by Sam Shepard
Directed by Scott Elliott
Featuring Ed Harris
and Amy Madigan
The New Group
at the Signature Center

by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Michael Grandage
Starring Forest Whitaker
with Frank Wood
Booth Theatre

by John Hodge
Directed by Peter Dobbins
Storm Theatre

by Michael Frayn
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Roundabout Theatre Co.
at the American Airlines Theatre

by James Ortiz
Adapted from the Oz books
of L. Frank Baum
Directed by James Ortiz
and Claire Karpen
New World Stages
Official Website

by Hazel Ellis
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Mint Theatre
at Stage II City Center

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Starring Christian Camargo
Theatre for a New Audience
at Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Book by Chazz Palminteri
based on his Play and Screenplay
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Directed by Jerry Zaks and
Robert DiNiro
Paper Mill Playhouse


Reviewed by David Spencer

A revival of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child is a natural fit for both The New Group and the directorial imprimatur of its artistic director Scott Elliott, master of a kind of naturalism, and it’s also a piece of material that “goes dark” without also wallowing in the pool of depraved indifference (sometimes Mr. Elliot is either hard pressed to note the difference or happy to embrace the depravity under the guise of bleak comedy). Oh, there’s some disturbing stuff going on, but treatment is everything, and Shepard is a master at presenting all that with genuinely comic darkness.

            And what he presents us with is a three generations of a Southern (possibly Texan) family: Dodge, a aging, health-challenged but still in-charge patriarch (Ed Harris); his loud, gossipy wife (Amy Madigan); his two grown sons, slow-witted Tilden (Paul Sparks), brutish one-legged Bradley (Rich Sommer); and, making an impromptu visit after six years, grandson Vince (Nat Wolff), son of Tilden and—well, who knows about Vince’s mother.

            And they all have a secret.

            Vince arrives with a college girlfriend, Shelley (Taissa Farmiga) in tow, who reacts to all the weirdness with an appropriate sense of WTF. Which is a nice balance to the family pastor, Father Dewis (Larry Pine), who, when he shows up, takes it all with an ineffectual haplessness.

            The pace is measured, the narrative is in no hurry, and worth the price of admission alone is Ed Harris’s crusty, bemusedly cynical Dodge. Well, worth it if you’re willing to go for the ride. I was.


Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie is almost more character sketch than play. A gambler named Erie Smith, down on his luck, wanders into the lobby of the formerly posh, now downscale hotel that is his home, after a five-day bender—the grief-stricken time he’s needed to recover from the death of his pal and muse, Hughie, predecessor of the night clerk who has taken Hughie’s place. Erie starts to tell the new guy about the old guy, the saga unfurls and, in the fullness of time, the new guy behind the desk seems like he might be the new sounding board and foil in Erie’s life and that’s sort of it.

            Virtually the only thing this play can have going for it is a kind of authenticity of delivery (if not the kind of past master virtuosity of a Jason Robards), and, sad to say, that of Forrest Whitaker goes in and out. He seems more to be playing at a ‘20s-style gambler, via mid application of the kind of familiar Noo Yawk slangy accent as heard in films of the period; beyond that, while I certainly clocked sincerity and intelligence, I didn’t sense that Whitaker was otherwise filling his space, and that made me very aware of an actor at work. By contrast, Frank Wood as the listless Night Manager is right in the zone; but he’s not enough to bring you into a Broadway house for a 60 minute show.

            Direction, for whatever it amounted to, is by Michael Grandage.


A few years ago, seeing John Hodge’s play Collaborators as part of the National Theatre Live screenings, I thought it was, however unofficially for being an onscreen import, the best play of the season. Having recently seen its North American premiere off-off Broadway (it deserved a higher octane venue) as produced by The Storm Theatre Company, I’m not sure I would have come away with the same impression, but given the resources and remote location of the theatre (a basement space in a Church on Grand Street), director Peter Dobbins and his cast didn’t do too badly. Rooted in one mysterious historical fact—that famed anti-establishment novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (Brian J. Carter) authored a bio drama in praise of Josef Stalin (Ross DeGraw), the public figure you’d expect him to be the first to criticize and the last to honor—Hodges has delved into the genre of drama that posits a historical meeting that in all likelihood never took place, and whose dramatized development absolutely never took place, to create a devastating little study in the power of art against tyranny vs. the power of tyranny to manipulate the artist (and secondarily about the objective of social satire vs. the reality of what’s being satirized). In the play’s fanciful scenario, Stalin seeks Bulgakov out and proposes a unique kind of collaboration. Benign at first, and appealing to Bulgakov’s sense of righteous outrage against abuse of power—because Stalin agrees to write his own hagiographic play under Bulgakov’s name, while having Bulgakov assess econoic crises to make decisions under Stalin’s name—it slowly reveals itself to be the perfect Deal With the Devil.

            As Bulgakov, Brian J. Carter centered his choices around an unprepossessing bookishness, which for my money made him too easy a mark for Stalin; and Ross DeGraw’s fine, comic, volatile Stalin never quite crossed the endgame line into full-blown monster; but the play retained its ability to fascinate and provoke, and under the circumstances, I accorded that victory enough. May their production have somehow broken the ice toward the major NYC production this work deserves.


Noises Off, winding up its Roundabout revival run over the next few weeks has proved itself an astonishingly durable farce—incredibly, this is its second Broadway revival—and is technically among the hardest to pull off. It can also be something of an acquired taste; if your expectation is a more usual farce that piles on ever more convoluted plot complications in fervent pursuit of a goal, you may find yourself underwhelmed (I was, first time I saw it too). But Michael Frayn’s play reverses the usual paradigm by deconstructing a situation, in this case a play within the play (itself a farce) whose production, when we first encounter it, is in dress rehearsal. In a way, the goal has been achieved, or nearly so; but among the company there are just enough backstage human foibles and onstage imperfections that in the crunch, things fall apart. It’s unique for being a farce of devolution.

            Once appreciated, though, there are tremendous pleasures in seeing it done well, and the current revival is about as excellent a delivery as one might hope for. Aside from the complex physical business and its Swiss watch timing, the cast, under the direction of Jeremy Herrin, have each found an unusually authentic attuning of part and persona, for a farce that is—by which I don’t mean that in any wise they’re playing themselves, but I do mean that they seem to be; they’ve been encouraged to dig beneath the tropes—and there’s something terribly endearing about that. The revival’s payout is, to appropriate a phrase, a fine madness.


The Woodsman tells the origin story—the actual one, as devised by L. Frank Baum—of the Tin Man of Oz, how via love and enchantment, he was transformed from a flesh and blood man to a life force encased in metal. An ensemble of actors and puppeteers, Strangeman & Co. has rather ingeniously found a way to tell the tale with a bare minimum of actual text, almost all of it transitional, and scenes that rely on wordless vocalization, mime and physicality for actual storytelling. Creator-director, puppet-and-set designer James Ortiz has spearheaded a variation of black box techniques, in which this moody, magical, somewhat foreboding vision of Oz (well, it is a prequel), its non-human occupants, sights and sound effects, are conjured from a deceptively nondescript assemblage of available pieces in an abstract forest. Most ingenious is the witch and the ever-less-human title character.

            Also ingenious is that the brief spoken set-up text is easily translatable to any language; with the actual drama as a thing beyond language, The Woodsman, I believe, has international aspirations. As well it may. It comes by them honestly. It’s not a stretch to envision multiple companies trained and popping up under the auspices of a franchise. Oz done well, as we know, can have that kind of magic too.


The “lost plays” specialist, the Mint Theatre, is currently presenting one of only two plays—acclaimed though they were in her time—by Irish dramatist Hazel Ellis. This one, from 1938, with the unfortunate but no doubt era-appropriate title of Women Without Men. A decently absorbing light drama with a very good cast and understated direction by Jenn Thompson, it’s about the personal/professional trials and tribulations of a girls’ boarding school staff. The title may be an era artifact, but it may also be ironic, for while Ms. Ellis’ play does make the odd acknowledgement about the difference between single life and married life in certain community settings, she doesn’t present her characters as being the worse for being on their own, but rather, seems to be making the tacit point that they can manage—and not manage—as efficiently as males, and this is but a candid glimpse behind the staff room doors. There’s some mild plotting and suspense, but most of it serves as a trigger for the particularization of personalities, and like any good “gathering” play (as I like to call them), Women With Men hits the archetypes of its clique, among them the idealistic newcomer (Emily Walton); the teacher who is lenient and well liked (Kate Middleton); the one who is strict, superior and merciless (Kelly Overbey); the tough administrator who’s both fairer and slyer than she seems (Joyce Cohen); the cool, seen-it-all veteran who stays out of the line of fire and knows the keys to survival if only people would listen (Mary Bacon, who is perhaps best of all, in the play’s subtlest role).


I wish I had something, anything, substantive to say about Pericles at the Polonsky Shakespeace Center in Brooklyn, but it’s considered among Shakespeare’s problem plays with serious justification; and though one understands why directors of note periodically take on the challenge, no amount of brilliance can fix it or even sufficiently patch it, basically because it features a title hero (Christian Camargo) who gets victimized by difficulties neither of his own making nor as a response to actions he has taken, said increasingly random difficulties extending to his eventual family—though after a 17-year break and a number of Shakespearean loose ends tied, there’s a happy ending after all. What Pericles has in its favor, of course is elegant language and some interesting supporting characters, but none of them keep Trevor Nunn’s well-designed, attractively cast production from being tough sledding in the first act. But he seems to be “working backward” as best he can from the emotional denouement that is the end of the play, so after the nearly-two-decades break in the action (aka the intermission, during which a not large, but noticeable number of people at my performance took flight) where the story machinery is put to better, pacier purpose, things pick up considerably, and some members of the audience are even moved. For any director assaying Pericles, achieving even that much has to be considered a good day.


My “conflict of interest” protocols vary, when writing reviews. When colleagues—in particular, collaborators—are involved, I can decide on silence for any number of reasons, sometimes having nothing to do with whether or not I like what they’ve worked on; but if I do like something, and the circumstances seem appropriate, I never see the harm in giving a thumb’s up, and so I do to the musical adaptation of Chazz Palminteri’s semi-autobiographical A Bronx Tale, having its world premiere as a musical—with Palminteri on book, Glenn Slater on lyrics, and Alan Menken (an aforementioned collaborator of yours truly)—at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, under the direction of Jerry Zaks with Robert DeNiro (a co-star of the film, based on Palminteri’s source play for one actor). It’s the story of a street kid taken under the wing of a mobster. The cast is swell, the score is spirited, catchy, memorable and often grand—

            —and more than that comes under the heading of things I might convey in private, if notes from me were ever requested. Comprehensively reviewing it in a public forum seems like forcing notes whether or not they’re requested, and that, for me, seems the proverbial bridge too far. So: my deal here, now, is simply recommending a show that I believe plenty worthy of both being seen as is and of further development. Consider that much done. I’ll just add enjoy and leave it there.

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