by Simon Gray
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Starring Nathan Lane with Dana Ivey
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Jay Presson Allen
Based on the novel by Muriel Sparks
Directed by Scott Ellis
Starring Cynthia Nixon
by Simon Mendes de Costa
Directed by Jerry Zaks
With Matthew Arkin, Mark Linn-Baker,
Patricia Kalember and Michelle Pawk
A Chorus Line
Book by Nicholas Dante & James Kirkwood
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Ed Kleban
Original Direction by Michael Bennett
Re-Staged by Baayork Lee & Thommie Walsh
by Kathleen Clark
Starring Penny Fuller & Larry Keith
Directed by Judith Ivey
Written and Directed by Neil LeBute
Starring Ed Harris
by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Robin Lefevre
Starring Philip Bosco & Swoozie Kurtz
Reviewed by David Spencer
In the twelve years of this 'zine's history, I have had to, on occasion, default to writing capsule review round-ups when time limitations forbade my writing individual reviews for each theatre piece—but I think this is the first time that I have had to allow that fate to befall a number of mainstream Broadway offerings as well. (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.") But my trip to the UK for the International New Musicals Festival in Cardiff, Wales (where my and Stephen Witkin's The Fabulist is being presented, along with four others) has just about taken over my life, let alone my schedule (I am in fact logging part of this on the plane, the rest of it from Glasgow), so in order to stay timely, brevity—or whatever I do to approximate it—is my only salvation. So with apologies, here goes:
Nathan Lane doesn't quite claim the role of Ben Butley for his own until deep into the first of its two acts. Before then, the early-70s echoes of the part's originating player, the late Alan Bates, are too deep, too ingrained, and—even if they were introduced after the script was actually written by British playwright Simon Gray—too inescapable in the very rhythms of the lines, the scathing wit of the helplessly relationship-poisoning, self-destructive college English professor. And it's a performance Mr. Lane knows well, having seen it onstage and in the film, which he has discussed in at least one interview. (It was a seminal stage performance in my life too, and my knowing the film was enhanced by owning the Caedmon spoken-word soundtrack album.) But once that mid-act mark is passed, and Mr. Lane has gotten the audience laughing and liking Butley in spite of himself (as indeed all the people he abuses do too, until they can no longer survive him), the role starts to drift away from Bates's tart, bullet delivery and begins to mold itself around Lane's core persona. Butley then becomes a sad elf, who must elicit laughter and acquiescence, even on pain of his own spiritual death. There are moments when Butley's compulsions are almost a black comic nightmare: the issue of a man watching himself perform, trying to maintain the facade of bewilderment and affront as things go awry, but too self aware to kid himself. It's a deft account of personal tragedy.
I'm not sure the play holds up quite as much as Lane's performance. It seems more like a vehicle for an actor with a talent for acerbic quippery than ever, though under the direction of Nicholas Martin the two principal supporting players who are among Butlety's "satellites"—the soon-to-be ex-lover and an older, fussy yet formidable colleague—are played to perfection by Julian Ovendon and Dana Ivey, respectively. Alas, the remaining supporting players are cast less memorably; it may be that, because the roles are merely archetypes for Butley to play against, they're harder to populate with actors to match the leads in flair and nuance. No one acquits themselves badly, but you're still aware of a discrepancy, which makes the suspension of disbelief just that little bit harder.
A less conspicuous vehicle is the revival of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Jay Presson Allen, based on a short novel by Muriel Spark. A wartime (WWII) story set in Scotland, it offers a title character of dubious morals and even more dubious politics who is a charismatic teacher of teenage girls. The play puts forth the notion that she is a fundamentally unhealthy influence on her charges, and indeed her emphasis on free-thinking in provocative contexts—as well as her attempts to mold each child according to the plan she sees best—would be enough to make most education boards raise an eyebrow. But by today's standards she is a mild offender, so you weirdly root for her as long as she is able to turn situations to her advantage and best administration at its own game.
In the revival, directed by Scott Elliott, Cynthia Nixon is a credible and effective Brodie...but she seems more bad-girl vampy than flat-out dangerous, which is a matter of Ms. Nixon's—I have to use the expression again—core persona. The rest of the company are more happily cast than the balance of the Butley ensemble, making likewise "satellite" roles more rewarding—John Pankow, Lisa Emery and Caroline Lagerfelt among those so featured—but one must admit, as satellite roles go, they're more rewardingly written too—which may have a lot to do with it.
At the Bitlmore, the Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway season opens with Losing Louie, the Americanized version of a British comedy by Simon Mendes de Costa. Seemingly very much influenced by Alan Ayckbourn, the play presents two timelines simultaneously: that of the title character, Louie (Scott Cohen), a young man about to become a father (via wife [Rebecca Creskoff] and mistress [Jama Williamson]), and, decades later the two adult brothers (Matthew Arkin, Mark Linn-Baker) who must see to burying the deceased old man, their wives, one brassy (Michelle Pawk) one sophisticated (Patricia Kalember) in tow.
There are some nicely human encounters, especially between the brothers, resolving old issues, but as the laff-out-loud comedy the play means to be, it fails, many of the exchanges played out to what seems mild audience interest, but laughter that is limited at best (until the climactic confrontation, which works nicely).
Bear in mind, this play has been a bigass hit in the UK and Australia. And while, certainly it has been proven that not all comedy translates across the pond in either direction, something about this script, plus the tenor of the overseas reviews, seems to indicate that this one, because its concerns are universal and not localized should work better. Why doesn't it?
There's no way to know for sure, but at a guess I'd say two things: the rhythm of the lines may simply call for the original British delivery. Monty Python doesn't sound right with American accents, nor would The Avengers. Why should de Costa? And—
—the director is Jerry Zaks. A talented fellow, to be sure, but never with matters of the heart, which he tends to render in clinical fashion. This play, being all about heart (despite its structural machinations) may simply be resisting his imprimatur. I have a feeling the climactic scene between the brothers works as well as it does because it "sits down" for a long time, and Zaks simply doesn't have the opportunity to get in its way. Arkin and Linn-Baker, left alone to have at each other, seem to find something that Zaks can't, or doesn't want to, otherwise access.
Now we come to the revival of A Chorus Line at the Schoenfeld. Okay, candidly and with respect, I don't know what color the sky is in Times critic Ben Brantley's universe, but his first night screed about how the current company seems like some kind of adequate road tour without the spark of the original is bewildering. Listen, kids, I saw the original cast too, and downtown at the Public Theatre to boot, and hey guess what, I also saw the stunning gala performance when it became what was then the longest-running show on Broadway (a performance that brought together multiple casts in an ingenious, once-in-a-lifetime event)—and this cast holds its own perfectly well. Do I regret not being old enough to have seen Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady? Well, sure, I suppose. But I got to see Ian Richardson and Christine Andreas in the 20th Anniversary revival, who made the roles totally their own and then some. Yes of course, there's a thing to being there at the start (Hal Prince's belief is because that's when everyone's asses are on the line, and nothing can recreate that excitement), but if you can't recreate the sense of discovery, you can stil resurrect the sense of spirit, and in this revival, co-stagers Baayork Lee and Thommie Walsh, recreating Michael Bennett's original staging, have done a pretty damn magical job. And the cast, too many to single out here, have mostly been successful at making the familiar and now-classic roles their own.
At Primary Stages, Southern Comforts is a very sweet play, and proves the kind of thing that would do well for any theatre with an older audience subscription base. Indeed, it's about a widow (Penny Fuller) and a widower (Larry Keith)—each as different from each other in sensibility as can be—getting an unexpected second chance at love and married life. A program note by playwright Kathleen Clark leads one to believe this will be a much deeper exploration of the situation than what emerges, but a gentle comedy that seems cut from the same cloth as Same Time, Next Year has been missing from the contemporary marketplace for quite some time and this one will leave mature audiences smiling and satisfied. As to its (I assume) premiere production at the 59E59 Theatre, Fuller and Keith are delightful old pros with vigorous spirits, and the direction of veteran actor Judith Ivey (who would herself be brilliant in Ms. Fuller's role) is both seamless and invisible.
In Neil LaBute's Wrecks at the Public Theatre we have a widower of a different sort. This one-actor show features Ed Harris as a middle-aged man who has lost his somewhat older (but not old) wife to cancer. Speaking to us from the funeral home (in a strangely poetic "out of body" way; he confides in us as he comments on his simultaneous behavior on the other side of the coffin, where he is presumably mingling with the other mourners), he ruminates on the deterioration of society and the rareness of the kind of true, lasting love he had with his wife, He harps on the idyllic romance so hard that you know either (1) like Hickey in Iceman, he's protesting too much; or (2) there just has to be some unusual dynamic in place that we don't know about...yet. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but Wrecks favors the latter. However, Mr. LaBute cannot reveal it very long after dropping his clues, or the audience would be way ahead of him, so he does what he can, by way of social commentary and anecdote, to delay the big secret until the last five minutes. The play means to make us examine our own feelings about love—i.e. should a relationship that seemed perfectly fine when we thought it was X be condemned after the fact for actually being Y, even though it was in all other respects functional and positive? I don't know the answer to the question, but at least Mr. LaBute and Mr. Harris ask it about a woman rather than a goat. In that regard, the play strikes me as an engaging enough parlor trick, and Ed Harris's performance far better and more compelling than that.
The Roundabout's new staging of Heartbreak House was rather a disappointment for me, and I don't know if it was Robin LeFevre's production or the George Bernard Shaw play itself—but for all its being a metaphor about the upper classes being feckless and oblivious despite political upheaval all around them, a metaphor that theoretically should speak to the condition of America under right wing leadership, I found it only admirable, never involving. Its romantic entanglements also—and I think this is in the writing—are about alliance and philosophy more than attraction and sex, and that, to me, also leant the play a feeling of unreality. The actors—a stalwart group including Philip Bosco, Laila Robins, Swoozie Kurtz, Lily Rabe, John Christopher Jones, and Byron Jennings among others—all invest in their roles with dignity and conviction, yet there is (or was, again, for me) a passionless feeling at the core, that no amount of A+ work was able to eradicate. I may be very alone here, so check out other critical opinions before you let my feelings dissuade you.