BACK IN NY (And in Brief)

by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone
Directed by Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw
Eugene O'Neill Theatre on W49th Street
Official Website

by David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Starring Frances McDormand, Tate Donovan and Estelle Parsons
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on W47th Street
A Production of The Manhattan Theatre Club

(New Stars)
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Terry Johnson
Starring Harvey Fierstein and Christopher Sieber
Longacre Theatre on W48th Street
Official Website

by John Cecil Holmes and George Abbott
Directed by Scott Alan Evans
A Production of
the TACT Theatre Company
at Theatre Row on W42nd Street

by Abe Burrows
Based on a play by Barillet & Gredy
Directed by Michael Bush
Westside Arts on W43rd Street
Official Website

by Sharr White
Starring Laurie Metcalf and Dennis Boutsikaris
Directed by Joe Mantello
Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street
A Production of MCC Theater

by Tom Stoppard
Directed by David Leveaux
Starring Lia Williams, Raúl Esparza, Margaret Colin, Billy Crudup
Barrymore Theatre on W47th Street
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

The following “in briefs” will be “in briefer” than usual, I’m afraid. My trip to London was productive and terrific, but it put me waaaayyy behind the 8-ball as far as critic-ing is concerned, and what with having had to file a London report as well, I had to take a few shortcuts in order to catch up. These are those and I thank you in advance for your indulgence. (Links to official websites and ticket info are in the headers above.)

I don’t really have a “conflict of interest” policy I hold to from case to case, when the authorship of a show involves a current-or-former student, or someone I know well enough to consider a colleague or a friend, (or on rare occasion even a collaborator!), but I’m thinking I should not go into detail much about The Book of Mormon. Its co-author Robert Lopez is an old friend (he even wrote the foreword to my book, The Musical Theatre Writer's Survival Guide), and we have too many inter-connections for a review to seem entirely appropriate…plus, aside from a minor and idiosyncratic caveat that seems unique to me (I’ve not seen it articulated anywhere else, and no, I won’t articulate it here), I don’t have much otherwise to add to the solid wall of approbation the show has received. It’s a vastly entertaining monster hit and deserves to be. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

Some people leave the Old Neighborhood and achieve a level of success that lets them put a great deal of distance between who they’ve become and who they were then. Some people never leave the Old Neighborhood, and not only hold the past—the good and the bad of it—close, but find themselves driven by it, and daily living out its repercussions. Neither side of this equation has a lock on nobility, and ultimately people take the path that they’re dispositionally suited to take—at least so implies David Lindsay-Abaire’s new comedy-drama Good People. But that’s something those people sometimes need to learn for themselves, and sometimes a collision between the Leavers and the Stayers is the teacher. In this case the stayer is Margaret (Frances McDormand) who has problems holding down a blue-collar job, owing to being a single mother with a retarded daughter of young adult age; and the leaver is Mike (Tate Donovan), a successful doctor. Who were once, briefly involved, in a way that would invite the curious to Do the Math.
A wise, knowing and ultimately very sweet play, it has been given fine, sensitive direction by Daniel Sullivan and excellent performances by a small cast that also includes Estelle Parsons, Becky Ann Baker, Patrick Carroll and  Renneé Elise Goldsberry.

There’s but a month left (at this writing) to see the latest revival of La Cage Aux Folles with its new lead players, and if you’ve not seen it before, I would recommend running to your favorite ticket outlet while you can. And if you have seen it…it’s worth considering a revisit. The production, imported from London’s Mernier Chocolate Factory is a little jewel box gem under the direction of Terry Johnson and it now boasts the allure of Christopher Sieber  as Georges, the “straight” man of the gay couple and the host-owner of the French Riviera nightclub from which the show gets its title. He is suave, funny, almost impossibly charming and, in his moments as emcee on the stage of the club, he works us, the real audience, better and more entertainingly than any Georges I’ve ever seen. And as the flamboyant star drag queen of the club, Albin…well, at long last it’s being played by the show’s librettist, Harvey Fierstein himself. He does have that sandpaper rasp of a voice, which prevents nuances of beauty or vocal dexterity, when he sings—but doesn’t hamstring him a bit in terms of musicality and interpretation. Likewise, there’s an extravagantly grand ownership of the role’s sentimental side and comedy, unique to Mr. Fierstein’s bigness of heart, and sense of irony. It’s a little as if the author-star of Torch Song Trilogy—his early ‘80s triumph about a young drag-queen—has completed some kind of bookended arc, tying up with a bow not his career—which is far from over or ready for its swan song—but a journey from gay activist to mainstream institution.

The TACT theatre company seems to have a hit on their hands with a revival of the bet-on-the-horses screwball comedy Three Men on a Horse, at least to the extent that the run has been extended.  Scott Alan Evanss direction is a little on the broad side, but he never abandons playing for real-stakes, so he never gets into the area of obnoxious overkill. His seems a legitimate enough approach to the material and to evoking its era.
The problem, though, is that while the evening is amiable enough, the play itself is simply not that funny anymore. It’s not merely that so many of the one-funny lines fail to elicit laughter—it’s that they don’t even sound like jokes anymore, merely like functional dialogue that has been pumped with the locution of extreme archetypes.
As a sweetly delivered museum piece, there may well be something to recommend Three Men on a Horse—but you won’t find the “rollicking laugh riot” part preserved. That has been forever lost to time…

The sex comedy Cactus Flower has lost even more of its luster—which was a product of the mid-60s, in which a certain kind of teasy-naughty sexy comedy was a staple of pre-liberated Broadway fare. I guess I can understand why a creative team would become fascinated with the idea of resurrecting a dead genre—especially in the wake of British director Matthew Warchus’s reanimation of the door-slamming sex farce Boeing-Boeing three seasons ago—and it’s a not-insignificant statistic that Cactus Flower was among the three most successful sex comedies of its era. But as each era’s comedies about sex prove, these pieces are disposable commodities, made instantly obsolete each time the boundaries that define what’s risqué widen. To go into detail about the production itself (especially while writing in brief) or to wonder at its gestation is simply to direct criticism toward people who had an impossible, thankless task from the start. I’ll leave this one be. And you do the same.

I’m rather glad to be writing of Sharr White’s excellent play The Other Place in brief because it relieves me of finding ways to dance around describing its plot without giving anything important away. I had the great blessing of not knowing anything about it when I attended, so the discovery of what’s really going on with its seemingly self-possessed lead character—a pharmaceutical executive named Juliana (Laurie Metcalf, giving what may be the tour de force performance of her career)—took me by surprise, as I hope it takes you. This is a wonderful, compelling “page turner” of a play and I daresay the less you allow yourself to know going in, the more it’ll rock you as you experience it. It’s a production of MCC which is perhaps arguably most notable for having pushed Margaret Edson’s play W;t into high profile. Well, The Other Place is very much on a par, with a supporting cast (Dennis Boutsikaris, Aya Cash and John Schiappa) and direction (Joe Mantello) to match. 80 intermissionless minutes that make up what may be the single most “must see” non-revival play of the season so far.

I’m also glad to be writing in brief of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia because I’ve always found the complex narrative of this play—which takes place on two parallel timelines in an English manor estate: during the past when what will be historical events are happening; and in “the present” (which in this revival’s staging and propping has been updated to now, more or less) where an onsite team of historians are trying to piece together events to get at an elusive truth—to be a bear to summarize. And in part (I must admit) because, even knowing it, I still find it a challenge to follow.
A worthwhile, rich and fascinating play it is, though, worth the effort (as are most in the Stoppard canon). The production comes by way of the West End, with its British star (Lia Williams) and an otherwise American cast of stellar players under the excellent direction of David Leveaux (including Margaret Colin, Raúl Esparza, Byron Jennings and most intriguingly, Billy Crudup, who made his Broadway theatrical bones in the original 1995 NYC debut of the play at Lincoln Center, under the direction of Trevor Nunn). This is not a play to attend casually or unrested—it makes demands on you, on your ability to follow complex thought and make subtle connections. But if you embrace that going in, you’ll find Arcadia more than rewards you for being complicit in its game of concentration.

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