On the Aisle with Larry, May 29, 2017

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 GROUNDHOG DAY, ANASTASIA, INDECENT, A DOLL’S HOUSE PART 2, THE WHIRLIGIG, THE LUCKY ONE, THE LITTLE FOXES and this year’s Kilroys List.

I was not able to catch Groundhog Day at the August Wilson Theatre during its press dates because its star, Andy Karl, was out due to an onstage injury (he tore his ACL), so the press agent slid me into Bandstand instead. I am pleased to report that Karl is back in the show, wearing a knee brace, and has just won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Actor in a Musical. It is richly deserved.

Groundhog Day comes to us from London (where Karl won the Olivier Award). It’s based on the wonderful film about a sardonic weatherman named Phil who is assigned, much to his dismay, to cover the annual ceremony in Punxsutawney Pennsylvania wherein a large rodent forecasts how much more winter we’ll have. If he sees his shadow when he emerges from his burrow and scurries back inside, there will be 6 more weeks of winter. Phil (who shares the same name with the groundhog) would rather be anywhere else. Well, a severe storm sets in after the ceremony, and Phil and his crew are forced to spend another night in Punxsutawney. When Phil wakes up the next morning, it’s Groundhog Day all over again – over and over again — and he’s the only one aware of it. Phil’s progression from jerk to decent human being forms the story’s dramatic arc, as he comes actually to like the denizens of the town even as he tries to figure out how to escape his seemingly never-ending predicament, and as he goes from trying to seduce his producer to falling in love with her.

Karl is terrific in the show, as is Barrett Doss as Rita, the producer, as are all the supporting cast, under Matthew Warchus’ inspired direction, and the inventive sets by Rob Howell are great fun, as is Danny Rubin’s wonderful book. Tim Minchin’s songs are absolutely delightful, with one terrific number after another.

Groundhog Day is definitely a must-see. In a season of mighty fine Broadway musicals, it’s one of the best.

I also enjoyed Anastasia at the Broadhurst Theatre, a slick musical adaptation by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), directed by Darko Tresnjak, of the animated film based on the story of the woman who claimed to be the only surviving daughter of the Romanov family. Two charming rogues find a street sweeper named Anya and try to pass her off as the Czarina. She has amnesia and doesn’t remember much about her past, but after much coaching she becomes credible. The thing is, she may actually be Anastasia.

The show has a lot in common with Disney musicals. Nothing dark, nothing disturbing, a plucky heroine and lovable rogues. It’s the kind of show you’d feel comfortable taking your kids to. Christy Altomare is wonderful as Anya, as are Derek Klena and John Bolton as her two handlers, and there is a mighty fine turn by Mary Peth Peil as the Dowager

Empress, who they must con/convince in order to get their hands on the Romanov fortune.

Mention must also be made of Linda Cho’s sumptuous costumes, Alexander Dodge’s beautiful sets and, most especially, Aaron Rhyne’s astonishing projections – all a feast for the eye.

Indecent, at the Cort Theatre, is a transfer from Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre. It’s a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, created by Vogel and the director Rebecca Taichman (the first time I have even seen such a credit), about a troupe of intrepid Yiddish theatre actors putting on a play by Sholem Asch entitled The God of Vengeance. It’s structured as a memory play, wherein the troupe’s stage manager tells the story as the actors perform it.

I have never seen or read The God of Vengeance, but we are given to understand that it’s a classic of the Yiddish drama, highly controversial in its day in its harsh depiction of its characters but also because it contains a lesbian sex scene, which appears to be the main focus of Vogel and Taichman.

The ensemble is excellent, and Taichman’s direction is brilliant; but the play itself didn’t grab me. If you’re a lesbian, though, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Lucus Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part Two, at the Golden Theatre, employs a brilliant conceit: what if Nora from Ibsen’s play, who notoriously left her husband and children, returned years later? Why would she do so? Turns out, she has become a successful writer, under a pseudonym – but an arch-conservative judge has found out that she is still married to Torvald, has discovered her real name and has threatened to prosecute her for signing her own contracts, which a woman wasn’t allowed to do in 19th Century Norway. So, Nora needs to persuade her husband to grant her a divorce – which he refuses to do.

Laurie Metcalf is sensational as Nora and Chris Cooper equally so as her tortured husband, Jane Houdyshell provides welcome comic relief as the housekeeper and Condola Rashad is terrific as the crafty daughter, who Nora needs in order to change Torvald’s mind. Hnath’s writing employs a lot of amusing anachronisms, which I enjoyed. While he sympathizes with Nora’s dilemma, he sympathizes even more with her abandoned husband, and Chris Cooper breaks your heart, particularly when compared Metcalf, who is rather shrill (which is exactly right for her character, I must admit). I usually aren’t wild about Sam Gold’s direction, but here it is first-rate.

Unless it wins the Tony Award, A Doll’s House Part Two will probably not run much longer, regrettably. It’s a tough sell to the Broadway audience, even with its stellar cast, so see it now. You snooze, you lose.

In Hamish Linklater’s The Whirligig, a New Group production at the Signature Center, a young woman lays dying of hepatitis C. She’s a junkie and has contracted the disease from an infected needle. Her divorced parents bring her home to die, and the non-chronological plot goes back and forth in time, as we see the dying woman as a sweet young teenager. The dramatic crux is, how did she become the dying junkie?

Linklater’s writing is breath-taking, as is Scott Elliott’s direction, and the cast is magnificent – particularly Norbert Leo Butz as the father and Zosia Mamet as the girl’s former BFF. In an era when few plays require more than four actors and have shorter and shorter running times, it was refreshing for me to see eight actors up there, in a play which runs two and a half hours but which never seems to run out of steam.

The Whirligig is a don’t-miss.

The Mint Theatre specializes in lost plays which don’t deserve to be forgotten. The Lucky One, by A.A. Milne, at the Beckett Theatre, is certainly a “lost play.” It was produced briefly on Broadway in the 1920s and then faded into obscurity. It’s about two brothers competing for the hand for the same desirable woman, Pamela is engaged to marry Gerald, much to the dismay of his brother Bob. Gerald is charming but rather callow; whereas Bob is a hapless sort. When Bob finds himself caught in skullduggery at the bank where he works and has to go to prison, he implores Pamela not to marry Gerald, to wait for him. Will she or won’t she?

Director Jesse Marchese’s cast is excellent. My only quibble has to do with Vicki R. Davis’ set. A set must do two things: it must suggest the period and social milieu in which the play takes place and it must facilitate effortless movement by the actors. Davis’ set is a space-dominating two-sided circular staircase, with steel rail supports, descending to the drawing room where the action takes place. This stair unit is just plain ugly and looks modern and industrial. It also results in many awkward entrances and exits.

The Lucky One is enjoyable, but I wouldn’t say the Mint has made a case for it as an unjustly-forgotten classic.

In the revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club at their Broadway venue, the Friedman Theatre, and superbly directed by Daniel Sullivan, Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney play both Regina and Birdie, alternating in the roles. I saw Nixon as Regina and Linney as Birdie. I wish I could have seen them vice-versa, but there were so many shows coming at us I couldn’t find another slot.

The play is about the scheming Hubbard clan, a once-genteel Southern family whose cotton plantation is on the ropes; so, brothers Ben and Oscar have hatched a deal with a businessman from Chicago to build a mill on their property which will obviate the need to ship their cotton north for processing. Problem is, Ben and Oscar don’t have all the financing for this project. Their brother-in-law Horace, married to their sister Regina, does, but he’s been gone for weeks, recuperating from heart trouble at a hospital. Regina, being a woman at the turn of the 19th Century, has to go along with what her brothers are planning, so she agrees to send her daughter Alexandra off to try to persuade Horace to come home. When he does, he finds that the bonds he has kept in a safety deposit box have been stolen and used to pay the rest of his brothers’ share of the deal. Regina, a fiercely-determined woman who wants to get the hell out of her stifling, loveless marriage and go up to Chicago to live in high style, must turn the tables and get ahold of the money the family stands to make on the deal. Will she, or won’t she?

Cynthia Nixon, as Regina, is as steely and manipulative as Nora is A Doll’s House Part Two and Laura Linney is heartbreaking as Birdie, married to brother Oscar, whose lot in life is worse than Nora’s was in Ibsen’s original play. Michael McKean and Darren Goldstein are wonderfully smarmy as Ben and Oscar. They’d fit right into today’s corporate America, probably winding up in President Tweet’s cabinet; and Richard Thomas is giving one of his finest-ever performances as Horace.

My friend and colleague Michael Bigelow Dixon, for many years Literary Manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville, recently published a book with Smith & Kraus entitled “Breaking from Realism,” which I consider to be a brilliant manifesto of the burgeoning Anything But Realism movement in our nation’s theatres, which has ruled the roost at European theatres for many years. I quibble with his touting of some practitioners of Anything But Realism, whom he considers geniuses but whom I think are, to varying degrees, humbugs. I also quibble with Dixon’s assertion that Realism as a viable dramatic style is boring and old-fashioned. So, he would probably dislike The Little Foxes. If you, on the other hand, actually enjoy an excellent example of old hat, old fashioned Realism when it is done exceptionally well, you won’t find better proof at the Friedman Theatre that Realism is alive and kicking.

Finally: The Kilroys is an invaluable organization created to promote production of more plays by women. Since its inception, I have had the honor to serve them as a nominator for their annual Kilroys List. This year, I was instructed by the administrator of the List that I was to give preferment to plays by women of color and transgender. Regarding the latter, no instruction was given as to whether this meant men transitioning to be women or women transitioning to be men, nor were there any suggestions as to how nominators were to know when they read a play if its author is transgender. Be that as it may, I replied that while I would be happy to serve the Kilroys as a Nominator, I would not favor any ethnic or racial group, because I consider this to be racist. A flurry of emails were exchanged between me and said administrator, who finally accused me of being among the cohort of “aggrieved white males” who has put our country in jeopardy by electing You-Know-Who. Oh really.

When I was at Samuel French I was responsible for the first publication of Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, Shirley Lauro, Jane Martin (when “Ms. Martin” was definitely a woman) and many, many other plays by female playwrights. The first play I recommended which the firm published was by a woman. The anthologies I have edited for Smith & Kraus and Applause contain many plays by women, many of them “of color,” such as Lynn Nottage, Elaine Romero, Danai Gurira, Nikkole Salter, Anne García Romero, Kirsten Greenidge, Bridgette Wimberly, Elaine Romero, Fernanda Coppel and others. Many of the best playwrights whom I have assisted as The Playfixer are women. I’ll betcha none of the above considers me to be an “aggrieved white male.”

Apparently, if you disagree with the Kilroys, an organization founded to promote woman playwrights but whose focus is now to promote certain women playwrights over others, you find yourself considered the Enemy, a card-carrying member of Trump nation.

Ignorance and incivility are rampant on both sides of the political divide. If this doesn’t change, we will never be able to work together to make America great again (and I hasten to add, not in the Trumpian sense).

Finally finally: on this Memorial Day weekend I would like to share with you the link to a video which memorializes those who made the Supreme Sacrifice, underscored by John Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Omd9_FJnerY

GROUNDHOG DAY. August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St.

TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000

ANASTASIA. Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 45th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

INDECENT. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

A DOLL’S HOUSE PART 2. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

THE WHIRLIGIG. Signature Center, 480 W. 52nd St.

TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200

THE LUCKY ONE. Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

THE LITTLE FOXES. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

 

“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

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