NY Fall Entertainment

Our fall entertainment schedule in New York began and ended with audience singalongs. At “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” the elderly crowd at the 59E59 Theater heartily joined in on “God Bless America” and many other Berlin classics. They weren’t as put off by Hershey Felder’s unpleasant looks and persona as I was. A much younger crowd at sold-out Madison Square Garden on our last weekend danced and sang along with the much more charming Billy Joel, as he ran through his catalogue from the ’70s. His voice was more mature but still strong, his hits all brought back memories to me, and they seemed to resonate with many around us who hadn’t been born when they first came out. As for my musical taste, it’s still rock’n’roll to me.
Another musical we saw fit somewhere in between Irving Berlin and Billy Joel: “Oklahoma!” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs were at the same high level as the other two, and it was fun to hear them again. Unfortunately, Daniel Fish’s attempt at a new look at the story can only be described as a misdirection. Departing from the original, Curly shoots Jud in cold blood, then is promptly acquitted so he can go on his honeymoon in an obvious miscarriage of justice. This leaves a sour taste in the viewer’s stomach, one that was foreshadowed by a feral dream dance sequence to start the second act. You don’t feel any better about the peddler Ali, who is stuck with a cackling hen for a wife, or even Ado Annie, who is fated with a husband dumber than a cornstalk. To play “Oklahoma!” as such a total downer takes the fun out of all the bright, cheery music that has gone before – music that dramatically does not support the second act’s depressing turn.
“Girl from the North Country” also featured some good music – this time by Bob Dylan – and was also depressing, but intentionally so, as it took place in Duluth mid-winter during the Depression. There wasn’t much of a story, just a collection of characters who interacted in a boarding house before it went bankrupt. The vibe was reminiscent of last spring’s “Carousel,” although unlike that show and “Oklahoma!” the African-American lead was actually portraying an African-American. Half the Dylan songs were unfamiliar, some were shoehorned into the plot, and many weren’t played in full; the result was I left wondering if I would have preferred a Dylan concert.
We saw five straight plays – all of which I was glad to have seen, none of which was a Michelin three-star worth the trip. The one getting the most attention was “Waverly Gallery, partly because of its author, Kenneth Lonergan, but largely because of its superb cast, led by 86-year-old Elaine May, playing an 85-year-old heading into dementia. As much as I didn’t like cheap jokes at the expense of the aged in Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” I somehow never minded May’s doddering, and the more reviews I read the more I admire her performance. Joan Allen, Lucas Hedges and Michael Cera were treats in their own right. The autobiographical play was more a meditation on a family situation than a dramatic engine, but it prompted one’s own meditations – and it was easy to hear as the characters all had to speak up to accommodate Grandma’s fading hearing.
“Lifespan of a Fact” benefited from equally strong performances by Daniel Radcliffe and Bobby Cannavale, a wonderfully mismatched pair. (Cherry Jones, as referee, wasn’t given as strong a role.) The plot was more a conceit than a story you could actually believe, but after a career of working with fact-checkers at TIME I enjoyed the ring the actors sparred in: should the article/essay be bound by literal facts when it was telling a bigger truth? Or, for example, how would you handle a piece by Hunter Thompson?
“Emma and Max” was another three-character drama, written and directed by the movie director Todd Solondz. The New Yorker called it “ham-handed,” which means it wasn’t subtle, which means I could understand it. It had the most inventive set of the plays we saw; the characters were cliches, but ones I appreciated; and the plot was linear and, in its way, hard-hitting. The whole thing could be described as small-scale, but given the size of the Flea Theater and the $15 ticket price, “Emma Max” represented the best value of our trip.
“Uncle Vanya” at Hunter College didn’t cost much more and, played informally in the round, was a memorable introduction, for me, to a theater classic. The Vanya character was a powerhouse, quite the opposite of Wallace Shawn in “Vanya on 42nd Street,” which we started to watch via Netflix. Chekhov, of course, doesn’t need my review.
The only disappointing play was “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” a star vehicle for the estimable Janet McTeer. I spent most of the evening quibbling over nits that didn’t make sense or didn’t seem right. The whole thing had an air of artificiality, exemplified by the character of Alphonse Mucha, whom I subsequently studied in the Metropolitan Museum bookstore. In sum, I didn’t get a sense of Sarah Bernhardt or enough Hamlet.

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