the producer Julia Budder, a naïve, well-meaning Mrs. Malaprop who has more money than taste. Rupert Grint from the Harry Potter movies makes his Broadway debut as Sir Frank Finger, the manic bad boy wonder British theater director, wearing the same kind of clashing plaid suit as the batty Mr. Wormwood in Matilda, and whining that he is always praised, no matter how awful and way-out his direction.

Eventually, Matthew Broderick enters in top hat as the hapless, idealistic playwright Peter Austin. Given the excitement that the duo of Lane and Broderick generated in both “The Producers” and “The Odd Couple,” it’s hard not to feel disappointed at Broderick’s oddly stiff and distant performance, as if his entire body was filled with Botox. In fairness, Broderick is saddled with long, sincere speeches that inveigh against what Broadway has become and long for what it once was. (“We’ve let Broadway stop mattering….”)

Rounding out the seven-member cast is F. Murray Abraham, who came to fame playing the villainous Salieri in Amadeus, and who is cast here as Ira Drew, McNally’s acid portrait of a theater critic who is crashing the party, a corrupt, untalented, self-regarding parasite who secretly yearns to be a playwright himself.

These generic pot-shots are easier to take than the zingers that the incessantly name-dropping McNally lobs at actual people. Brantley is called “a pretentious, diva-worshipping, British-ass-kissing twat” three times. McNally has replenished his 35-year-old insider play with references to the latest celebrities (Shia LaBeouf, Alec Baldwin, Rosie O’Donnell, James Franco), yet seems to relish trafficking in mean-spirited insults towards such veterans as Faye Dunaway, Rita Moreno, Frank Langella and Tommy Tune; what have they ever done to him? He also indulges in a joke at the expense of older theatergoers; without them, “It’s Only A Play” would have box office like “The Golden Egg.” At the same time, despite the present-day setting and the almost desperate-seeming addition of topical references — selfies; sexting; chat rooms; a nearly bizarre listing of almost two dozen first-rate contemporary (mostly non-Broadway) playwrights such as Lynn Nottage, Christopher Shinn, and Julia Cho — the premise of the play is so out-of-date as to make McNally seem stuck in the past. (As if to prove this, he throws in “Monica Lewinsky” as the punch line to the list of playwrights.)

There are plenty of jokes that worked for me, even after the first half hour. But the hearty laughter began to seem hollow, and even haunting, when I thought how much people are paying to see exactly the kind of show that the playwright – the fictional playwright depicted in “It’s Only A Play” – laments.

ITS_ONLY_A_PLAY_Cast_Selfie_(photo_by_F._Scott_Schafer)

 

It’s Only a Play

At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater

By Terrence McNally; directed by Jack O’Brien; sets by Scott Pask; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Philip Rosenberg; sound by Fitz Patton; hair, wigs and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates;.

. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Cast: F. Murray Abraham (Ira Drew), Matthew Broderick (Peter Austin), Stockard Channing (Virginia Noyes), Rupert Grint (Frank Finger), Nathan Lane (James Wicker), Megan Mullally (Julia Budder) and Micah Stock (Gus P. Head).

Tickets: $77.00 – $172.00

It’s Only A Play is scheduled to run through January 4.

It’s Only A Play Reviews and Photographs

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In Terrence McNally’s backstage comedy “It’s Only A Play,” bound for Broadway in 1978 and finally arrived there 36 years later, a group of stars — played by a group of stars — await for the reviews of a Broadway show opening night — which is what they are doing tonight.

What DID the critics think?

Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater: …A show whose first half hour is the funniest I’ve seen all season, and whose overlong second act is among the dullest.. I’ll credit Nathan Lane for the first, and blame Terrence McNally for the latter…Despite the present-day setting and the almost desperate-seeming addition of topical references — selfies; sexting; chat rooms; a nearly bizarre listing of almost two dozen first-rate contemporary (mostly non-Broadway) playwrights such as Lynn Nottage, Christopher Shinn, and Julia Cho — the premise of the play is so out-of-date as to make McNally seem stuck in the past. (As if to prove this, he throws in “Monica Lewinsky” as the punch line to the list of playwrights.)

Ben Brantley, New York Times:  deliriously dishy revival…[Nathan Lane[ is sterling. He and [Stockard[ Channing — who is hilarious as a washed-up, substance-and-plastic-surgery-abusing Hollywood star — give the show a sheen and a heart it might otherwise lack. Megan Mullally is rather endearing as a clueless but kind rich-lady producer in whose deluxe townhouse (designed by Scott Pask) the show is set. F. Murray Abraham seems to be enjoying himself as a mean old critic who really just wants to belong to the club. Micah Stock (whose name in the ads is quaintly prefaced by “and introducing”) is charming as a hatcheck boy with Broadway dreams. Rupert Grint is a bit too overcharged as a wunderkind director out of Britain, and Matthew Broderick a bit too undercharged as the beleaguered playwright. They might benefit from reciprocal blood transfusions. But all the cast members fulfill their raisons d’être, which is to sling a whole lot of mud in the nicest possible way….As for Mr. McNally’s play itself… it mostly has the depth of a shot glass

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly: B+ a hilarious and star-packed evening of theater in-jokes that often plays like a nonmusical version of Forbidden Broadway….Despite McNally’s considerable revisions, there’s just not enough plot here to sustain a two-and-a-half-hour show.

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: already the hottest ticket in town—and rightly so….directed with cattle-prodding energy by Jack O’Brien, is as funny as the new Broadway revival of “You Can’t Take It With You” tries too hard to be.

Linda Winer, Newsday: this is the rare Broadway comedy that’s as smart as it is funny.

David Cote, Time Out New York: 2 stars (out of 5): Mostly plotless and spun from the sketchiest of stereotypes and hoariest of showbiz prejudices, this insider trifle is too long, too shallow and not nearly funny enough.

Joe Dziemianowicz, Daily News: 3 stars (out of 5): Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick made magic and a megahit together in “The Producers” …Now the Great White Way’s dynamic duo is back on stage in Terrence McNally’s 1985 comedy “It’s Only a Play.” The reunion is wildly hit and miss — Lane is the hit, while Broderick is the, well, you know.

Elizabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: 2 stars (out of 4): Thank heaven for Nathan Lane, an alchemist who turns comic lead into gold. And he’s been handed a lot of lead in “It’s Only a Play.” Terrence McNally’s 1980s backstage romp has been spruced up with contemporary zings, but quips about James Franco and Alec Baldwin can’t hide its creaky bones and sagging spirit….That a reviewer would be at the opening-night party of a show he’s going to write about is one of the play’s dumbest conceits.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: The material is slight, but these actors give it a lift, with one notable exception [Matthew Broderick]

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: The comedy’s slight plot, about the high drama (and low comedy) of the opening night of a new Broadway show, is still a trifle. But the well-aimed and highly personal zingers are more malicious, and delicious, this time out.

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: a rollicking comedy with perfect casting and deft direction…four-time Tony Award-winning McNally has earned his right to laugh – this is his 21st Broadway production – and his knife work is like that of a five-star chef: enough to bleed, but good-naturedly enough to not nick the bone.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: If only it were a better play…A lot has changed on Broadway in 30 years, but for McNally it all comes down to changing not much more than a few tons of famous names.

Matt Windman, AMNY: While act one offers plenty of silly, lightweight fun, the play essentially collapses in the self-indulgent, overly sentimental act two.

Broadway Lights Dim In Tribute

The Broadway marquees will dim for two theater artists, Geoffrey Holder and Marian Seldes, who both died this week – tonight (Wednesday) for Seldes and Friday night for Holder.  In addition, Lincoln Center announced that for the first time ever, “the distinctive digital  signage (known as  Blades) along West 65th Street” will be  lit from 7:45―8:00 PM “with a special message in her honor.  In addition to serving for many years as a Juilliard School faculty member, Miss Seldes appeared in a number of Lincoln Center Theater productions.”

Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers

Given the controversy that occurred after the death of Joan Rivers last month — in which the Broadway League first announced the lights would not dim for her, but reversed their decision after a social media rebellion — some may wonder about the history of the Broadway light dimming, and the criteria.

Robert Simonson attempted to answer these questions in Playbill four years ago. Nobody knows for sure when the tradition began, but some sources date it to the death of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II in 1960, and say it was a rare practice until the last couple of decades.  The Broadway League, the trade organization of Broadway theater owners and producers, decides who gets the honor. So far this year, the lights have dimmed for Ruby Dee, Lauren Bacall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joan Rivers, Elaine Stritch, Eli Wallach, Robin Williams.

As British actor Michael Simpkins put it when reflecting on the bestowing of this “quaint and courtly gesture” on Natasha Richardson in 2009,  “it is not surprising that the world of theatre should have such a keen sense of tradition: its output is so ethereal. …It may only have been a dimming of some lights for a mere 60 seconds, but in its own way, Broadway’s tribute was as profound a testimony as an entire mantelpiece of awards.”

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The Country House Review: Trivial Actor Stuff Starring Blythe Danner

Country House, The Samuel J. Friedman TheatreTo help explain how “The Country House” could be so mediocre despite an award-winning playwright’s classic inspiration, a first-rate production and an exemplary cast, let’s start with a scene involving all six characters in the play. The great actress Anna Patterson (portrayed by the great actress Blythe Danner) has gathered her extended family in Anna’s country house in the Berkshires near the Williamstown Theater Festival for the first time since Anna’s adult daughter Kathy died of lung cancer a year earlier. Kathy’s widower Walter, a director of action flicks, has brought along his new, much younger girlfriend Nell, an actress. The others ask Walter and Nell how they met:

Nell: We met at Starbucks.
Susie [Kathy’s daughter]: Ew, you’re kidding
Nell: I know
Elliot [Kathy’s brother, a failed actor]: Didn’t see that coming.
Walter: I’d just finished auditions for the picture I’m about to do…
Elliot: You mean people actually audition for those things?
Walter: …and there, sitting at a table outside, was this… angel, crying into her latte.
Anna: Oh, dear.
Nell: Soy latte.
Michael [Kathy’s ex-lover, a rich TV actor]: Why were you crying?
Nell: Let’s just say I was having a bad day.
Michael: What happened?
Nell: It’s too trivial to go into. Actor stuff. I was up for a pilot; I didn’t get it.

Donald Margulies, the Pulitzer-winning playwright who was full of insight about marriage in the exquisite “Dinner With Friends,” has filled this new play, an MTC production running at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater through November 9, with…actor stuff that’s too trivial to go into – but he goes into it anyway.

Students of Chekhov will recognize “The Country House” as an update of “The Seagull” with a little “Uncle Vanya” thrown in. Christopher Durang did something similar two seasons back in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which is also set in a summer theater colony, Bucks County, and also features a character that is a famous actress. But Durang’s play successfully combines a parody of Chekhov with an homage to him; it is both funny and affecting. By contrast, “The Country Wife,” although it has some witty lines and touching moments, largely undermines itself. Nearly every time there is a promise of a compelling scene, it swerves into something tired and trite about the nature of celebrity or the actor’s life.

This is especially too bad because of how fine the cast is, well directed by Margulies’ long-time collaborator Daniel Sullivan. Danner’s lovely performance as an aging actress is no surprise; one wishes she was on stage more frequently. Sarah Steele, who plays Eli Gold’s feisty daughter on The Good Wife (and who was terrific Off-Broadway in Slowgirl and Russian Transport), is a delight as Anna’s feisty granddaughter. Daniel Sunjata, Broadway heartthrob and Tony nominee since Take Me Out, and a TV star of Rescue Me and Graceland, is completely convincing as Michael, a laid-back hunky TV star who is ambivalent about his success, especially with the ladies. (By the end of “The Country House,” every single woman in the house will try to seduce him.) The true standout is Eric Lange making his Broadway debut as Elliot, Anna’s caustically witty, loser son who fails at everything he does, blaming his mother’s lack of love for his shortcomings.

Had Margulies made these characters a family of doctors or even circus performers, he might well have been forced to avoid much of what’s banal and outright irritating about “The Country House.”  It doesn’t help that yet another Broadway play about actors, wedged in between last season’s egregious “Bullets Over Broadway” and lumbering “Act One” and this season’s forthcoming revival of Terrence McNally’s “It’s Only A Play,” is at least one play too many.

When Elliot holds a staged reading of his first play, enlisting the rest of the household to play their parts, the curtain comes down before the first line is read, rising after the play is completed. The face and posture of the performers indicate how awful it was, but the audience is spared any of it—something MTC might have considered.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

 

The Country House

At Samuel J. Friedman Theater (261 West 47th Street)

By Donald Margulies

Directed by Daniel Sullivan; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Rita Ryack; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Obadiah Eaves; music by Peter Golub. thecountryhousebway.com.

Cast: Blythe Danner (Anna Patterson), Kate Jennings Grant (Nell McNally), Eric Lange (Elliot Cooper), David Rasche (Walter Keegan), Sarah Steele (Susie Keegan) and Daniel Sunjata (Michael Astor).

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.

Tickets: $67.00 – $125.00

The Country House is scheduled to run through November 9th.

 

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