Reviewed by David Spencer
When I went to see Man of La Mancha in an off-off Broadway production (of the Duo Theatre on East 4th Street) that was touted as a revolutionary new interpretation, performed by a cast of eight men, accompanied by only two guitars (both played onstage by cast members), I was both intrigued and wary. [I write of the enterprise in the present tense, because I don't think it should be considered dead just yet, even though it's closed now, after a short, scheduled limited run.]
To my surprise, director Joshua William Gelb's interpretation—conceived in tandem with musical director Justin Levine who also plays the part of Cervantes/Quixote—is indeed brilliant enough (as a concept, if not always as a production) to hold its own with any of the acclaimed reduced-cast stagings of classic musicals that have entered the repertoire. The basic premise is maintained, albeit projected forward in history: the two prisoners thrown into the cell with the others to await a hearing by the Inquisition are here victims of a more contemporary fascist regime. This doesn't do a lot to enhance the written text save that seeing the two enter in modern dress, to confront a collection of fellow prisoners in the tatters of likewise more contemporary garb, puts the audience on alert that we have upped the ante on the poetic metaphor of Cervantes as storyteller using his environs and co-captives to create another world, place—and now time. Which prepares us for the notion of total austerity being turned into an advantage—as men are co-opted to play women, as accompaniment figures and motives are vocalized and mouth-percussioned (as background to the guitars and up front, without them). It's a more brutal telling of the tale, containing far less whimsy than usual (correction: less whimsy in the usual places), and it isn't completely realized—I'd say about 25% of the staging is wildly out of control and needs to be tightened and refocused—but on balance the production is just as wildly inventive and bracing.
Here's the big problem.
The cast isn't anywhere near up to the demands, neither the dramatic ones nor the vocal ones. I don't mean this in any pejorative sense, fort the eight young men onstage are giving it their all, but they simply haven't got the chops to do the concept justice, and you feel as if you're watching what should be the lab rat production, the experiment that tells the creative team what's possible before they go off and do it "for real." If you did this production with, say, Raul Esparza and Norbert Leo Butz as Quixote and Sancho, it would be selling out for months.
Here's hoping some entrepreneur has the vision to back such a transformation...without fucking it up.
Another off-off Broadway reinterpretation—this one a journey from film to stage—is in Kate Harris's adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 paranoia film The Conversation, about Harry Caul, the guy you hire to spy on other people via high-tech listening devices. Script-wise this is not a brilliant re-imagining, but it's certainly an efficient one which, directed and cast optimally, could be quite tense and powerful. Alas, the production directed by Leo Farley at 29th Street Rep is soft and perfunctory, the cast very mild for a resident NYC company, even by non-Equity standards.
Paul Rudnick's The New Century is a collection of four one-act comedies. Two are monologues delivered by mothers of grown, gay children—one a Jewish NYC sophisticate (Linda Lavin), one a gentile "crafts" expert (i.e. a maker of tchochkies out of odds and ends) from Decatur, Illinois (Jayne Houdyshell). Between these is plays is one set during the broadcast of a live cable access show in Florida, called Too Gay, starring middle aged NYC expatriate and shamelessly proud flamer, Mr. Charles (Peter Bartlett). That one is almost a monologue, but it features Mr. Charles' new, young, pretty protˇgˇ (Mike Doyle), and a young mother of a new baby (Joann Milderry), plucked out of the audience. In the fourth play, all paths cross and all characters meet in a NYC hospital maternity ward.
I didn't laugh much during the evening, but then, it takes a lot to get me going, and I've always been able to "appreciate the funny" without the actual visceral response—especially if the rest of the audience is regularly and as one responding to the jokes...and indeed, with a cast featuring Lavin, Houdyshell and Bartlett, each doing to perfection a variation on an archetype they have built careers on, how could the audience not respond?...yet I found myself losing enthusiasm here and there, as The New Century seemed yet another manifesto about the gay American subculture and its value, albeit a friendly and inclusive one, in the manner of most Rudnick fare. If all it means to do is evoke laughter, well, why not? But I was, after a while, hungering to be told something new.
I'm reminded of Neil Simon's career, in the 60s, when he was at the top of his game and the top of his popularity, represented on Broadway by one play per season. Well, in '66 he churned out The Star-Spangled Girl, about which Times critic Walter Kerr wrote that "Neil Simon didn't have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote one anyway." To be fair, Mr. Rudnick's thoughts and observations go deeper than Simon's glib jibe at patriotism and dissent, and they're truer...but they are, in this new century, no less familiar than Simon's wafer-thin romantic triangle of the late-mid century past. And I just wanted a better reason to have left the house...
The Four of Us by Itmar Moses, at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II, is a semi-comic examination of the toll fame can take on best friends—in this case two aspiring writers: one who achieves it (Gideon Banner) and one who doesn't (Michael Esper), who make up the entire cast. The playÕs clever title—whose meaning is just as cleverly never articulated—refers to the pair before and after: who we were and who we've become. And it does so in a smartly nonlinear way, moving between past, present and even future.
For anyone actively pursuing a career in showbiz or the arts, having faced or witnessed anything remotely similar, there will likely be uncomfortable moments of recognition—self-recognition included—as well (at the beginning) as a niggling apprehension that the entire play will simply be an exploitation of the funny-sad clichˇs of the dynamic in a trashy way that doesn't particularly illuminate—
—but happily, playwright Moses is up to something smarter, even turning a light on what may be his own motives for writing it. This more knowing perspective informs the usual phases: jealousy, revised feelings, hanging on, attempts to reconnect, responsibility met and dropped (on both sides), lagging behind, catching up...and all that, in a production splendidly directed by Pam MacKinnon, make The Four of Us very worth the effort. The play seems, because of its simplicity of presentation, a sure-fire bet for lots of regional productions too.