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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
2012-2013 SEASON IN REVIEW

PLAYING IT SAFE
By SANDY MACDONALD

  Jonny Orsini and Nathan Lane in The Nance/ Ph: Joan Marcus

The past Manhattan theater season could well go down in the annals of history as the Year of the Bathtub. Whereas last year, no production could claim to be au courant without a flooded stage, this year all sorts of characters succumbed to the urge to perform onstage ablutions. A tortured Macbeth (valiant Alan Cumming shouldering virtually all the roles), the putative Mother of God (Fiona Shaw, stentorian in The Last Testament), demimondaine Holly Golightly (Emilia Clarke, flailing amateurishly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) – all were moved to wade in the water, au naturel. Only one such immersion appeared entirely natural: Jonny Orsini’s dip – he cleans up good – as a bit of rough trade escorted home by “Chauncey Miles,” a bespoke part played to perfection by Nathan Lane in The NanceDouglas Carter Beane’s touching portrait of a persecuted homosexual hiding in plain sight amid the standard comedy routines of 1930s vaudeville.

Beane also provided a sprightly new book for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, featuring lovely Laura Osnes as an unusually proactive princess-to-be and the offhandedly charming Santino Fontana as conflicted future ruler. The villainess roles got cleverly retooled, too, giving Harriet Harris, Ann Harada and Marla Mindelle latitude to shine as monster stepmother and mixed brood.

Few kings-in-training come as hesitant as Pippin, the existentially challenged hero of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 musical, resurrected with timeless young-adult angst by Matthew James Thomas. In her snappy revival, director Diane Paulus has pepped up the potentially homiletic script with gasp-inducing feats by Montreal’s Les Sept Doigts de la Main acrobatic troupe – and even a brief but impressive airborne turn by comedy veteran Andrea Martin.

What else was there to love? Matilda the Musicalassuredly, with Rob Howell’s clever Scrabble-inspired set (you could play connect-the-letters in the lulls, if there were any). Equally delightful: Tim Minchin’s punchy lyrics, delivered with panache by a triumvirate of seriocomic baddies – Gabriel Ebert and Leslie Margherita as the title bookworm’s ultra-vulgar parents, and Bertie Carvel as the hulking sado-schoolmistress Miss Trunchbull (Roald Dahl had a way with nomenclature).

Otherwise it tended to be a dispiritingly safe season – the result, perhaps, of the recessionary dive of a few years back, when these projects were first being bandied about. Proof of fiscal timidity? Of the 38 Tony-eligible productions this year, nearly half were revivals, and two-thirds had recognizable names attached – little protection, as it turned out, against tanking. Mamet’s latest, The Anarchist, lasted all of 17 post-preview performances, the presence of Patti LuPone and Debra Winger notwithstanding, and Katie Holmes proved powerless to sustain interest in Dead Accounts, a lesser effort from Theresa Rebeck.

Bobby Cannavale, on the other hand, quickened the pulse of two Broadway reruns: Mamet’s more-relevant-than-ever Glengarry Glen Ross (with not much of an assist from an oddly recessive Al Pacino) and Clifford Odets' The Big KnifeThe latter work – consisting of overheated Hollywood chicanery – now seems irremediably dated compared to Odets’ Golden Boy, for which director Bartlett Sher deserves props. He made the improbable scenario (violin vs. fisticuffs?) compelling by marshalling a superb ensemble to support a stellar pair of thwarted lovers, Seth Numrich (War Horse) and Broadway newcomer Yvonne Strahovski.

Among the notable revivals, Douglas Hodge made a superb Cyrano de Bergerac (borderline deformed, noble to the core). Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? garnered kudos despite a cast that couldn’t hold a candle to the 1962 originators. It’s the play itself that continues to impress. The Heiress sustained interest with its melodramatic plot, even if Jessica Chastain in the title role appeared more mentally challenged than Henry James surely intended. Annie was … well, Annie, with Anthony Warlow as a made-to-order Daddy Warbucks. The Mystery of Edwin Drood worked its customary music-hall magic (especially Jessie Mueller as the exotic Miss Helena Landless). Picnic, improbably, turned out to be a relative feast. Handsome youngsters Maggie Grace and Sebastian Stan, under director Sam Gold’s tutelage, had the good sense to leave the heavy emotional lifting to Elizabeth Marvel depicting a desperate aging spinster.

Whereas Cat on a Hit Tin Roof lacked bite (Scarlett Johansson set about reviving her marriage with the dry determination of an office manager), Trip to Bountiful packed all the human longing for connection one could possibly desire, thanks to simple, straightforward, heartfelt performances by Cicely Tyson and Condola Rashad.

As for fresh endeavors, solo division, Holland Taylor’s Ann (about the late Texas governor Ann Richardson) stole a march on Bette Midler’s much-anticipated portrayal of Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers in I’ll Eat You Last. With whom would you rather spend an evening – an inspirational agent for change or a snide striver airing petty grievances from the distant past?

Sentimental favorite Lucky Guy probably would have benefited from further honing by the late Nora Ephron. Even so, Tom Hanks – buoyed by a superb ensemble – managed, with his customary warmth, to make a man of mixed parts eminently likable. Kinky Boots felt overly formulaic (we’ve been down this accept-me-I’m-different path before), and Motown: the Musical – cursed by Berry Gordy’s hackneyed book – ended up too superficial a survey, despite a standout cast.

Christopher Durang’s latest, the loose contemporary comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, subtly improved upon transferring from the august Lincoln Center to Broadway. Spared the burden of suggesting deeper import, the sheer silliness of squabbling adult siblings shines.

It was a great year for lateral mobility. A number of off-Broadway winners sidled over to slightly bigger venues, catching a second wind. Of these, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 glowed most brightly, thanks to the pervasive humanism and abundant musicality of creator/star Dave Malloy. Also back for a second bounce was Julia Jordan’s Murder Ballad, with lithe, clarion-voiced Caissie Levy taking over as a tormented adulterer. With the hilarious Buyer & Cellar, Jonathan Tolins has fashioned a one-man coup de théâtre for Michael Urie, playing retail lackey to the unseen (though deftly mimicked) Barbra Streisand, acquisitor extraordinaire. And thankfully, the Foundry Theatre’s charming rendition of The Good Person of Szechwan (a juicy dual role for Taylor Mac) at LaMaMa will soon be finding shelter at the Public Theater.

Off-Broadway is really where the quality was hiding out this year (little wonder that the Broadway League reports flat-lining grosses and audience attrition of -6 percent). The Signature Theatre mounted an impressive array of revivals (two by David Henry Hwang, plus August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson), and Roundabout finessed Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, optimally cast with Danny Burstein and Sarah PaulsonAnnie Baker reasserted her genius with The Flick – yet another unassuming, thoroughly original gem – and Shuler Hensley elicited utmost compassion in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale.

Some of the most thrilling theater to take place this year occurred beyond the bounds of Manhattan: for example, New York City Opera’s scandalously bare-all production of Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face at BAM, and Kneehigh’s folkloric fantasy The Wild Bride at St. Ann’s. Here’s hoping that the Broadway powers-that-be take note and opt not to play it quite so safe next season.

 


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