Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on BUTLER, QUIETLY, HIMSELF AND NORA, TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, HADESTOWN, SIMON SAYS, OSLO and PRIVACY.
I always enjoy going to 59 E 59, the cozy complex of 3 Off Broadway theatres just off Park Ave established by Elysabeth Kleinhans in 2002. Ms. Kleinhans does not produce herself, but she decides what goes into her theatres, and she has very good taste, so you stand a very good chance of having a great experience there. Most of the events are imports from other cities, such as the summer’s Main Event, the Brits Off Broadway Festival, which this year featured two plays, one old, one new, written and directed by Sir Alan Ayckbourn with his Scarborough company. I missed both this year (drat!) but I caught two others, City Stories and Ross & Rachel, which were outstanding.
One of the 3 current offerings is Richard Strand’s Butler, an import from New Jersey
Rep. It is rare that I get to see a new play not set in the present, as most off Broadway and regional theatres won’t do a “historical play,” for whatever reason, which I think is ridiculous. Butler is set just after the start of the Civil War, at a Union Garrison commanded by Gen. Benjamin Butler, a businessman with no military experience. An adjutant arrives in Butler’s office to inform his that an escaped slave has demanded sanctuary, which annoys Butler to no end because the thing he hates the most is having demands put on him. Eventually, he agrees to see the escapee, names Mallory, who turns out to be a literate, articulate man with whom he engages in a spirited debate, explaining to him that under the Fugitive Slave Act he is legally obligated to return him to his owner. In a brilliant, and most amusing turn, though, Butler comes up with a way to get around the law. Mallory has been used by the Confederates to build their fortifications – which makes him, in Butler’s view not a mere slave but “contraband.”
The four actors in in Joseph Discher’s production are superb, most notably Amos Adamson as Butler and John G. Williams as Mallory. Adamson looks like he has stepped right out of a Matthew Brady daguerreotype, and Williams is compelling as a man whose intellect matches that of any white man.
I wouldn’t see surprised if this has a commercial Off Broadway transfer – it’s that good.
Quietly, another import, this one from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, is burning up the stage at the newly refurbished Irish Rep, in a co-production with the Public Theater. About the refurbishment: Irish Rep has moved the bathrooms to where the awkward side section used to be and added a balcony to compensate for the lost seats, a brilliant solution to the problem which has plagues this theatre since it opened.
Quietly is a pub play set in Belfast, 36 years after what used to be called The Troubles, during a world cup soccer match between Northern Ireland and Poland. Jimmy, a man in his 50’s is meeting Ian, of the same age. The Big Reveal is the tragic, senseless event in both men’s lives which happened when they were 16. The play is a bit talky, but ultimately packs a real punch (literally and figuratively), and Patrick O’Kane and Declan Conlon are superb as Jimmy and Ian.
This, too, is a don’t-miss.
I quite enjoyed Himself and Nora, a musical by Jonathan Brielle about James Joyce and his tempestuous relationship with Nora Barnacle, which is winding down its run at the Minetta Lane Theatre. I had always thought that Joyce and Nora were married; but apparently, they were together 27 years before they tied the knot. While the focus is on Joyce’s long road to literary fame, the most interesting character is Nora Barnacle, a feisty, strong-willed woman who bears him two children and stick with him through thick and thin, despite Joyce’s abuse of her, often fueled by alcohol. Whitney Bashor is sensational as Nora, with a lovely singing voice and beauty and charm to boot; but Matt Bogart almost matches her as the contentious, self-centered author. Three other actors play various roles, including Joyce’s da, Ezra Pound, a Catholic priest, Sylvia Beach and the two children, Giorgio and Lucia, the latter of whom went mad and had to be institutionalized.
Brielle’s music is delightful and the direction by Michael Bush, while economical, is first-rate.
Shakespeare’s rarely performed Troilus and Cressida is being given a stirring modern dress rendition at the Delacorte Theatre, directed by our finest interpreter of the Bard’s work, Daniel Sullivan. Set during the Trojan War, the play focuses on the love between a Trojan prince and a Trojan woman, even as the Greeks’ dilemma about what to do about the recalcitrant Achilles plays itself out. This has often been called one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” in that it’s neither comedy nor tragedy, but the real problem with the play is that there’s no resolution to the story of the two lovers.
Still, I can’t imagine the play being done better. Achilles, played by David Harbour (until he had to drop out due to an injury), is played as a sort of biker dude, complete with a Mohawk. John Glover is delightfully sleazy as Pandarus, Bill Heck heroic as Hector and and Max Casella wickedly cynical as Thersites; but the real finds are newcomers Andrew Burnap and Ismenia Mendez in the title roles. Both speak their roles beautifully and have all the chops to emerge as major classical theatre stars.
Hadestown, which is concluding its run at NY Theatre Workshop, is a quirky though-sung rock music retelling by Anaïs Mitchell of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. While Mitchell’s music isn’t really theatre music, it’s well sung by a talented cast headed by Patrick Page, whose big bass voice blows the roof off, staged by Rachel Chavkin in the round with the audience seated on bleachers.
This is a huge audience favorite, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it pops up in a commercial venue this season.
Simon Says by Mat Schaffer, at the Lynn Redgrave theatre, is about a retired academic named Williston who has found a reluctant man able to channel the Other Side, in the person of a man named Simon. The play’s a load of claptrap, but it does feature the return to the stage after a 4-year absence of Brian Murray, all stooped and hunched over. I was hoping that this was some sort of characterization; but when Murray comes out for the curtain call, sadly this is the way he walks now. It’s heart-rending to see. He’s giving his usual fine performance, though, in a rather mediocre play.
J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre is a fascinating, large cast, large-canvas drama about the background to the Oslo Accords, the first time Israel and the PLO sat down together to try and resolve the intractable conflict between them. The central characters are two Norwegians, played wonderfully by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle, who are indefatigable as they try to get the two parties to meet and, somehow, work out a compromise. In fact, Bartlett Sher’s cast is the finest on a New York stage at present.
The play grabs you and won’t let go as it offers the tantalizing possibility that maybe, just maybe, there is a way for both sides to co-exist peacefully, then hits you in the gut when you realize that they got close; but that ultimately the whole deal fell apart.
The production is a huge hit and is transferring upstairs to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, which makes it Tony-eligible. Expect it to be a major contender at awards time next spring.
James Graham’s Privacy, at the Public’s Newman Theatre, is an even bigger hit, and not only because of the presence in cast of Daniel Radcliffe. The entire run is sold out, though the Public is doing a Hamilton-style lottery for a handful of tickets before every performance. Radcliffe is very engaging as a blocked playwright whose girlfriend has dumped him because he has been emotionally distant, too private with her. He goes to a psychoanalyst, played with his usual quirky aplomb by Reg Rogers, and begins a quest to learn about the effect of privacy, or the lack thereof, in our lives. What he finds out will shock you. If you get in, be sure to bring your smart phone, as you will need it to get the full effect of this disturbing, brilliant play.
I would be amazed if this doesn’t transfer to Broadway, where it will vie with Oslo for the Tony Award.
BUTLER.59 E 59.
QUIETLY. 132 W. 22nd St.
HIMSELF AND NORA. Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane
TROILUS AND CRESSIDA. Delacorte Theatre, Central Park.
TICKETS: free the day of performance
HADESTOWN. NY Theatre Workshop. 79 E. 4th St.
SIMON SAYS. Lynn Redgrave Theatre. 45 Bleecker St.
OSLO. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
PRIVACY. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”
— George F. Will
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt