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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
2013 THEATER IN REVIEW

A TALE OF THREE THEATERS
By DAVID COTE

  A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder/ Ph: Joan Marcus

In the fall of 2013, Bill DeBlasio was swept into the mayor’s office by voters who shared his concern that New York had become “a tale of two cities” – one wealthy, the other struggling. You could say the same about the city’s theater. Keeping in mind that a tiny number of stage artists make a living wage (much less a fortune), each season we critics tell a tale of three theaters.
 
At the top of the food chain are the 40 houses that make up Broadway, where inflated budgets are often matched by outrageous ticket prices and safe artistic choices (stars, classics and musicals based on movies). In the fat middle section there’s Off Broadway, where risks are more common, but where subscribers can get tetchy over too much experimentation. (On May 25, The New York Times ran a story about Tim Sanford sending an explanatory email to supporters miffed over Playwrights Horizons’ stylized slacker drama, The Flick.) Way down at the bottom, bursting with diversity, is the funky, unweeded garden of Off-Off Broadway, which is poor but pugnacious. I don’t believe DeBlasio would ever tax box-office receipts from The Book of Mormon to subsidize avant-garde wackiness at Soho Rep, but the fact remains: We have a deeply segregated theater scene.
 
Then again, they can’t all be Broadway smash hits – especially on Broadway, which had its usual share of flops and ill-advised transfers. The year on Broadway saw 11 new plays, 14 revivals, three musical revivals and 11 original musicals. There was the usual smattering of limited-run celebrity acts: Barry Manilow, Il Divo and the Rascals. And, as usual, few continued into 2014.
 
Still, an interesting trio of musicals did survive the winnowing of Tony time. The staying power of Kinky Boots, Matilda and Motown – all of which opened in the spring and competed for best musical – attests to the fact that they each appeal to a different, healthy demographic. Kinky Boots, a straight-friendly camp fantasy about a drag queen in need of solid footwear, benefitted from an exuberant pop score by Cyndi Lauper and a big-hearted book by Harvey Fierstein. Matilda was darker and more subversive, but pitched to families, based on a Roald Dahl novel. And Motown – music mogul Berry Gordy’s medley-packed paean to himself – services the Boomer hordes that keep Jersey Boys running. In the fall, a fourth long-runner appeared: the jazzy, high-stepping Harlem revue, After Midnight.
 
Musical revivals were scarce, but the two that opened in the spring – Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Pippin – were critical and commercial hits. Both extensively refurbished the originals. The makeover was more pronounced in the case ofCinderella, which had a new, cheeky book by Douglas Carter Beane and a reordered score. Pippin was spruced up by the canny director Diane Paulus, who turned the Stephen Schwartz hippie parable (originally staged by Bob Fosse) into a circus-filled wonderland of acrobats and trapeze stunts. In the key role of the Leading Player, Patina Miller won hearts (and the Tony) for her sexy, slinky performance in a role originally stamped by Ben Vereen.
 
On the other side of the spectrum is a dark-horse tuner, one I’m personally quite fond of, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Unlike the previous shows, this one has an obscure source and is written in an idiom – mock-Edwardian musical comedy – that lacks the built-in audience of pop or rock. And yet it’s an exceedingly witty work, about a disinherited distant relative who decides to murder his way up the family tree to achieve an earldom. (The source book also inspired the Alec Guinness 1949 movie, Kind Hearts and Coronets.) Apart from the sophisticated and lyrically dexterous score by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman, the production features a barnstorming performance by protean Jefferson Mays, who plays eight doomed members of the snobby D’Ysquith clan. Time – and perhaps Tony nominations – will tell whether this exotic bloom can cling to its Broadway niche.
 
In terms of straight plays, the spring offered middling new work (dementia drama The Other Place and a solo piece about Ann Richardson called, imaginatively, Ann).  The notable exception was Richard Greenberg’s elegiac tale of a disintegrating, self-deceiving Upper West Side Jewish family, The Assembled Parties.
 
In the fall the talk was all about classics – in repertory, no less. Shakespeare’s Globe, led by the fearless and beguiling Mark Rylance, presented rotating performances of Twelfth Night and Richard III. The twist: an “original practices” re-creation of Elizabethan staging, with candlelight, period costumes, minimal scenery, lutes and flutes, and a blessedly lyrical reading of the text. The result was spectacular, with many critics (including this one) declaring that they were seeing the plays with shocking freshness and immediacy. In a year that saw more Shakespeare than usual on Broadway (two Macbeths, a Romeo and Juliet) and plenty more Off, Shakespeare’s Globe offered the most pure, undiluted joy.
 
The other major rep offering struck a modern note: Harold Pinter’s ode to friendship and mortality, No Man’s Land, and Samuel Beckett’s cosmic tragicomedy, Waiting for Godot. These productions were anchored by well-aged yet still-frisky turns by two legendary knights: Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. For any student who finds Pinter cryptic and Beckett boring, these excellent revivals were proof that 20th-century theater of the absurd retained its power to entrance and astound.
 
Despite these considerable pleasures, genuine theatrical daring took place far away from the Great White Way. Some of the most exciting things I saw were in January at the Public Theater’s avant-garde smorgasbord Under the Radar, or at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And the aforementioned Soho Rep and Playwrights Horizons continued to program formally challenging, unpredictable new plays. However, if I were to pick my favorite new straight play of 2013, I’d have to go with the same piece that my colleague Matt Wolf settled on for his London roundup: Conor McPherson’s tender, deeply resonant The Night Alive. After its acclaimed run at the Donmar Warehouse in the spring, this tale of charity and sympathy came to the Atlantic Theater Company with cast and production fully intact. Looking back, from Broadway to way Off-Off, I have to admit: it was a very good year. AndThe Night Alive was a splendid way to bid it adieu.
 
 
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York.

 


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