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Bradley Cooper Is ‘The Elephant Man’ on Broadway: REVIEW

Elephant

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Make no mistake: The main attraction at the Booth Theatre, where a prosaic revival of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 drama The Elephant Man opened last night, isn’t the freak-show headliner in the title, but the A-list name emblazoned above it in twinkling lights. They will flock from near and far, empty their wallets, step right up and see: Can the Hollywood hunk believably play a deformed half-man, half-beast? And deliver the high-octane performance required to mask the mediocrity of his chosen star vehicle? The answers are—well, sort of and no, not really.

Elephant1Bradley Cooper, last seen on Broadway opposite Julia Roberts in Three Days of Rain, certainly brings an impressive physical dedication to his performance as John Merrick. The character and his story are based on the life of Joseph Merrick, a man who lived with extreme deformities in the late 19th century. Pomerance’s play follows the Elephant Man’s ascent from circus aberration to high society marvel under the protection and guidance of Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola), a gifted and ambitious doctor.

We first encounter Merrick as a haunting outburst of grunts and gasps behind a freak-show curtain, before Cooper (notably shirtless for the first few scenes) appears next to a slideshow of real photographs of Joseph Merrick. As Mr. Nivola details Merrick’s physical deformities, Cooper contorts his face and body into the warped shapes he firmly maintains through the rest of the play (the role is historically played without makeup or prosthetics).

Elephant2Thanks to these early visual aides and Cooper’s bodily discipline, it’s possible to imagine the very handsome Cooper as the extremely hideous Merrick—though, it’s much easier not to. This is partly because the actor’s looks and his celebrity are stacked against him, and partly because his performance doesn't overpower them. As his position in society improves, Merrick becomes increasingly curious, bright and charming—like a neglected child receiving his first welcome attention. But, too often Cooper voices his character much like an animated one, with a palpable detachment between his vocal delivery and Merrick’s lurid personal history and singular circumstances.

As Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends Merrick and introduces him to London’s upper crust, Patricia Clarkson is radiant and the production’s indisputable highlight. With a riveting and sensitively rendered performance, Ms. Clarkson takes her character from a vain, preening bird to the play’s emotional center. Her signature ease and reserved grace stand in marked contrast to Cooper’s effortful portrayal and Nivola’s bland turn as the impassioned doctor.

Elephant3Pomerance’s play, which also concerns itself with the clash between Christianity and modern science, is grounded in British colonial ideologies (i.e. the beastly Other must be saved! Cured! Civilized!). Though an integral context for Merrick’s true story, the imperial entitlement on which the plot hangs is the real elephant in the room. Director Scott Ellis’ production, while efficient and finely dressed (with beautiful costumes by Clint Ramos), hangs its hat on its star rather than offering a fresh take on stodgy material. 

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Straight Couples Adrift on Fire Island in Terrence McNally’s ‘Lips Together, Teeth Apart’: REVIEW
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


Hugh Jackman Goes Fishing for Love in ‘The River’ on Broadway: REVIEW

River

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Watching a fisherman means a lot of waiting around for something to happen. If that fisherman happened to be a strapping, Tony Award-winning movie star like Hugh Jackman, you may be very pleased to do just that. Sitting perched around director Ian Rickson’s intimate production of The River, a poetic but uneventful new play by Jez Butterworth (2011's acclaimed Jerusalem) that opened at Circle in the Square last night, feels a lot like looking at the surface of a stream, knowing the best bits are underneath, just out of reach.

River1To be fair, events do actually take place in The River, but mostly offstage, outside the confines of this remote, rustic cabin (from the actors’ mix of Australian, Irish and British accents, where exactly is unclear), or at another time the audience doesn’t see. The Man, as Jackman’s character is called in the program, has made a habit of bringing his lovers here to share with them his ultimate true love: fly fishing.

Over the course of the drama’s 90 minutes, we witness two such women (played by Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly) making this pilgrimage (at different times, of course), their scenes interspersed though their storylines follow the same path. How many women there have been, when they came or which came first remain open questions. We do know that the same tends to happen with each (a moonless, nocturnal trip to the water, fumbling first declarations of love) and that his conversations with them are substantively the same (history repeating, uncannily and with subtly sinister undertones).

River3There is, naturally, much passionate talk about fishing, much of it made to sound very compelling, thanks to a vivid and sensitive performance by Mr. Jackman. If your mind paints pretty pictures, Butterworth’s language has no shortage of superfluous color and detail. The Man’s passion, though, so clearly coursing through his aquatic oratories, is curiously (and conspicuously) absent in his relationships with both women.

Much like the play’s fishing, intimate moments between its characters don’t happen on stage; rather, they are referred to and described in the past tense (“Yesterday in this room after we made love”). Onstage, the pairs hardly touch. (He's an island!) Were their desire electric, this could well be hotter than any show of physical affection, but it isn’t. This can hardly be blamed on the production’s comely actors; both Ms. Jumbo and Ms. Donnelly are fine performers.

If the simplest of the play’s many conceits is (spoiler alert!) the women are the fish—migrating past as the man tries to connect with them—watching as they slip through his fingers is actually less exciting than the rush he describes of hooking and then losing hold of a wild trout. 

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Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing Open in ‘It’s Only a Play’ on Broadway: REVIEW
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: richard termine)


Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ewan McGregor, Cynthia Nixon Open in ‘The Real Thing’ on Broadway: REVIEW

Real thing1

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Equal parts cerebral and sexy, Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play about love, deception and the limits of fiction gets a chic, starry revival from Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines theatre, where it opened on Broadway last night. With ace performances from the cast, director Sam Gold’s production anchors the lofty intellectual tangents of Stoppard’s writing in grounded, emotional drama.

Real thingThe opening scene shows a wife, Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) returning home from a business trip to her drunk, jealous husband, Max (Josh Hamilton). She’s gone from London to Switzerland without her passport, Max discovers, leading him to conclude she’s cheating. The following scene reveals the first is from a play in which Charlotte and Max are performing—Charlotte is married to the playwright Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Max and his wife Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), also an actress, are close friends of the couple.

When Henry and Annie are left alone, we learn they’re having an affair and by the play’s more engrossing second act, the two have left their spouses and married each other. Much of the play is concerned with the nature of romantic love, the fallacy of monogamy and the challenges of writing. Henry is widely accepted as a stand-in for Stoppard as they share many parallels, including Stoppard’s relationship with a married woman, the actress who played Annie in the play’s original production.

Real thing3Making a bold (and impressively verbose) Broadway debut, McGregor does fine work making clear sense of Stoppard’s dense, heady dialogue, and the mischievous charm for which he’s known on-screen perfectly suits gallantly vain Henry. Ms. Gyllenhaal likewise makes a radiant Broadway debut as Annie, her easy sex appeal and unwavering poise a formidable match for her indomitable lover. Nixon, a stage vet who originated the role of Debbie (Charlotte and Henry’s daughter) in the play’s first Broadway production, gives an assured performance as sharp, unflappable Charlotte.

Some 30 years on, Stoppard’s play could easily be set in the present, but the design team’s nod to early 80s London style gives the production its seductive angles and textures, including a dynamic set by David Zinn, enviable costumes by Kaye Voyce and lighting by Mark Barton. 

Music is also central to the play, and Gold brings it to the fore with company sing-alongs during transitions between scenes. The device feels gimmicky in a play already chock-full of myriad ideas, but it's one Henry would probably love. 

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


Straight Couples Adrift on Fire Island in Terrence McNally’s ‘Lips Together, Teeth Apart’: REVIEW

Lips

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Fire Island lovers already nostalgic for summer will find themselves immediately transported upon entering Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre, where a revival of Terrence McNally’s 1991 play set in the idyllic Pines opened last night. The oceanfront deck (complete with infinity pool) is so lovingly rendered by designer Alexander Dodge, you can practically smell the sea-salt air and feel the cool relief of a cocktail against your lips. But don’t get too comfortable: The dream home’s occupants on this Fourth of July weekend are none too keen on the locals.

Lips3Sally (America Ferrera), a stymied artist with a 9-to-5, inherited the house from her brother, who recently died of AIDS. She and her staunchly salt-of-the-earth husband, Sam (Michael Chernus), are taking a holiday weekend away from their modest life in New Jersey to decide what to do with the property. Along for the stay are Sam’s moderately hyperactive sister Chloe (Tracee Chimo), a community theatre actress, and her husband John (Austin Lysy), a private school admissions director, who live a bit less modestly in Connecticut.

As they enjoy typical, leisurely distractions (the Times’ crossword, landscape painting, kite-flying, charades), audience-directed asides clue us into their inner conflicts and secrets. Sally is pregnant and fears another miscarriage; John has cancer; Sally and John once slept together; Chloe has an almost maniacal need to feel useful and Sam is, well, pretty much an open book. A dark cloud rolls in at the play’s outset, as Sally spots a man swimming purposefully straight out into the ocean. She has a sinking feeling he won’t return.

Lips2Neighbored on all sides by gay men, a group they neither understand nor accept, these are strangers in a strange but picture-perfect place. But it’s their isolation from each other, rather than their surroundings, that takes up McNally’s three-act story. Its focus on intimate drama allows the play’s subtler reflections on deeply rooted homophobia and AIDS panic to resonate all the more profoundly. The characters’ fear of mortality and desire to be known and loved parallel those of their gay neighbors, but most of them are too blind to see it—except for Sally, who wants so badly to try.

Director Peter Dubois does fine work bringing the play to a modern audience and orchestrating its talented cast. Chimoo is a standout as nutty, gabby Chloe, preening fearlessly like an exotic show bird confined to mundane, everyday life. As her younger brother, Chernus is a perfect fit, endearing us to Sam’s unassuming bluntness and rough edges, thus making his casual bigotry that much more bracing and uncomfortable. Lysy is likewise well suited to buttoned-up John, whose range of bottled feelings finds sly and often sudden outlets. As sullen, probing Sally, Ferrera brings a sweet earnestness that at times only skims the surface of Sally’s well of emotions rather than reaching for its depths.

Lips1For a play set on Fire Island during the AIDS crisis, McNally’s play is remarkably subtle (The Normal Heart it is not), and Dubois’ production lovingly embraces its characters, despite their flaws. Their narrow-minded anxieties may have sounded closer to ordinary in the early 90s, but now they take on a certain shocking sting, particularly for a New York audience. It’s a testament to how far we’ve traveled in 25 years. That they’re not altogether unfamiliar is a mark of how far we still have to go.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


Josh Radnor, Gretchen Mol Open in Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘Disgraced’ on Broadway: REVIEW

Disgraced1

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

There is a chilling, heart-stopping moment at the height of Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s sharp and engrossing Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which opened on Broadway last night at the Lyceum Theatre. Once you recover from the shock of it, you’ll wonder how you allowed yourself to be so caught off guard.

Disgraced4Maybe you were busy admiring the seductive surfaces of director Kimberly Senior’s sleek, vivid production, getting wrapped up in the lives of the über smart, affluent and self-possessed thirty-somethings onstage, who seem to embody every astute, aspiring young person’s idea of That Perfect New York Life.

Amir (Hari Dhillon), a dapper corporate lawyer and second-generation Pakistani immigrant, and his wife Emily (Gretchen Mol), a thoughtful, blossoming visual artist, share an enviable, impeccably modern Manhattan apartment and cut a prime yet casual example of cross-cultural harmony. While Emily mines Islamic forms and aesthetic ideals in her latest work, Amir is a self-professed and often vocal apostate to Islam.

Disgraced2The drama begins when Amir’s nephew Abe (Danny Ashok) asks him to offer legal counsel to an imam imprisoned (falsely, Abe believes) on suspicion of funding Hamas. Amir strongly resists stepping in, while Emily urges him to help. Fast-forward several weeks when Emily has a shot at being included in a show at the Whitney. The curator Isaac (Josh Radnor), husband to a close colleague of Amir’s, Jory (Karen Pittman), visits to view Emily’s work. Jump ahead another few months to find the four friends gathering for an intimate dinner party.

Akhtar’s drama unspools a number of distinct threads that come together only in its explosive, compelling climax. Above all, it’s a play about ideas and appearances—intelligent, grounded people who think they know who they are and what they believe, until they don’t. The play raises provocative questions—about identity, race, faith, art, love and at times, the whole of human history. This is, of course, no small feat in 90 minutes and could easily go down like a giant pill.

DisgracedBut Akhtar’s characters are people you want to know, and uniformly excellent performances from the cast make you feel as though you already do. The heady and pressing questions that arise are firmly grounded in the very human and messy drama unfolded onstage. That they come from the mouths of characters so convincingly rendered makes them all the more haunting.

Senior, who also directed the play’s Off-Broadway premiere at Lincoln Center Theatre in 2012, does fine work balancing the Akhtar’s litany of nuanced perspectives on hot-button issues. For a drama so much about visual surfaces, the production’s design adds rich texture to the story, including the set by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Jennifer Von Mayrhauser and lighting by Kenneth Posner. 

In the time between the play's first production and its Broadway premiere, the context in which we hear and understand its core dilemma has changed dramatically, with renewed violence in the Middle East and racial tensions at home. Akhtar's drama certainly doesn't have the answers, but it asks the poignant questions.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing Open in ‘It’s Only a Play’ on Broadway: REVIEW

ITS_ONLY_A_PLAY1

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Anyone who thinks theatre people are a bunch of eccentric, egotistical, navel-gazing kooks will find little to prove them wrong in the starry Broadway premiere of Terrence McNally’s 1982 comedy It’s Only a Play, which opened last week at the Schoenfeld Theatre. Directed by Jack O’Brien, the backstage farce meets drawing-room play takes up with a team of show folk anxiously awaiting reviews on opening night.

It's only play 3If you’re determined enough to snag tickets to the nearly-sold-out run, you’ll find its crowded marquee of big names, including Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally and F. Murray Abraham, preening around the opulent interior of an upper east side townhouse, wringing their hands over the trials of mounting a play and goosing the audience with an exhaustive litany of de rigueur insider jokes and name drops.

The bedroom of this lux abode (lavishly designed by Scott Pask) belongs to theatre producer Julia Budder (Ms. Mullally), and tonight it’s doubling as a coat room for the opening party of her first big Broadway venture. Peter (Mr. Broderick) wrote the play’s lead role for his friend James (Mr. Lane), who turned it down to continue his stint on a mediocre sitcom and has flown in to make sure he didn’t pass on a hit.

It's only play 2The play’s leading lady Virginia (Ms. Channing) is a pill-popping star out on parole (complete with security anklet) and its British director Frank (Rupert Grint) is prickly, bizarre and apparently brilliant. A predatory critic is also on hand to generally antagonize all (Mr. Abraham), and the coat check boy (an aspiring actor, of course, played by Micah Stock) is charged with the running gag of schlepping outerwear for increasingly outlandish guests (Shia LaBeouf! The cast of The Lion King! Lady Gaga!).

Lane and Channing are both a delight, incidentally as caricatures of their own profession. Mr. Lane’s animated ease and precise comic timing make light work of his many rapid-fire one-liners. Ms. Channing is spot on as the industry-weary grand dame, all sharp-tongue and taut-face.

With a mild southern drawl and coiffed wig, Ms. Mullally doesn’t cut quite as extreme a figure as some of Broadway’s more eccentric producers. And while charming, Mr. Broderick seems a bit dazed—even as a playwright facing reviews on opening night. He’s also saddled with thanklessly delivering McNally’s sentimental odes to the art form, the sincerity of which seem stodgy and out of place.

It's only play 4In updating the original script for this production, McNally has packed it to the gills with jabs and winks aimed at celebrities big and small—with audiences invited to listen in on the fun (show people sh*t talking behind the scenes!). But like most opening night parties this one is relatively uneventful, aside from people waiting around for reviews to come in and reacting when they do. The rest of the play is taken up with the artists’ neuroses (at their most stereotypical) and these often backhanded zingers.

Much of McNally’s humor is low-hanging fruit (spoiler alert: the cast takes a group selfie), and much of the story (such as it is) gets buried in it. Though often funny, the players in McNally’s satire are gleefully narcissistic—and no more sympathetic than the critics they delight in vilifying. The play (like the play within the play) is obsessed with its own critical reception, though it's hardly clear why when the names above its title are enough to ensure box office gold.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


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