1984 Review: Orwellian Horror Show on Broadway

It would seem just the right timing for the first adaptation on a Broadway stage of “1984,” George Orwell’s chilling 1949 novel of a future totalitarian society. The book long has been so thoroughly lodged in popular consciousness that it gave rise to the word Orwellian, but it shot to the top of bestseller lists this year with the inauguration of Donald Trump and the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts” as real-world synonyms for Orwell’s fictional vocabulary of “Doublethink,” “Newspeak,” and “Thoughtcrime.”

The stage version as written and directed by British theater stars Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan is certainly an intense and disorienting experience, with a fine cast featuring a spot-on Reed Birney, a stirring Tom Sturridge and Olivia Wilde in a memorable Broadway debut; as well as some attention-grabbing stagecraft executed with technically impressive precision. But Icke and Macmillan avoid the kind of explicitly anti-Trump commentary that we’re getting used to on the stage (i.e. Building the Wall; Julius Caesar at the Public.) And for all the ample reminders in “1984” the play of why “1984” the novel is so unsettling, fans of the horror movie genre might find more to appreciate here than those theatergoers who have come to the Hudson Theater expecting some special intellectual, emotional or contemporary political illumination of George Orwell’s dystopian novel.

The basic plot is more or less intact. We are introduced to Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge), bureaucrat at the Ministry of Truth, which means he makes up lies all day, rewriting history and erasing from all records any once-honored heroes who have fallen out of favor with “Big Brother,” the leader who may or may not actually exist. Secretly, however, Winston rebels. He does this first by starting a diary, and then by falling in love with a waitress named Julia (Olivia Wilde.)

The scenes between Winston and Julia in their hideaway in an antique shop are the most engaging in the production – in part, ironically, because we see them in close-up on a large screen. (The actors are somewhere off-stage performing in front of a camera.) The creative team’s use of this livestreaming turns out to be one of the cleverest of the sly ways they make the audience realize how unreliable the reality in the play is, and how complicit we are in the constant stream of betrayals.

Yet the disorientation that is threaded throughout the production is too often indistinguishable from confusion. Icke and Macmillan have added a framing device of a group of characters talking about Winston’s diary (which may be the same as the book “1984”) in what is apparently the year 2050 (which, it might be worth pointing out, is 33 years in the future, just as the year 1984 is 33 years in the past.) These future characters pop in and out of the play in the beginning and the end and apparently in the middle, portrayed by the same actors who are Winston’s betrayers and torturers in 1984 or the present-day (it’s never quite clear what era we’re in.)

Sure, along the way, we get exposed to some of the alarming details of the society in which they live. We overhear a co-worker of Winston’s praising Newspeak as the only language “whose vocabulary gets smaller every year… In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

We learn the definition of Doublethink – “to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality one denies.”

We even unavoidably see parallels with current reality, thanks to such lines of dialogue as: “The people are not going to revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s really happening.”

But such lines are drowned out and undermined by the startling bursts of noise, blinding lights, and rapid-fire video projections that dominate this theatrical experience.

The final third of “1984” takes the sensory assault a step further, combining the startling effects with scenes of Winston’s torture in Room 101 at the Ministry of Love. The torturers, cloaked anonymously in white hazmat suits, crowd around Winston…blackout…lightning flash…rapid-fire video projections….and Winston is once again visible, in agony, spurting blood. A pitch-perfect Reed Birney looks as avuncular and sounds as reasonable and reassuring as Vice President Mike Pence, while overseeing Winston’s torture.

These are surely the scenes that reportedly caused as many as four theatergoers in a single night to faint, and that led to the recent announcement that nobody under 13 years of age (“born after 2004″) would be admitted to the show. These scenes take up about 30 minutes in a show that’s listed as having a running time of 101 minutes – a sly allusion to Room 101, and thus (intentionally or not) an indication of the priority placed on the theatrics of horror at the expense of the drama of political repression. It’s almost as if “1984’ the play is reflecting the values of the society it depicts – sensation over clarity, screens over thought.




Based on the novel by George Orwell, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan

Sets and costumes, Chloe Lamford; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, Tom Gibbons; videos, Tim Reid;

Cast Reed Birney, Olivia Wilde,Tom Sturridge, Wayne Duvall, Carl Hendrick Louis, Nick Mills, Michael Potts and Cara Seymour

Running time: 101 minutes, with no intermission.

Tickets:  $35-$149.

1984 is scheduled to run through October 8, 2017



April is the Foolest Month. Signature revives Edward Albee, Stephen Adly Giurgis. Week in New York Theater

One might argue that, given the new administration in Washington, every day is April Fool’s Day, but the theater community treats April 1st with particular glee..

“COME FROM AWAY’s Gander Township Rejects Application To Build Trump Hotel and Casino” (Broadway World)

“Script for Lost Beckett Sitcom Pilot Uncovered” (American Theatre)

“The Tony Awards to Add Best Performance by a Leading Animal Category” (TheaterMania)

George Takei announces he’s running for Congress against House Intelligence Chairman Davin Nunes (The Daily Buzz.) I wish this one had been true.

The Week in New York Theater Reviews

The Play That Goes Wrong

Before the play-within-the-play begins, its director apologizes for “the box office mix-up,” expressing hope that “the 617 of you affected will enjoy our little murder mystery just as much as you would have enjoyed Hamilton.” That’s the most sophisticated joke – indeed one of the few verbal ones — in this silly slapstick backstage farce that has improbably opened on Broadway.
Audiences may indeed enjoy The Play That Goes Wrong….if not as much as Hamilton, perhaps, surely as much as Noises Off, which it resembles, minus the plates of sardines nor anything approaching that play’s cleverness. And I say this having called Noises Off, when it had its second Broadway revival last year, little more than The Three Stooges with a British accent.

The Week in New York Theater Quizzes and Polls

Favorite Feud?

Favorite Broadway Opening in April?

New York Theater Quiz for MarchNew York Theater Quiz March 2017

The Week in New York Theater News

Signature Theater’s 2017-2018 season will include a special tribute to Edward Albee, who died in 2016,
J Stephen Adly Guirgis
Jesus Hopped the “A” Train October 3-November 2, 2017, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Our Lady of 121st Street, May 1-June 10, 2018, directed by Anne Kauffman.
A new play by Guirgis, to be announced, will be presented during the 2018-19 season.

Suzan-Lori Parks
The Red Letter Plays:
F**king A, August 22-October 1, 2017, directed by Jo Bonney
In the Blood, August 29-October 8, 2017, durected by Sarah Benson.

Edward Albee
At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story, January 30-March 11, 2018, directed by Lila Neugebauer.

Dominique Morisseau’
Paradise Blue, April 24-June 3, 2018, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Significant Other to play final performance July 2, four months after opening.

(In an article in Crain’s, Philip Boroff suggests that “Significant Other,” and “Sweat” both suffered because critic Charles Isherwood, who championed them Off-Broadway, lost his job at the Times, and Ben Brantley’s reviews of them on Broadway were not as positive.)

Jane Krakowski and Christopher Jackson will announce The Tony Awards nominations Tuesday morning, May 2, from New York Public Library for the Performing Arts


The Fred and Adele Astaire Awards have been rebranded to celebrate the legacy of Broadway legend Chita Rivera. The inaugural Chita Rivera Awards for Dance and Choreography, presented by American Dance Machine for the 21st Century, will be given September 11 at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Nominations will be announced May 1 at the Friar’s Club.

(An article from 2010 suggests why they would change the name of the awards.)

Plays As Literature Twitter chat 

To me, what makes a play literature is that you can read it. And there are scripts even for Beckett’s 40-second plays


Ian Hylands I live by the The Royal Shakespeare Company ’s firstst law:“Treat new plays like they are Shakespeare, and  Shakespeare like it’s a new play”

Rush recap:

$30 Dolls House Part 2 (only during previews)
$32 Six Degrees of Separation
$35 Bandstand
Get to box offices when they open


2013 Outer Critics Circle Winners Pick Up Their Awards

EarlickedHarveyFiersteinLongtime rocker and now Broadway songwriter Cyndi Lauper seemed to be getting the cold shoulder from Arthur Treacher, he of the fish and chips but also of Camelot and a dozen other Broadway shows, while Dame Flora Robson (Lady Macbeth on Broadway) looked perplexed while her fellow Sardi’s caricature seemed to be licking Kinky Boots bookwriter Harvey Fierstein’s ear at the awards ceremony for winners of the 2103 Outer Critics Circle.

Cicely Tyson, who won for best leading actress in a play for her role in “The Trip To Bountiful,” told the crowd at Sardi’s that she had been “terrified” to return to the Broadway stage after an absence of 30 years. “I didn’t know where upstage was or downstage was.” She soon relearned, and has been sweeping all the theater awards.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged in a slideshow.

Orphans Review: Alec Baldwin Without Shia LaBeouf..But With Tom Sturridge

Orphans on Broadway with Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge Orphans on BroadwayUpdate: Orphans will close on May 19, 2013

In the much-publicized fracas over “Orphans,” when Shia LaBeouf was fired after clashing with co-star Alec Baldwin and replaced by Ben Foster, the one actor in the cast barely mentioned was Tom Sturridge. Sturridge’s performance turns out to be the best reason to see the first Broadway production of Lyle Kessler’s 30-year-old play about the confrontation between two brothers and a fatherly Chicago gangster.

Orphans Gerald Schoenfeld TheatreSturridge plays Phillip, the younger brother of Treat (Ben Foster), orphans who live in a run-down row house in North Philadelphia. Treat is a violent petty criminal who supports the two of them by holding up people with a switchblade. Phillip never leaves the house, because Treat has told him that his allergies will kick in and he’ll die. In truth, Treat is keeping Phillip as little more than his prisoner.

Phillip spends his day hiding in the closet with their dead mother’s clothing, or watching television and memorizing the brand name products, or looking out the window at passersby. When the play begins, we see him in the darkened living room, leaping from couch to stairs to ledge like a cat. When Treat comes home after a day of petty thievery, Phillip mimics the people he’s seen out the window, imitating the way they stride or stroll or hop quickly on tip-toe like a cartoon character.

It is a masterful physical performance – funny and touching, and slightly reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” – mentally incapacitated, but more open than the average person to the everyday wonders of the world. Phillip repeats words like “bouillabaisse” as if he’s tasting the word, not just the soup.

One day, Treat brings home Harold, an older drunk man (Baldwin), who wears expensive clothing and carries an executive briefcase. It is Treat’s idea that he has kidnapped Harold, and will hold him for ransom, and so he ties him up. As it turns out, Harold is a gangster on the lam in Philadelphia, and he is actually the one in control.

Orphans Gerald Schoenfeld TheatreA play that seems derived in equal parts from Sam Shepard’s violent Western-tinged dramas and Harold Pinter’s absurdist exercises in role reversal, “Orphans” ran for eight months Off-Broadway in 1985 after productions in L.A. and Chicago. It was then made into a 1987 movie starring Albert Finney and Matthew Modine. It continues to be performed theatrically with some frequency.  It is a slight play, most charitably seen as a parable. It depends for its power on the intensity of the three performances.

There is nothing outright wrong with the acting by Alec Baldwin or Ben Foster, but neither turn in must-see portrayals.  Baldwin handles his character’s comical philosophizing like a pro, a criminal Jack Donaghy (his character on “30 Rock”), although Harold could surely do with a greater sense of menace. Foster could probably do with a little less menace, or at least more variations of it.  As Russell, Claire’s art-school classmate in “Six Feet Under,” Foster had a role that allowed a range of disturbing behavior. Foster’s Treat hides his hurts by playing the bully with little nuance.  This is sometimes funny, more often too obvious. It is only in the second act when the circumstances change, and especially events expose Treat’s vulnerability, that Foster’s characterization becomes more varied and interesting, even moving. It’s not Foster’s fault that I several times started picturing what it would have been like for Shia LaBeouf to have played Treat in “Orphans.” I concluded it would probably not have made much difference, except that there might have been more adolescent girls in the audience.


Gerald Schoenfeld Theater

By Lyle  Kessler

Directed by Daniel Sullivan, scenic design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Jess Goldstein, lighting design by Pat Collins, sound design by Peter Fitzgerald

Cast: Alec Baldwin, Tom Sturridge, Ben Foster

Running time: One hour and 50 minutes, which includes a 15-minute intermission

Tickets: $67.00 – $132.00

Orphans is scheduled to run through June 30, 2013

Orphans Ticket Giveaway Contest

Win two tickets to see Orphans, starring Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster and Ben Sturridge

Win two tickets to see Orphans, starring Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster and Ben Sturridge

Update: The contest has now closed. The winner of the random drawing is Margarette Connor (maggiec)

Ticket Giveaway: Win two tickets to see “Orphans,” the play by Lyle Kessler that stars Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge. It tells the story of two orphaned brothers living a rough life in North Philadelphia when they decide to kidnap a notorious Chicago gangster – with unexpected results. The revival is directed by Daniel Sullivan (Glengarry Glen Ross)

“Orphans” began performances March 26th, and opens on April 18th. It is scheduled to run through June 30th at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theater.

To enter the contest, answer either of these two question:


1. What is your favorite stage show involving crimes and criminals? Describe the show and explain why it’s your favorite.  


2. What is your favorite performance by any of the three actors in “Orphans’ – Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster or Tom Sturridge – and why?


1. Please put your answer in the comments at the bottom of this blog post, because the winner will be chosen through based on the order of your reply, not its content.

But you must answer the one of the two questions, fully (not just the title of your favorite show or role) or your entry will not be approved for submission.

2. Please include in your answer your Twitter name and follow my Twitter feed at @NewYorkTheater so that I can send you a direct message. (If you don’t have a Twitter name, create one. It’s free.)

3. This contest ends Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at midnight Eastern Time, and I will make the drawing no later than noon the next day. You must respond to my direct message on Twitter within 24 hours or I will choose another winner.

(The tickets are for a performance on Tuesday, Wednesday or  Thursday through 4/23, except for 4/18 which is the opening. You have to be in New York City and able to attend one of the designated performances.)

Update: Please follow the instructions above carefully. If you do not include your Twitter name on your post, for example, you are ineligible for the prize.  And only one comment per contestant.

Broadway Marquees: Macbeth, Orphans, The Nance, The Trip to Bountiful

Alan Cumming accompanied the installation of the marquee for “Macbeth”


The stars were not present when Orphans went up

Orphans marquee picturing cast Alec Baldwin, Shia LaBeouf and Tom Sturridge





All four shows are opening in April:


“Orphans” is opening at the Gerald Schoefeld on April 7th.

“The Nance” is opening at the Lyceum Theaater on April 15th.

“Macbeth” is opening at the Ethel Barrymore on April 21st.


“The Trip to Bountiful” is opening at the Stephen Sondheim on April 23rd.