King Lear
by William Shakespeare
Directed by James Lapine
Starring Kevin Kline

Bill W. and Dr. Bob
by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey
Directed by Rick Lombardo
New World Stages

Journey's End
by R.C. Sherriff
Directed by David Grindlay
Belasco Theatre

Howard Katz

by Patrick Marber
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Alfred Molina
Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theatre

Defender of the Faith

by Stuart Carolan
Irish Repertory Theatre

The Coast of Utopia,
Part Three: Salvage
by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Jack O'Brien
Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center
Prelude to a Kiss

by Craig Lucas
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Starring Alan Tudyk, Annie Parisse and John Mahoney
Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

This is the busiest time of year for NYC theatre, and for a fellow with two other careers aside from critic, the time crunch can get especially intense. So rather than delay my and my colleagues' reviews beyond "farm freshness," I'm defaulting, this week (3/10/07), to a roundup—brief and capsule reviews, including, uncharacteristically, some mainstream Broadway offerings. (Not to imply that the less prominent productions are perforce less worthy, but the mainstream ones, most of them, "sit down" for a while, months or seasons, especially in the wake of favorable notices, and warrant detailed individual attention simply because the logistics of a review site's architecture "favor the runner.") So with brevity—or whatever I do to approximate it—being my only salvation, and with apologies, here goes:

     The pedigree of King Lear at the Papp/Public (Anspacher) would seem to make it a must-see. Kevin Kline as the misguided, tragic monarch, James Lapine as director, incidental music by Stephen Sondheim and Michael Starobin. And as such, it could not be more disappointing. In the manner of much Shakespeare these days, Mr. Lapine's production is set in a theatrical never-never land, with certain contemporary anachronisms of design and behavior to give it a streamlined and more immediate ambiance...but if there's point or prudent metaphor to the choice, it's made bland, partly due to the anachronisms being generic, partly due to there being no meaningfully acted or communicated relationships among the characters. We're not watching Lear and his three daughters, for example, but rather Kevin Kline somewhat clinically delivering Lear's upset (he seems more peeved than enraged) and three perfectly nice actresses of contrasting archetype. Even the music is bloodless and non-propulsive.

     By contrast, the final season of Slings & Arrows, currently on the Sundance Channel, is centered around the fictional New Burbage Festival's own production of Lear and even in excerpts used to punctuate a backstage comedy, it is a far superior rendering, with William Hutt getting to the heart of the matter, and the supporting players conveying life and death urgency. An 80s production of Lear presented by the Roundabout in its former East Village home, starring Hal Holbrook, was similarly gripping. The bottom line is, you have to care about these people and care passionately or it's all for naught. That said, I certainly don't mean to imply that the mssrs. Lapine and Kline lack passion (their resumes loudly prove otherwise)...but in the context of epic drama and the poetry of unchecked, grandiose emotion, it's a passion that seems without juice. Maybe that's because what we see is so clearly thought out, when what's supposed to propel the play is a man doomed by compulsion.


Compulsion of a different sort is explored in Bill W. and Doctor Bob, a clunky but earnest little melodrama about stockbroker Bill Wilson (Patrick Husted) and surgeon Dr. Bob Smith (Robert Krakovsky), two drunks whose need to reform turned them into the joint founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. The play by Stephen Bergman (aka pseudonymous House of God novelist "Samuel Shem") and Janet Surrey has its audience adherents, whose knowing laughter and exclamations of recognition mark them clearly as veteran twelve-steppers themselves (indeed, the play is a little bit like a meeting, as it opens with one of our leads saying, "My name is Bill and I'm an alcoholic" and, sure enough, the audience responding, unprompted, with, "Hi, Bill.") But for the rest of us—including any of you more discerning substance abusers—its good intentions don't compensate for a stuttering and repetitious dramatic structure, or dialogue that is frequently more baldly expositional that convincingly human, and when human, too prosaic to be terribly compelling.

     To be fair, it's not easy to dramatize a story of addiction recovery without a certain amount of boilerplate dogma taking over. In a way, each addict is an everyperson (the same excesses and rationalizations accompany the disease), and it follows that the philosophy of cure applies universally too, so for storytelling purposes, moving beyond propaganda to unique detail is key. The granddaddy of all such stories remains, of course, JP Miller's Days of Wine and Roses, about an "average" married couple destroyed by alcohol (first a teleplay with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie; then a movie with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick; and finally one of the most reprinted film novelizations ever, by the author of Von Ryan's Express, David Westheimer.) And even that one, in the cold light of the new millennium, seems a bit like a schematic case history. Glenn Gordon Caron's 1988 film Clean and Sober, starring Michael Keaton, is somewhat hipper; and SF author Barry B. Longyear's semiautobiographical novel about rehab, Saint Mary Blue, is perhaps best of all.

     But Bill W. and Doctor Bob presents an almost impossible challenge: how do you avoid the well-worn signatures of the template when telling the story of the guys who defined the template? I don't know the answer, but that, of course, is where art has to come in.

     Rick Lombardo's direction is commensurately clunky, and a company of players who seem deliberately cast to represent unremarkable, ordinary people are commensurately sufficient unto the task, but never transcendent.

       [A sidebar about the novelization of Days of Wine and Roses, for those who may be interested, for it is a classic of its type. David Westheimer's novelizer by-line is removed from all but the original movie tie-in edition, no doubt to obliterate the indicia of media merchandising from a title that Bantam Books would be able to mainstream for at least two decades, due to subject matter and pedigree. Once the film slipped out of the then-current zeitgeist, later printings -- which entered into the double digits -- would feature just original cover art, no movie photos, and cagily say only JP Miller's Days of Wine and Roses. A little recent web browsing revealed to me that Westheimer and Miller {who passed away in 2005 and 2002 respectively} were longtime friends, which is doubtless how Westheimer got the gig, and may well inform the likely financial decision to remove his name from the book’s later editions.]


I had the most bizarre thought while watching Journey's End, the revival (imported London production, American cast) of British writer R.C. Sherriff's 1928 play (based on his WWI experiences). I realized that in its trench outpost setting -- presenting what we would now take to be familiar army archetypes, but were then quite original portraits -- it provided more than a little inspiration, and was perhaps even an unofficial basis, for the fourth season of Rowan Atkinson's Brit-com, Blackadder, formally titled Blackadder Goes Forth. It's the final season in which the latter-generation scoundrel of the title, and all his latter-generation compatriots (prior seasons having featured their "ancestors" in previous eras of British history) are now transplanted into a dugout quarters in a foxhole in France. All Blackadder’s major WWI players have their parallels in Journey's End, but of course Sherriff's play shows the horrors and traumas of war straight up, sans satire.

     Which I mention because how affected you are by this earnest and well-wrought production, under the direction of David Grindley, may well depend on how easily you're able to shed your latter-day sophistication and step into the time capsule. If you can, you'll find a full-blooded, almost environmental ambiance (in terms of lighting and sound effects), and vigorously sculpted portraits, including the haunted young company commander (Hugh Dancy); the stabilizing older "uncle," second in command (Boyd Gaines in a remarkable, even startling departure from his earlier roles); the dry-witted cook who provides deadpan comic relief (Jefferson Mays); and the too-innocent, doom-marked new boy (Stark Sands)—among a number of memorable others. There isn't an ounce of apology or self-consciousness here, commitment is total, and all hands take it as seriously as war itself. Which is noble in an era where vivid reminders of war's awfulness are needed.


The downward spiral of a cockney-born talent agent whose biggest management challenge is that of his self-destructive anger, is dramatized with dark humor in Patrick Marber's intermissionless, 90 minute Howard Katz (a Roundabout Theatre production at the Laura Pels). It's a tricky proposition, making a distasteful central character empathetic, but God is in the details, and in giving us enough glimpses into the title character's guarded vulnerability, including his family background and his Jewish faith, Marber manages—and in that kind of management, a story that might otherwise be depressing is curiously life-affirming. It offers no easy answers nor feelgood solutions, but nor does it promulgate the misanthropy of hopelessness. In its quick succession of cinematically fluid scenes, in which a riveting Alfred Molina never leaves the stage, Howard Katz artfully reminds us that a dark journey need not be a soulless or depraved one. Perhaps this one works so well because even as he loses everything, Howard is trying to grasp at human dignity. And it's his potential for redemption that keeps us with him. Guiding a fine cast, director Doug Hughes, who has occasionally slipped a little under the high standard he brought to Doubt, is back at the top of his game.


This is all with a broad Irish brogue: if you don't mind a play whose three principle words are fook as a modifier, coont as an insult, and tout as the worst thing you can possibly be, you might well have a middlingly suspenseful time at Stuart Carolan's Defender of the Faith making its American debut, care of the Irish Repertory Company. We're on a farm in Northern Ireland, circa 1986s. There's a continually breaking family there, the wife/mother having left, with only the foul-tempered dad (Anto Nolan), his older, challenging son (Luke Kirby, of Slings & Arrows, season one), and a young son with a certain degree of innocence in the balance (Matt Ball)—because the doin's here are IRA doin's. And young Danny aside, it seems, according to a menacing IRA official (David Lansbury) that one of them, or perhaps the faithful old family friend and farmhand (Peter Rogan), is an informer for the Brits. (That would be a tout, the one word of the three mentioned that you might have needed defined. Suffice it to say, a tout is a fooking coont.)

     As family melodrama, Defender of the Faith isn't terribly powerful because there's no one really to care about. All concerned, including a character who cannot be identified lest it blow a plot point (but played with cool seductiveness by Marc Arden Gray), are bereft of nobility or even consequential personal loyalty. So that leaves us with the show as a thriller. And there it is somewhat more successful. Mr. Carolan is as adept at planting red herrings as clues, so the solution to the mystery, and the consequence of its discovery, is—pointedly, I think—not what you expect. But because the characters aren't emotionally engaging—and don't even have the compensation of wit to give them dark charm or the validity for fascination—you don't react to the outcome with a quickening of your pulse so much as the arch of your eyebrow. The cast is as good as one limited to manifestations of fook, coont and tout can be, and Ciaran O'Reilly has directed the dirty tale quite cleanly.


I'm afraid I really don't have that much to add to my original review of The Coast of Utopia, now that I've seen the third part of Tom Stoppard's trilogy at Lincoln Center. I found part three, Salvage, to be as much a distancing literary conceit as parts one and two, with the personal drama and the political background never satisfactorily meshing or even complementing each other. Follow this link to my review of the earlier installments and you'll pretty much have the story—from my point of view at least.


Finally, there's a sweet revival of Craig Lucas's gentle romantic comedy, Prelude to a Kiss, also on offer via the Roundabout, at their Broadway space, the American Airlines Theatre.

     On the wedding day of our narrator Peter (Alan Tudyk) and Rita (Annie Parisse), anunknown Old Man (John Mahoney) wanders into the ceremony. He seems merely to want to wish the couple well, and is permitted to kiss the bride, but when he does, something happens: he and the bride trade consciousness—no, souls—his going into her body, hers going into his. Naturally it takes a little bit for Peter to tweak to what's happened, but once he does he has to rectify it somehow; not so easy as "Rita" is enjoying herself far too much and "The Old Man" is nowhere to be found...

     The play, of course, examines the theme of what we fall in love with, when we fall in love, if indeed the soul's authenticity can triumph over physical attraction, and if indeed the true soul can be recognized when attraction is taken away. This being a romantic comedy, the answer is of course yes. (I've recently heard it offered that the play's gentle metaphors were also meant to comment on the AIDS crisis—i.e. the liason that leads to premature degeneration and a cessation of physical love—and I suppose I can see that as an extra dimension, a concept the author may have in mind to help shape the contours of narrative, to give even more depth to the heartbreak and yearning before the resolution—the kind of thing the late screenwriter David Shaber told me is part of how an artist reaches toward excellence—but I prefer to think of Prelude in simpler terms: as an ideal, maybe the ultimate, date play.)

     Though the comedy of Daniel Sullivan's new production isn't quite as edgy as Norman Rene's original, it seems consciously meant to be a softer approach, and that's just fine, for the delicate charm of the piece remains intact, as conveyed by its three expertly low-key leads. Since the story isn't era specific, the author has done a very minor bit of updating to make us feel the immediacy of the new millennium...but other than that the play hasn't been hurt at all...

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