Seen amid a slew of Broadway productions, it was refreshing to enter a world of real people, real situations and real emotions. Not that the affairs seemed terribly real – it was hard to see what the respective individuals saw in each other – but the characters portrayed by Debra Winger and Tracy Letts were so well acted, and dressed so frumpily, that you scarcely thought of them as movie stars. There were no big stakes here, just people coping with their everyday lives, and you didn’t even particularly care how things worked out, or didn’t. The trick ending produced a smile and a deep thought or two as you left the theater, but it was probably the least real moment of the film.
The month before the Tony Awards we checked into the New York theater scene with a vengeance. I can’t say we’ve been overwhelmed so far – seven down, two shows to go – but we’ve mainly had a good time. I think in the future, though, I will be a little less taken in by the superlatives I read in the New York Times, which have accounted for most of the tickets we bought this May.
Ranking shows in order of excellence, I would start – no surprise – with Dear Evan Hansen. What stands out is the lead performance by Ben Platt, a guaranteed Tony winner. He puts so much soul-baring energy into the role of the unpopular, insecure high school senior who lives with a lie that you feel as much for the actor as for the character by performance end. The story is simultaneously up-to-the-minute with social media playing a leading role and eternal with teenage angst the dominant emotion. Each of the other seven characters was well drawn, fun to watch and skillfully acted; the set was clever and distinctive; and the music was heartfelt and unobjectionable, if not memorable. My only reservation: I admired and respected the play, rather than loved it. In a way, I felt I was watching a Social Studies case study. Maybe if I were a teenager I would have identified and felt I was inside the play, instead of outside it.
Groundhog Day didn’t create that kind of distance: weatherman Phil Connors was very much in a familiar world, with his cynical humor and cardboard characters – not to mention his previous incarnation by Bill Murray in the movie of the same name. With novelty not in the cards, my admiration here focused on the way the stage version recreated moments from the movie and repeated them without repetition. Andy Karl was fine in the Murray role, but I don’t see why he is being mentioned in the same breath as Ben Platt for the Tony; and his love interest paled in comparison to Andie McDowell. I’d call it a totally fun night at the theater, but not a classic.
Samara wasn’t quite a musical, but I bought tickets because I had read that Steve Earle had written the score. Furthermore, he was the narrator and stood next to us as we sat on our milk crates at the edge of the stage, if you can call it that. It turned out that Earle’s score was not country-rock tunes but a dreamscape played on a deconstructed piano and Uillean pipes. This was our foray into experimental theater, off-off-Broadway. Characters had titles, not names – the Messenger, the Manan – the venue and time were indeterminate, and the plot was somewhere between Greek myth and Beckett. Unfortunately, the acting was less than professional – especially the 14-year-old Messenger – which together with the bare stage gave a school production feel. We certainly felt that we were in the presence of Art, but like much modern art it didn’t mean much to us.
We saw Come From Away after writing the above, so its placement here is not its ranking. It’s not as deep as Evan Hansen or as fun as Groundhog Day, but it’s the emotional, feel-good musical of the year, no question. Much like the NYTimes reviewer, I found it a bit sophomoric, or Canada-nice, at the start, but my cheeks were wet with tears by the end. The story is heartwarming – how the residents of Gander hosted 7,000 travelers grounded after 9/11 – but what was most remarkable was the ability of 12 actors to create several dozen memorable characters among the hosts and the guests. Like the other musicals, there weren’t any “songs” worth remembering, but the singing and the acting were just fine.
The best play we saw was merely Off-Broadway, If I Forget at the Roundabout Theatre. It had at least three things going for it: one was the sibling dysfunction, much like August: Osage County, The Humans and many other similarly wrenching family plays. A secondary part of that was the issue of the aging parent: who cares for him, what do we do with him? But what struck the loudest chord for me was the story line centered on Jeremy Shamos’s character, the professor of Jewish Studies who is readying his manuscript, Forget the Holocaust, for publication when Zionist protestors, without reading the book or understanding the argument, derail its publication, his pending tenure appointment and, seemingly, his family’s future. The fourth conflict – seen previously in Movie TK – involved the immigrant tenant paying below-market rent in a gentrifying neighborhood; it provided the handy, if hardly satisfying, resolution to the play’s dilemmas.
More notable and heavier with Tony nominations were Oslo and A Doll’s House Part 2, but both were large disappointments. I would have been happy to leave halfway through each, although Doll’s House was so short (1:15) that I wouldn’t have gained much. Oslo, like If I Forget, hit my Middle East (Israel) nerve, but not in any satisfying way. The ultimate problem – not the playwright’s fault – is that the entire play is the unprecedented struggle to reach the Oslo Accords, a seeming breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations, but what is there to cheer? This tentative agreement went nowhere and the two sides are not just back to square one, they are off the playing board. The thesis of the play was an empty promise. How the actors got to this dead end was the second big problem: almost every speech was yelled, not spoken. Sitting in the front row – maybe we were too close to the action? – I wanted to yell out myself: would you all stop screaming at each other and just speak your lines…please. It’s “based on a true story,” but it’s hard to believe diplomats would treat each other this way – so undiplomatically. Yes, I know it’s Arabs and Israelis, but if that’s the way they are (and it may be), who wants to watch this? (As for the Tonys, Michael Aronov, who is nominated as Featured Actor, is the worst offender – and least historically accurate, I’ve read. Anthony Azizi, not nominated, would have been a better choice. No quarrel with Jefferson Mays’ nomination for a difficult role in a weak field, but Jennifer Ehle is but an afterthought in the much stronger field of Leading Actress. Her expression hardly changed from its Mona Lisa smile that, along with her pseudo-Norwegian accent, struck us as Meryl Streep light. Coincidentally, Meryl herself sat three rows behind us at Evan Hansen.)
It’s harder to explain my dissatisfaction with A Doll’s House, Part 2, which everyone else seems to love. It never connected, and I was more or less unhappy throughout. It took the characters from Ibsen’s original, but they weren’t at all the same. I had just re-read A Doll’s House that afternoon, and I didn’t recognize Nora or, especially, Torvald. The best character, Anne-Marie, played by a Tony-nomination-worthy Jayne Houdyshell, is a cipher in the original, so it is impossible to make a comparison. The only original character, Emma, played by also-nominated Condola Rashad, is working from a blank slate, but it is hard to envisage her as a 19th-century 23-year-old. In essence, the play’s problem for me is its anachronism. That this is intentional is signaled by the only two props on stage: an au courant Ming Aralia plant and a box of Kleenex Expressions. The dialectic on marriage – and that is the substance of the play – is very modern and not terribly profound. When Emma complains to Nora that her mother’s proposed alternative to marriage – bouncing from man to man with no stability or security – doesn’t strike her as desirable, she misses the entire point: it is not an either-or dichotomy; instead, a woman should have a choice, and not be condemned to a failing marriage. Somewhere along the way Torvald has become a reasonable, understanding individual – which hardly seems the likely result of Nora’s desertion. Fifteen years of running the bank, leading the community and ruling his family, not to mention fifteen years of aging, would probably have made him more obdurate and self-important, and more defensive vis-a-vis Nora – not so willing to sacrifice his position to grant her the divorce she seeks. As for Nora, it is a challenge in the original play to accept her overnight transformation from dutiful songbird to self-seeking feminist. It is even harder to believe that she has now become a wealthy and self-confident author of women’s books. Laurie Metcalf’s performance was consistent with the anachronism of the play: her mannerisms and expressions were engaging, but very much of today. Chris Cooper, whom I’ve loved in movies, seemed miscast as Torvald, who should have had a more prominent backbone, not the puffy face and slitted eyes of Cooper (is he sick?, one wonders). No Tonys there.
I’ve saved my Tony awards for Little Foxes, if only because the stars are brightest and the roles showiest. Laura Linney arrives with the reputation, and a role that allows her to dominate the men around her, by both honey and vinegar, and screams for recognition. Cynthia Nixon is even better in the featured role of the sister-in-law emotionally crippled by her husband. It would be fascinating to see the actresses exchanging the two roles, which they do in alternate performances, but presumably since Linney has the bigger name she has been nominated as Leading Actress and Nixon as Featured. It wouldn’t surprise, or disappoint, me if both won, although I suspect Nixon has the better chance. (I didn’t see Sally Field or Cate Blanchett, two of Linney’s competitors, but they certainly have reputations as sizable.) The play itself falls easily into the canon of classic American drama, alongside Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, in which human weaknesses lead inexorably to a resolution, never a happy ending. Regina is both the central character and the villain, and while you can’t feel too sorry for her you can’t despise her, either. Greed, for money and position, is the driver, which means that there will be winners and losers, or maybe just losers. Hope, if any, lies in the daughter; but she may be there just to keep the landscape from being too bleak. Little Wolves might be the better title.
The Play That Goes Wrong is in a category of its own, one without consideration by Tony nominators: the British Farce. We felt we were in London’s West End as the bumbling detective sorted out murder suspects in the manor house drawing room. It was silly, but silly fun, and the cast was appealing. (The nearest recent comparison would be A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder, which we saw last year and found cloying and disappointing.) The stagecraft was another star, with walls falling and prats falling at a furious pace and actors mugging engagingly.
The prize, however, for mugging, in both senses, must go to Julius Caesar, directed by Oskar Eustis at Shakespeare-in-the-Park. When Caesar strode onto the stage dressed as Donald Trump the full house erupted, and when Calpurnia spoke with a Slovenian accent the audience collapsed in amazement and delight. Of course, when Marc Antony called upon the Roman crowd to hear her, it turned out that at least 50 members of the audience were actually performers in the play. The production was such a rollicking tour-de-force that we little cared that the play’s condensed second hour had little of the excitement and memorable language of the first. John Douglas Thompson as Cassius stood well above the other actors (although the absence of Brutus meant three others, in domino effect, were playing out of position). The casting of so many black actors as Romans (including the entire corps of conspirators, save one) was hardly noticeable, but changing Marc Antony to a woman was a distraction, and I didn’t go for Elizabeth Marvel’s snarky, snaky interpretation of the role. The evening, with helicopters overhead, dogs barking in the distance, and audience members in and out for bathroom breaks, was a little like the 17th-century Globe experience and was wonderful.
As a PS to our month-plus of New York theater, we finished up with The Antipodes at the Signature Theatre, a new two-hour talkie from Annie Baker, author of The Flick and John. Eight Hollywood screenwriter types sat around a conference table trading stories, apparently gestating a new TV series. There was verisimilitude in the project and in the characters, although it was reality of the absurd. I found every minute of it hilarious. Oh, and there was Sarah, the administrative assistant, who spoke Valley Girl and signaled the passage of time by wearing a new outfit every time she popped in from offstage. I don’t know how the play would work in a bigger theater, but it felt right at home in the intimate space of the Linney Stage.
Supposedly based on a novel, The Lost City of Z seemed more likely to have been based on a comic book. The lack of sophistication and subtlety in plot and acting was on a par with Brad Pitt’s performances in, inter alia Inglorious Basterds and, more recently, Allied. Imagine my lack of surprise, then, when the credits rolled and I saw that the movie’s producer was…Brad Pitt. Chris Hunnam, in the lead role, seemed to have gotten the part because of his physical resemblance to…Brad Pitt. Sienna Miller stood out among the cardboard characters, but her role was an anachronistic cliche. Add one more notch to the string of movies “based upon a true story” that you wouldn’t believe if they’d made it up.
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