Book by Thomas Meehan & Bob Martin
Music by Matthew Sklar
Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Directed by Eric Ankrim
Based on the screenplay by
David Berenbaum
Paper Mill Playhouse

by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by Scott Ellis
Starring Bradley Cooper,
Patricia Clarkson & Alessandro Nivola
Booth Theatre
Official Website

by Ayad Akhtar
Directed by
Ken Rus Schmoll
New York Theatre Workshop

by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Davis McCallum
Featuring T.R. Knight
Playwrights Horizons

by Sam Shepard
Directed by Nancy Meckler,
Signature Theatre

Book by Duane Poole
Music by Larry Grossman
Lyrics by Carol Hall
Starring Alice Ripley
Directed by Charlotte Moore
A Production of the
Irish Repertory Company
at the DR2 theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

What with so much going on personally and professionally, I risk falling too far behind if I try for full-length reviews this holiday season, so here’s a very quick roundup for the day after Christmas. I’m glad to say that most of the news is happy. Most of it.

                  There couldn’t be a better or more Broadway-worthy staging of the Christmas musical Elf than the one currently at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. The entire creative team and cast are different than either engagement of the Broadway iteration, but the sensibility and musical comedy brio are just as fine. My opinio of the piece as a whole hasn’t changed from its Broadway debt, reviewed here: — but substitute the names of the new production team (lead by director Eric Ankrim) and the current cast featuring James Moye (Buddy), Kate Fahrner (Jovie), Paul C. Vogt (Santa), and as the Hobbs family, Heidi Blickenstaff, Robert Cuccioli and Jake Faragalli, and you have pretty much the same joyous appraisal.

                  The second Broadway revival of The Elephant Man is far more effective than the last and far more in keeping with the spirit of the debut NY production that transferred from what is now the York Theatre to Broadway in 1979. As usual with the revivals directed by Scott Ellis, there’s a little bit of ultimately harmless casting experimentation, but nothing that violates the sensibility of the piece, which is rendered here with a clean, clear understanding of its tone and its dramatic devices. Bradley Cooper is as fine in the title role as any of the Broadway originals (who included first Philip Anglim [who shadow co-produced the production as a vehicle for himself], then Bruce Davison, David Bowie and Mark Hamill), masterfully and sweetly delivering its difficult physicality and its poetic soul. Alessandro Nivola as Frederick Treves—the devoted doctor who saves deformed Elephant Man John Merrick from a life of abuse and exploitation, legitimizes him as a member of society, and is yet haunted by how strict a guardian he must at times be—gives the character an interesting, subtly different spin; he’s not merely a prim representative of his society, he’s actively, tacitly, repressing feelings and thoughts in an effort to maintain an ever less firm hold on his own sense of control. And Patricia Clarkson has unique fun with the familiar trope of the grand dame actress who, conversely, uses her bravura as a firewall before revealing just how big a heart she has. Well done by all hands.

                  While I think Ayad Akhtar’s current (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) Broadway play Disgraced features interesting philosophical debate but questionable drama, he manages to harness it all in The Invisible Hand, currently at the New York Theatre Workshop. Set “somewhere in Pakistan” during “the near future,” it takes place in a prison, where master stock broker Nick Bright (Justin Kirk) is being held for an indefinite time. His assigned handler is Bashir (Usman Ally) a terrorist with all the volatile anger of the Middle Easterner who resents that he feels inferior, culturally, educationally, financially, to the capitalist, entitled Western dogs who run the world. But according to the leader who runs this terrorist cell, the deceptively philosophical and paternal elder, Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani), Bashir must find a way to work with Nick, because Nick has the market expertise to turn their insufficient resources into  much more substantial operations funding. I’m loath to say much more, because revealing anything else at all starts tipping the story—suffice it to say, this one is a political-psychological thriller worthy of the name,. and of a highly intelligent order. It dramatizes all kinds of power shifting while going deep into market realities; the technical info is both credible and dramatic—plus, it is, in the best sense, dense. You really have to pay attention. But that’s okay, because the storytelling is so good you feel compelled to. The actors are excellent (add Jameal Ali as a terrorist in training to fill out the roster) and the direction of Ken Rus Schmoll, new to me, is very much up to the level of the writing.

                  Samuel D. Hunter is proving to be one of the most consistently interesting and entertaining playwrights on the contemporary scene, and his new one Pocatello, is right up to his usual standard. It’s locale is a struggling franchise restaurant, which is the place where the circles of three families intersect: the family of the owner, a family of regular patrons, and the workplace family. All of them, in different ways, are likewise struggling to communicate, to express themselves and “be known” (as the saying goes) by those they most care about, even when that caring is the most difficult thing to express. With an excellent cast, headed by T.R. Knight, under the likewise excellent direction of Davis McCallum, Pocatello is one of the highlights of 2014’s Fall-Winter semester.

                  I wanted to like A Christmas Memory, at the Irish Rep’s temporary new home (the DR2 Theatre on 15th Street near Union Square), while the old digs are under renovation, far more than I did. In the manner of a memory play, it’s a memory musical, based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Truman Capote. But it’s a soft, tone-poem kind of memory, about the relationship between a young boy (Silvano Spagnuolo) and his adult-woman best friend (Alice Ripley)—all sweet and perfectly platonic, think second mother—but it’s episodic and anecdotal, no real propulsive story, which is rough terrain for a musical, because the very nature of heightened reality and elevation of event moments through song is at odds with the essentially passive storytelling of the libretto (Duane Poole). Creating even more of a disjunctive feeling between form and content, the typically lovely music by Larry Grossman and high-gloss lyrics by Carol Hall, though in and of themselves obviously quite attractive, are crafted with an old-school Broadway energy that keeps shattering the verisimilitude of the tone poem; you’re very aware of a creative team at work to put forth an illusion, but the magic isn’t working because the trick has been misconceived. And on the subject of misdirection, Charlotte Moore’s staging favors a cornball delivery—the young lead actor especially is encouraged to be sellin’ it when he sings—and that’s yet another stylistic anomaly, because it flies in the face of the naturalistic behavior this story sorely needs. The show is a low key and inoffensive misfire—it’s sincere and clear enough, you know what it means to do—but it falls too short of the mark to be a signature season perennial.

                  I regret to say that Sam Shepard’s latest, A Particle of Dread kindasorta lives up to its title. A modern retelling of the Oedipus myth, it’s an unfortunate (and, happily, in Mr. Shepard’s oevre, uncharacteristic)  example of Old Fart Writing: meaning an effort in which a given author, having toiled for decades in storytelling eras unmarked by certain social and scientific advances, suddenly finds himself having to confront and embrace those advances in order to write contemporaneously; but since those “software updates” aren’t compatible with his “operating system”, he doesn’t have a full or conversant grasp of them; so he effortfully applies the buzzwords, tropes and concepts by way of either proving that he’s hip to them; and/or thinking that he needs to explain them, not realizing that their shorthand has been absorbed into the colloquialism of everyday speech. One section of the play in particular has a police detective describing to a doubtful patrol cop the mechanisms and value of forensic evidence, and it’s simply absurd. Clearly the beat cop exists so that these concepts can be explained to the audience. But even if there were such a thing as a luddite patrol cop in a big city—we don’t need filling in! NCIS is in its 12th season on television, the original CSI is in its 15th, and even the technical acronyms, never mind the procedures, are part of our everyday lingo. No, this one is pretentious and struck me as quite dull. (Also, to be honest, a little sobering. Lest I seem to be treating the estimable Mr. Shepard disrespectfully, Old Fart Writing can emerge from the best, nobody stays hip forever, and any one of us who hangs around long enough is potentially on deck…)

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