New York Theater

Seeing eleven plays (with one rain-out) in four weeks gave me, if nothing else, a better sense of my taste in theater. If only I could relate that to reviews I read, going forward.

There were two shows I left without a complaint, Kiss Me, Kate and Caroline’s Kitchen – one a relatively straightforward revival of a classic Broadway musical, the other a typically old-fashioned British farce. The latter was part of the Brits off Broadway series at 59E59 Theater, where we also saw Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, which was cringe-worthy amateurish, easily the most forgettable of our theater experiences. In contrast, Caroline’s Kitchen had a slew of interesting characters, a topical plot with manageable tangles and new laughs for every actor who entered the single set. Being British, the play was wonderfully acted, of course.

One might have hoped the same for King Lear, imported from London with Glenda Jackson (and Ruth Wilson), but here the director wasn’t content to let Shakespeare be Shakespeare. He mixed Elizabethan costumes with a handgun and made one duke a deaf-mute, requiring an aide to be constantly signing onstage. Even more central, Lear was played by an 82-year-old woman, shrunken from her small stature to begin with; so we never believed that this could have been a king commanding a country. Without that tragic fall from power, what is Lear?

Ink was another disappointing import. In place of characters were caricatures. I felt I was watching a graphic novel (not that I’ve ever actually read a graphic novel), or a script designed to get us from one musical number to the next – except there was only one musical number. The story was devoid of surprise or suspense. It was a simple morality tale that we were already too familiar with. It also suffered from unintelligible dialogue (at least until we got hearing-assist devices at intermission) and an over-the-top screaming performance by Jonny Lee Miller as editor Larry Lamb.

The other disappointment was American, albeit adapted from the Greek: Hadestown. It was what it was, and my disappointment was more due to the Times review calling it the best musical of the season. Had I seen it Off-Broadway without expectations I might have felt differently. (I do note, however, that it wasn’t even nominated as Best Musical by the Drama Desk panel.) One problem was the music, which wasn’t melodic and didn’t appeal to me. Since this was basically an opera, that was a big issue. Second was the frenetic pace: every moment people were jumping around, lights were going off, stagecraft was being displayed. Hadestown is in the lineage of Rent and American Idiot, but without the good music.

For good music, nothing beat Kiss Me, Kate. Cole Porter’s score, I don’t have to say, is “wunderbar,” and Kelli O’Hara is the musical comedy standard for our decade. The plot shows its age, but in a charming way – particularly the pair of gangsters collecting a gambling debt – and the love/hate relationship between the leads is timeless. Best of all was the clever choreography (deservedly the Drama Desk winner), which further made Hadestown (and Rocketman) look mediocre.

All My Sons was the dramatic equivalent, vintage-wise, of Kiss Me, Kate; and unlike Lear (or last season’s Oklahoma!), I suspect it was presented pretty much the way Arthur Miller intended, the reason for its revival being the presence of Annette Bening and Tracy Letts in the lead roles. They were both superb, and the son has been nominated for a Tony, as well. The rest of the cast was not as uniformly good, but this was a play of ideas, and the ideas came through loud and clear.  Responsibility to your family vs. society played out slowly and thoughtfully here, whereas responsibility vs. pandering to society was presented glibly in Ink.

The other classic revival we saw was Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at the Irish Rep. Here was a history lesson (abetted by the exhibition in the upstairs lobby), a jaundiced view of Irish republican uprising and a searing view of human nature. I felt almost as though I were back in college, and all the better for it.

Perhaps it was having seen the O’Casey, or perhaps it was the new all-American cast, but The Ferryman somehow seemed less authentic than other plays about Irish troubles I have encountered. This is not to say it was not enthralling, from opening to close, and the way the story unfolded to a dramatic finish was masterful. I came away with a list of quibbles, however (detailed elsewhere on Riffs). Watching the children perform was an unalloyed pleasure.

The other play in the league of The Ferryman, at least in terms of commercial firepower, was Aaron Sorkind’s To Kill A Mockingbird. The story is powerful (I needn’t say), and the book has been translated to the stage adroitly. Celia Keenan-Bolger, despite the age issue (41-to-6), is captivating as Scout; and the race relations issue, unfortunately, seems just as relevant today as 1935 or 1960. Jeff Daniels, also unfortunately, is no Gregory Peck, which kept me from going over the moon over our $375-ticket evening. Someone who loves Jeff Daniels might feel quite differently.

Faced with an empty weekend, we followed that day’s Times review to Something Clean, a Roundabout black stage production, our furthest venture off-Broadway this season. It was just what you look for in small theater: three actors, all excellent, playing characters trying to make sense of their lives and their relationships, in this case dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse by their (offstage) college son. Selina Fillinger is a playwright to watch, and Kathryn Erbe’s performance, always onstage, acting one way toward her husband, another, a split-second later, to the assault center counselor, was pitch-perfect.

So, what did I learn? I liked the slower plays, where there was space between the lines and characters, where I wasn’t constantly assaulted and wasn’t straining to hear what someone said. All My Sons and Kiss Me, Kate were written in an era where attention spans were longer and visual gimmicks weren’t required. Hadestown and Ink were the other end of the razzmatazz spectrum. Call me old-fashioned, I guess. Or, maybe, just old.



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