On the Aisle with Larry, November 3, 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 TIME AND THE CONWAYS, SQUEAMISH, TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, ILLYRIA, THE HOME PLACE, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE PORTUGESE KID, THE LAST MATCH and SHADOWLANDS.

J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways, last seen on Broadway in the late 1930s, is being given a splendid revival by Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre, directed by Rebecca Taichman, starring Elizabeth McGovern as the matriarch of a well-to-do British family. Preistley employed what was then a novel structure. The first act takes place in 1919 at a birthday party for one of Mrs. Conway’s daughters. As a charades game goes on offstage, we meet her three daughters and two sons, all full of hope for their assured future success. The Great War is finally over, after all, and hope springs eternal for everyone. The second act takes place 19 years later, and nobody’s life has turned out well. To top it off, Mrs. Conway’s solicitor reveals that her money is gone. Then we return to the birthday party in the third act, back to everyone’s rosy optimism, which takes on a terrible poignancy as we know what will happen to the Conways.

Taichman’s cast is superb. This one is a don’t-miss.

I also enjoyed Aaron Mark’s Squeamish, at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, wherein Alison Fraser plays a therapist who finds herself drawn to vampirism. The problem, though, is that the entire play is about what happened to the character in the past, which would be hard to sustain without a performance as riveting as Fraser’s, who here reveals quite a dramatic range, after years of mostly playing in musicals.

Tiny Beautiful Things, at the Public Theater is an adaptation by Nia Vardolos of Cheryl Strayed’s collection of online exchanges between her nom-de-plume, “Sugar,” and people who emailed her asking for advice. Vardalos plays Sugar, and three actors play many of the people whose plaintive queries appeared online. Thomas Kail’s direction is understated yet subtle, and Vardalos, who you will remember from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” is delightful. She’s one of those actresses who could read the phone book and charm you.

Richard Nelson’s Illyria, also at the Public Theater is about the early days of the New York Shakespeare Festival, when it was by no means assured that it would ever last more than a couple of seasons. It takes place before, during and after a production of Twelfth Night, which Joseph Papp directed after firing Stuart Vaughan in a flap about who to cast as Olivia. Also in the play are Merle Debuskey (Papp’s press agent), Bernie Gersten (who was to become the Festival’s business manager), the young Colleen Dewhurst and others. There is almost no plot, but it’s fascinating to watch and hear these young versions of people who went on to great success as they try to figure out how to keep Papp’s dream afloat.

I know a lot about what they were talking about, so I got all the references to offstage characters such as Robert Moses, “T” (T. Edward Hambleton, who was the money behind the Phoenix Theatre, and George C. Scott, who was at the time (and, indeed much later) a falling down drunk, but a genius when he was sober. I think, though, that if all this is new to you, a lot of it will pass in one ear and out the other. Also, Nelson has directed the play and much of it is “conversational’ – meaning so low in volume that even I, sitting in the second row, missed a lot of it. Also, it runs almost two hours without an interval.

If you are fascinated with this period in our theatre history, particularly as it pertains to Joseph Papp and the gang, I think you will have a good time. If you’re not, you’ll probably find Illyria a tough slog.

The Home Place, by the late Brian Friel, originally staged in Ireland in 2005 currently at Irish Rep, has not, as far as I have been able to determine, ever been presented here, which surprises me because it’s by one of the world great dramatists from the 1960s through this, his last play. Like all of Friel’s plays, it takes place in the fictional Irish town of Ballybeg in County Donegal. The year is 1978. The central character, a local squire named Christopher Gore, in whose house the play takes place, receives a visit from his cousin Richard, an anthropologist whose science presages that of the Nazis. He is studying racial characteristics by measuring people’s physical characteristics, hoping to prove that the Irish are inferior to the English, and he wants to do so with the local population. Also in the mix is his housekeeper, Rachel whom he wants to marry – but so does his son, and a local troublemaker named Con who rives to take on the “scientist,” and who might have been involved in a gruesome murder which occurred before the play began.

While not top-drawer Friel, The Home Place is nonetheless an enjoyable drama, subtly structured, and Irish Rep Artistic Director Charlotte Moore’s direction is superb. Her cast is excellent. It is difficult for me to pick out any faves, but if I had to I would put my finger on John Windsor Cunningham as Christopher and Rachel Pickup as Margaret.

I enjoyed this play thoroughly. While I wouldn’t label it a don’t-miss, it is still well worth a visit to Irish Rep.

You might remember Stanley Kubrick’s film from the late 1960’s of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, a chilling depiction of totally amoral youths who call themselves “Droogs” who play bizarre, violent games before going out to terrorize every adult they can find. Strangely, no author is credited in the adaptation currently on view at New World Stages. I thought it might have been the director, Alexandra Spencer-Jones, but I have been told it was Burgess himself. In the film, the Droogs’ victims are played by other actors; here, the actors playing the Droogs also play their victims, which undercuts the shock of what the Droogs inflict on them, making the play seem more or less like silly game-playing. That said, Spencer-Jones’ highly choreographed production is sensational, as is British actor Johnno Davies as Alex, the Droogs’ leader. No wonder they brought him over to recreate his performance.

When’s the last time you saw an out-and-out ha-ha funny comedy on a New York stage, with no dark, satiric edge? Think hard. Right. Long ago and far away. Comedies used to be a staple of the Broadway stage; now, we only see revivals of old ones. The reason for this is that the cultural ayatollahs, who decide not only what lives or dies but what, in fact, gets produced, dislike them. Who, in his right mind would produce a play which the critics will pan? Well, it appears, only Lynne Meadow of the Manhattan Theatre Club, where John Patrick Shanley’s The Portuguese Kid is currently running in their Off Broadway venue, City Center Stage I. Meadow is loyal to her playwrights, Shanley being one, so when he finishes a play, she does it.

Shanley’s latest is about a lawyer named Barry. A longtime client has died, and his widow, Atalanta, comes to Barry for legal advice. She also wants him to sell her house. She also is giving to yelling out his name during sex. Barry is married to a woman more than half his age named Patty, although she pines for a young ne-er-do-well named Freddie, who is shacking up with Atalanta. Also in the mix is Barry’s domineering mother, who lives with him and works as his receptionist; and who hates his young wife (and vicey-versy). Who will wind up with whom? In other words, this play has nothing on its mind other than to provide laughs, which it does in abundance. No wonder it has been raked over the coals.

Jason Alexander, as Barry, serves up a variation one his “Seinfeld” character, and Mary Testa is a little too over the top as the mother, but Sherie Rene Scott steals the show as Atalanta, and Pico Alexander (Freddy) and Aimee Carerro (Patty) are almost as amusing.

If you are tired of play after depressing play and want just to have a good time and laugh your head off, The Portuguese Kid is for you.

In Anna Ziegler’s The Last Match, at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, two tennis stars go head to head in a quarterfinals match at the U.S. Open. Tim, an American on the last legs of his career at the ripe old age of 34, faces off against Sergei, a young Russian up-and-comer. Much of the play consists of these guy’s thoughts during their volleys, which are ingeniously staged by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, interspersed with off court scenes with their women: Tim’s wife Mallory, a former tennis player herself who has retired to try and have a baby, and the delightfully caustic Galina, Sergei’s girlfriend. All four actors are superb, the guys absolutely believable as top-seeded tennis players, the women compelling and often poignant.

I thoroughly enjoyed this play and think you will too.

I saw the original Broadway production of William Nicholson’s Shadowlands, starring the late Nigel Hawthorne and Jane Alexander, and I had my doubts as to whether the cast of the Off Broadway revival, at the Acorn Theatre, could come close to those two wonderful performances. Happily, the leads at the Acorn do come close in this superb production. I have always enjoyed Daniel Gerroll’s work, but I think his performance as Oxford don and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis is the pinnacle of his distinguished career, while Robin Abramson’s work as the Jewish American convert to Christianity after reading Lewis’ books on Christianity is equally as good.

A lifelong bachelor who lived with his brother, Lewis is here portrayed as a rather stuffy, emotionally reticent man until Joy Davidman barged into his life, determined to meet the man who changed her life. Much to his surprise, Lewis finds himself drawn to her, and they become close friends. When her marriage collapses, Joy decides to stay in Britain, but in order to do so she must marry a Brit. Despite his problem with marrying a divorced woman (forbidden by the church at that time), he ties the knot with her in a civil ceremony and then the two of them go on living separately – until Joy develops terminal bone cancer, at which time they have another marriage ceremony performed by an Anglican priest and live as man and wife until the end.

All his life, Lewis has preached, I guess you could say, that suffering is God’s way of bringing us to Him. Easy for him to say, until suffering hits home.

Christa Scott-Reed’s direction is top notch, and her supporting cast the same. The settings by Kelly James Tighe are ingenious and absolutely gorgeous, as is Aaron Spivey’s lighting.

The play has been produced by Fellowship for the Performing Arts, which specializes in plays with a Christian theme. In New York, where Faith is routinely mocked, that’s rather like Daniel in the lion’s den. I say, good for them!

Of the 10 plays I saw last week, Shadowlands was by far the best.

 

TIME AND THE CONWAYS. American Airlines Theatre. 227. W. 42nd St.

Tickets: 212-719-1300

SQUEAMISH. Samuel Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

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

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: 212-967-7555

ILLYRIA. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

Tickets: 212-967-7555

THE HOME PLACE. Irish Repertory Theatre, 132. W. 22nd St.

Tickets: 866-811-4411

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St.

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

THE PORTUGESE KID. City Center Stage I. 131 W. 55th St

Tickets: www.manhattantheatreclub.com

THE LAST MATCH. Laura Pels Theatre. 111. W. 46th St.

Tickets: https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/The-Last-Match.aspx

SHADOWLANDS. Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd 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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