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NY Theater Reviews

Megan Fairchild in On the Town/ Ph: Joan Marcus



With the array of plays on offer in New York right now, some are more worth your time and money than others.

The only element lacking in the energetic, fast-moving revival of the Comden-Green-Bernstein classic On the Town is star quality. You’ll search in vain for a Kelly or a Sinatra, not to mention Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen and Betty Garrett, all of whose screen personas stratospherically elevated the bowdlerized but hugely entertaining 1949 film version.

Happily, it doesn’t really matter. Given the lack of in-your-face star wattage, the present company – which includes Tony Yazbeck as Gabey, Jay Armstrong Johnson as Chip, Clyde Elves as Ozzie, Megan Fairchild as Ivy and Alesha Umphries as Hildy – works well as an ensemble, allowing the high-octane personality of the show itself to glow throughout. Some of the cast members sing better than they dance (and vice versa) but they never undersell their material. This is certainly the most satisfying and enjoyable production of the show I’ve seen.

Director John Rando keeps the familiar story of three WWII sailors on a 24-hour furlough in New York on its toes. The choreographic set pieces by Joshua Bergasse, based on Jerome Robbins’s original concept, combine grace with energy. And the humor, much of it single-handedly supplied by a delightfully over-the-top Jackie Hoffman in a variety of roles, remains true to the period. I also admired Beowulf Boritt’s boldly stylized sets and Jess Goldstein’s costumes. The show looks good and, given the size of the orchestra, sounds even better.

Yet despite a clutch of favorable reviews, the Friday night performance I attended was far from full. Which raises the question of whether audiences who are keeping musicals like The Lion King, The Book of Mormon and Wicked comfortably in the black, will pay Broadway prices to wallow in a simple boys-meet-girls story embellished by a clutch of nostalgia-inducing Bernstein songs, the best of which is "Lonely Town." Surely this is a case where star power would have made a difference.

Going back even further in time – to 1936 – is George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Pulitzer prize-winning screwball comedy You Can’t Take It With You. Again, plot is hardly the first item on the playwrights’ agenda. Indeed, the plot, if you can even call it that (daughter of a financially strapped unconventional family wants to marry the son of a wealthy conservative) is secondary to the eccentric behavior of the Sycamore/Vanderhof clan in whose rambling New York living room – to quote the authors – “meals are eaten, plays are written, snakes collected, ballet steps practiced, xylophones played and printing presses operated.” They might also have added experimenting with gunpowder to the list.

It’s a household in which anything goes, and in Scott Ellis’ breezy revival it goes with elan. For all its non-stop chaos and mayhem and the frantic comings and goings of a cast of 19 in David Rockwell’s busy set, there’s even room for the play’s questionably idealistic message – that life’s too short to strait-jacket oneself in conventional behavior and that people should go out of their way to do the things that make them happy.

The sentiment is the philosophy of the grandfather of the clan – played endearingly, albeit without the requisite energy, by James Earl Jones, the show’s heavyweight marquee attraction. The rest of the company embraces the piece’s underpinning eccentricity, aware that the writing is humorous rather than witty. I was particularly taken with Will Brill as xylophone player Ed, who, though married to would-be ballet dancer Essie (Annaleigh Ashford), makes it clear just from his body language that he’s gay. It’s a delicious idea that turns the play’s most thankless supporting role into one of the showiest.

It’s easy to see why the optimism expressed in You Can’t Take It With You was such a Broadway crowd-pleaser when it first premiered. On the other hand, it is no surprise that Sticks and Bones, the second of David Rabe’s Vietnam trilogy, ran for only 104 performances despite deservedly winning the 1972 Best Play Tony award.

Rabe’s gut-wrenching drama is about a blinded Vietnam vet called David (Ben Schnetzer), whose all-American parents Ossie (Bill Pullman) and Harriet (Holly Hunter) are equally blind when it comes to confronting the seismic emotional upheaval caused by their son’s physical affliction.

Not only that, but they’re equally unaccepting and unforgiving when they learn of Zung (Nadia Gan), the Vietnamese girl David left behind him, but who, as a hallucination only he is aware of, follows him home.

Even David’s teenage brother Rick (Raviv Ullman) refuses to acknowledge the trauma that has overtaken the family, a setback Harriet insists will soon be cured by a warming cup of milk and a nice piece of fudge – or, in really extreme cases, by talking to their local priest (Richard Chamberlain). 

A deeply disturbing expose of post-traumatic stress and the devastating effect it has on vets returning to civilian life, as well as on their uncomprehending families, it’s directed with unflinching honesty by Scott Ellis, who subtly blends domestic trivia with the ever-increasing pain suffered by the dispossessed, until in the end it becomes too much to bear.

As Father Donald, Chamberlain might have taken a bolder stab in the couple of scenes he has, though the rest of the cast – notably Pullman and Hunter – are very fine indeed. It’s a stunning revival of a brilliant but difficult play to watch.

Chekhov is alive and well and, it would appear, has taken up residence at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in the guise of a new play called The Country House. Except that it’s by Donald Margulies. If, however, there’s such a thing as a Chekhov estate, its beneficiaries would surely be entitled to half the royalties.

Margulies has appropriated elements of Uncle Vanya and (especially) The Sea Gull, moved the action from provincial Russia to rural Berkshire and welded them into a “comedy,” as Chekhov called his plays, starring a famous Broadway actress named Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner), whose even more famous movie star daughter Kathy has recently died.

Also in the mix are Anna’s spunky granddaughter Susie (Sarah Steele), Walter (David Rasche), Susie’s father and a well-established Hollywood director Nell (Kate Jennings Grant), Walter’s new girlfriend and the unrequited love of Anna’s hapless playwright son Elliot (Eric Lange), and Michael (Daniel Sunjata), a dishy TV star fancied by both Anna and her granddaughter.

Margulies’ dialogue is characteristically buoyant with entertaining riffs on the state of Broadway today and, as you’d expect from a show-biz family, theater and movie shop talk in general. Chekhovian yearnings of a romantic, albeit unrequited nature complete the package, though, in truth, it’s all pretty slight – agreeable enough but never pulse-quickening.

Danner ticks all the boxes in a role that never stretches her, and there are excellent performances from Steele as her granddaughter and Lange (a cross between Konstantin and Vanya) as her frustrated son.

Set designer John Lee Beatty’s comfortable front room is just what you’d expect from an affluent Berkshire family, though I found it odd that not once in the course of the play’s several days duration do any of these busy people ever use their cell phones. Very refreshing but very unlikely.

By far the most dispiriting show I’ve seen on Broadway for many a season is the revival of Terence McNally’s 1986 comedy It’s Only a Play. Oh, if only it were!

What it is, is a collection of one-liners (some very funny, some not) in support of a “plot” that unfurls at an opening night party involving a hapless playwright (a robotic Matthew Broderick), his best friend (let’s hear it for Nathan Lane) who wisely turned down the chance to appear in the play for a TV sitcom, the show’s first-time producer (Megan Mullaly, way over-the-top), it’s wunderkind British director (Rupert Grint doing his best in the show’s worst-written role), an acerbic theater critic (F. Murray Abraham, wasted) and, as an actress in the play in question, Stockard Channing, who also deserves better.

Apart from the first 10 minutes, in which Lane delivers a non-stop succession of gags with his characteristic panache, there is very little to enjoy in this indigestible casserole of a play into which has been thrown so many unpalatable ingredients it is hard to imagine how so seasoned a playwright as McNally could ever have concocted it.

Apart from Lane, the only other positive you take away from it is the supporting performance of Micah Stock as a hatcheck boy with Broadway aspirations. He makes the most with the least, and has a sparkling career ahead of him. That this is one of the hottest tickets in town is more depressing than the play itself.