AISLE SAY New York

END OF SEASON REVIVALS (2010)

LEND ME A TENOR
by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Stanley Tucci
Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Tony Shalhoub, Justin Bartha and Jan Maxwell
Music Box Theatre
Official Website

FENCES
by August Wilson
Directed by Kenny Leon
Starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis
Cort Theatre
Official Website

THE GLASS MENAGERIE
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by George Edelstein
Starring Judith Ivey
A Production of the Roundabout Theatre Company
at the Laura Pels Theatre
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

I’m sorry to be reviewing three important revivals in brief, but, as often happens toward season’s end—when new openings arrive in force, the better to make awards deadlines—the obligations of teaching, theatre writing and family have a way of thwarting even my best time management (and mine is at best moderate when I have to juggle). The good news?: All the revivals are excellent, so I can in good conscience forego detailed analysis and just tell you why you might spend your theatre dollars in equally good conscience.

 

The revival of Lend Me a Tenor, a hotel-room screwball farce by Ken Ludwig set in the 30s, about a visiting Italian tenor scheduled to make a guest appearance in Othello and all that ensues when things don’t go quite as planned, always struck me as a middling script—amusing without being exceptional. The original production of some 20 years ago, directed by Jerry Zaks, was utterly competent, but never sold me and I never quite understood its long-run stamina.

                        Under the helmsmanship of revival director Stanley Tucci, the current staging makes me a much more enthusiastic proponent. I don’t know if the script is any better than I thought it was, but that’s because it is, in general, cast so much better, and additionally, Tucci has the cast giving it all such humanist nuance—without losing a shred of expert timing, nor sacrificing the energy of a heightened playing style—that I cared about the people more and concentrated on the structural aspects far less. Directing a farce so that it’s funny and its mechanics work with Swiss watch precision hard enough—but eliciting audience sympathy into the bargain? Rare as a good, new farce itself.

                        In an across-the-board splendid cast, Anthony LaPaglia as the opera singer proves an unexpectedly brilliant farceur, and carries a tune just well enough to pull off the brief musicality required as well. Tony Shalhoub sheds his Monk-ish neuroses for even more extravagant clowning, here a master of the slow-burn into explosion school of comedy, with brilliant physical humor as well, shamelessly pushing the boundaries of the fourth wall. And Jan Maxwell, who would seem to be Broadway’s Reigning All-Purpose, Can-Do-No-Wrong, Whatever-You-Need-Her-ForActress Of Middle Age, proves herself eminently worthy of the non-existent but entirely accurate title, pulling out all the stops as the singer’s tempestuous wife.

 

The revival of Fences by August Wilson strikes me, likewise, as an even more successful iteration of this African-American family play than its 1987 premiere production, because although the original was powerful indeed, with a good deal of that power coming from the central performance of James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson—the hard working patriarch trying to hold it together for his second family in Pittsburgh of 1957—along with Mr. Jones also came a somewhat older-generation Troy, and, due to girth and an actor’s instrument that automatically generates grand gesture, a larger-than-life portrait. And absolutely nothing wrong with that—but I find Denzel Washington, currently in the same role, to be more troubling, because in having more of a kitchen-sink-real persona, his character’s contradictions hit closer to the bone, which makes it all the more painful, and his rage all the more volatile, when his better nature and the limits of his perspective are at war with each other. Which is not to say Washington hasn’t charisma to spare. However he may have fallen short of the mark as Brutus in 2005’s Julius Caesar, here he reclaims (or perhaps renews) his star-worthy chops.

                        Along the same lines, it’s as notable, I think, that Santo Loquasto’s set design is for a neighborhood a rung or two down from the likewise poor but somewhat less beaten one of the original production. Here you can sense the very architecture adding to Troy’s pressures.

                        Rounding out the cast under the fine direction of Kenny Leon—who seems to have become the definitive Wilson interpreter for the new millennium—are two seasoned Wilson veterans: Viola Davis and Stephen McKinley Henderson, along with Russell Hornsby, Mikelti Williamson and Chris Chalk.

 

The Glass Menagerie, great play though it is, is anything but foolproof. My favorite version has long been one that wasn't even on stage, but rather the 1973 TV movie starring Katherine Hepburn, Sam Waterston, Joanna Miles, and Michael Moriarty, directed by Anthony Harvey; I suppose because it captures the delicacy and heartbreak of the piece with a degree of nuance rarely achieved...but as much, it occurs to me only with years’ hindsight, that it does so also with a stylistic sensibility that speaks to its time, whereas most of the stage versions I've seen have only been dutiful mountings of varied quality.

                        "Speaking to the sensibility of one's own era" while still staging a period piece is not easy, because you have to do it without violating the source material's integrity or verisimilitude. And it tends to be borne of a newer, organic understanding, informed by new freedoms to express the kinds of nuances that in previous eras would have been taboo, or seemed too stark; or, with the material still in the wake of its earlier impact, simply hadn’t been investigated yet. They amount to an ongoing conversation with the material. And director George Edelstein’s production is loaded with several significant ones. (None of which may be unique to him, but I’ve not seen them implemented before.).

                        And here they are: (1) He actually stages it in the confines of a hotel room in which Tom resides after the fact of the play, and we actually see Tom (Patrick Darraugh) writing about his sister Laura (Keira Keeley) and mother Amanda (Judith Ivey), conjuring them as he does. He is not therefore the observer who steps outside of his growing-up home; it is rather the home that invades and haunts his space. (2) Tom is gently yet conspicuously portrayed as homosexual. (3) Laura’s pathological shyness is made to go deeper than just “social misfit”; now this is not a new approach, but I found the shadings and overall authenticity of it fresh and unique. Finally and most interesting (4) mother Amanda doesn’t come off as a controlling, repressive matriarch (however sympathetic at times); but rather a resourceful survivor trying to keep her family going in a hand-to-mouth existence as best she can. Indeed, Tom’s retrospective  view of her now seems a little harsh. It’s a fascinating new dynamic.

                        All the performances are splendid, with Judith Ivey—as ever and of course—giving a virtuosic and memorable turn. Add Michael Mosley as one of the most persuasive and charming gentleman callers I’ve ever seen, and you’ve got a Glass Menagerie that is both newly humanized for a new generation, yet utterly faithful to its origins. No mean feat, that. And highly recommended.


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