Kevin Sessums recently interviewed Jane Fonda and Moises Kaufman about the new play '33 Variations' for Towleroad, and recently reviewed the plays Our Town, The American Plan, and Ruined. You can also catch up with Kevin online at his own blog at MississippiSissy.com.
I have been remiss lately writing my theatre reviews. I’ve been quitebusy with other work as well as planning a five-week trek in northernSpain. Before I leave today for the trek, I thought I’d let you knowabout some of the great performances I’ve seen lately. I can’t remembera theatre season in which there have been so many stunningly goodperformances, both individual ones as well as those given by a play’s ormusical’s ensemble.
There is no more … well .. blissful time to be had on Broadway thanthe “happening” going on at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre where the revivalof Hair is playing to packed houses. As a kid I listened to theoriginal cast album over and over and over and I realized, whilesmiling through this revival, that I still know every lyric in thescore. Sexy and moving and great fun, it will send you home dancing inthe streets. It will bring back your own memories of listening to thescore, I’m sure, or create new ones for you by seeing this wonderfulrevival. My sweetest one involved my grandmother, who raised me, alwayscomplaining about how dirty the lyrics were as I blasted them from thestereo in our country home back in Mississippi and asking me to turnoff the record every time I played it. But then — quietly, unhurriedly — I’d hear her humming the Hair score to herself when she was shellingpeas from our garden or reading her daily Bible passage. Go to theHirshfeld and — quietly? unhurriedly? — let your own sun shine in. Andjust for the record: I adore Gavin Creel who plays Claude.
A totally different evening is Neil LaBute’s slightly kinder version ofhis off-Broadway hit, Reasons to be Pretty. The cast has beenreconfigured since its off-Broadway run but it’s even better thanbefore. Marin Ireland and Thomas Sadoski are particularly funny andsurprisingly touching as the woman who isn’t pretty enough because theman she loves says so. It been beautifully directed by Terry Kinny.
God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza’s latest French boulevard comedy(translated by Christopher Hampton) may be the play with the bestensemble on Broadway. Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, andespecially the great Marcia Gay Harden are giving an acting lesson incomic timing in this rather slight play. Indeed, I think Reza is theempress-with-no-clothes. Without these actors and the expert directionof Matthew Warchus, the play would be quite tiresome and a chore to sitthrough, much like her Art and Life x 3. The cast, however, is sublime.I’ve never laughed out loud so much at such hoary setups. It’s the hitof the season. Ninety intermissionless minutes of urbane savagery.
The emperor who majestically wore the clothes – playwright AugustWilson – is receiving a production of his greatest play, Joe Turner’sCome and Gone, at the Belasco that again is an acting lesson as wewatch the play’s ensemble do its work. I might give the God of Carnagecrew a bit more credit since they have to deal with overcoming theplay. The ensemble at Joe Turner have to rise to their play’s level andare able to ride its greatness which, at first blush, is found in itslanguage. Whereas, the cast of God of Carnage is giving us a jazzlikefugue of marital mayhem, the cast of Joe Turner is a symphonicorchestra of history and religion and some August region pastheartbreak that seers the soul.
Another master, Eugene O’Neill, is represented on Broadway in aliterally stripped-down version of his Desire Under the Elms. DirectorRobert Falls has trimmed it to a carnal 100 minutes. The three leads -Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino, and Pablo Schreiber — are giving volcanicperformances. They have to in order to fill the St. James Theatre’svastness. The set would look at home on the Met’s stage as would thoseperformances. It’s basically a play about greed but in this productionthe physical desire is amped up. And Pablo Schreiber — for those of youwho, like me, find him incredibly sexy — keeps his shirt off most ofthe time and his nude scene got me in touch with my own greedy desires.It’s the kind of production that takes the time — though it’s set inthe 1920s — to pipe in a whole Bob Dylan song as the cast goes aboutits expert business on stage. As odd as it is, it’s a better use ofDylan than anything Twyla Tharp came up with in her disastrous musicala few seasons back based on his music.
Much more, AFTER THE JUMP…
Aside from Marcia Gay Harden — who’s my favorite to win the Tony forBest Actress in a Play — there are several performances I must mention.Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, as Mary Queen of Scots and QueenElizabeth I respectively, are living up to all the hype that precededthem regarding their performances as the battling royals in PeterOswald translation of Schiller’s Mary Stuart. And Jane Fonda is livingup to the legend of her DNA with a stunningly dignified return to thestage in 33 Variations. She overcomes some the hackneyed aspects ofMoises Kaufman’s play that’s a lot like a Lifetime movie. Kaufmanserves as his own director and he’s a better conceptual artist than heis a writer. I would love to see him direct a production at theMetropolitan Opera or, better yet, Glyndebourne. I’ve heard rumorsthat he and puppeteering genius Basil Twist might be working on an ideafor an operatic production.
Three of the best musical performances by actresses include Karen Olivowho is magnificent as Anita in Arthur Laurents’ quaint production ofWest Side Story. I’m one of this revival’s detractors. The Spanishspeaking sections he has inserted into the show seem just that:inserted. It ends up sounding more Spanglish at times than Spanishwhich just ends up being unintentionally insulting to The Sharksportion of the show. And I had a problem with Matt Cavenaugh at thecenter of the show as Tony. Though he does a beautiful rendition of“Maria,” the rest of the time I felt as if I were watching aperformance of Tony at a meteorologist convention.
And then there is the great Alice Ripley reprising her role as thebipolar Diana, whose grief overwhelms both her and the audience in Nextto Normal. I predicted this show would move to Broadway when I saw itat Second Stage last year. The creators have streamlined the show fromits earlier version — cutting the big closing number of the first actabout shock treatment which I referred to as its “Springtime forHitler” moment — and it is now even more heartrending in its simplertakes on mental illness and loss and what together they can do to afamily.
Currently at Second Stage, the shockingly talented Sherie Rene Scott isstarring in Everyday Rapture, a show about her life as a Mennonite back in Topeka and herjourney to musical stardom on Broadway. It borders on crassness attimes with its production values but Scott’s tenderness is able to cutthrough a lot of the clutter. I saw a scene from the show a few monthsago in a rehearsal studio. Scott simply sat on a stool with a pianoaccompanying her instead of the crashing sounds of the combo that nowbacks her. I was much more moved by the complexity of the emotions inthat simpler environment than I was in this production, overly directedby the usually reliable Michael Mayer.
If you want to see a great comic performance, check out KristineNielsen in Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong and the PeopleWho Love Them. Nielsen’s wacky take on Durang is part Charlotte Rae,part Billie Whitelaw, who was Beckett’s greatest interpreter.
There is one great male performance I’d like to end with – GeoffreyRush in Exit the King. It’s great clowning raised to the level of KingLear. The technique is always visible but so is the absurdity of suchdeeply felt pain. It’s a stunning achievement.
On the Stage: Our Town, The American Plan, and Ruined [tr]
A Conversation on 33 Variations: Kevin Sessums Talks to Jane Fonda and Moises Kaufman [tr]
On the Stage: Becky Shaw and The Third Story [tr]
On the Stage: Pal Joey and Hedda Gabbler [tr]
On the Stage: Billy Elliot, Shrek, 13, and Prayer for My Enemy [tr]
On the Stage: Back Back Back and Farragut North [tr]