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NY Theater Reviews

Caroline Neff and company in Airline Highway/ Ph: Joan Marcus



A trip to Broadway this season can leave you soaring or soured, depending on which play you pick.

It wasn’t the best of Broadway seasons and it wasn’t the worst. But it was one of the most varied and scattershot, with a wide range of subjects handled with varying degrees of success and failure. It would be tidy to say that the plays and musicals I saw ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, but nothing was wholly sublime nor wholly ridiculous.

Coming close to the former, though, but just missing by inches, is the revival of On the 20th Century, which I first saw in 1978. Unfortunately I never saw Madeline Kahn give her Lily Garland (how many did?), but Judy Kaye was a terrific substitute. In the current revival, Kristin Chenowith, who sounds more like Kahn than Kaye, gives the performance of her life opposite a slightly under-par Peter Gallagher. She plays a temperamental movie star, who, while travelling on the famous 20th Century from Chicago to New York, locks antlers with Oscar Jaffe (Gallagher), the man who transformed her from a nobody called Mildred Plotka to the glamorous, sought-after diva she became. 

Director Scott Ellis, with massive assistance from choreographer Warren Carlyle, smoothly propels the show as if it were mercury on ice to its exhilarating finale, in the happy process of which Andy Karl, as muscle-bound Bruce, a movie star and Lily’s current beau, is the second reason for seeing this exhilarating revival. If he doesn’t win a best supporting Tony there really is no justice.

Mary Louise Wilson doesn’t quite have the innate dottiness of Imogen Coca as the self-styled millionaire Letita Primrose, but it’s good to see this 83-year-old veteran back on Broadway. David Rockwell’s sets aren’t quite as jaw-dropping as Robin Wagner’s original designs, but, like this revival, they’re pretty good. Despite the occasional tweak, addition, omission or emendation, Comden and Green’s book and lyrics are as fresh and as witty as they always were, and Cy Coleman’s pastiche operetta-like score is one of his best.

Talking of pastiches, I’m pretty sure that Lisa D’Amour had no conscious intentions of turning her play Airline Highway into one, but that is what this Steppenwolf transfer from Chicago has written all over it. Consider the setting: a cheap motel in New Orleans called The Hummingbird. Its characters include a trans-gender African drag queen named Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), a middle-aged hooker (Julie White), Wayne (Scott Jaeck), the motel’s easy-going manager, a down-and-out stripper (Caroline Neff), a delusional would-be poet (Ken Marks), a one-time heroin addict now the establishment's all-round factotum (Tim Edward Rhone), and Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), a terminally ill former burlesque queen who, prior to dying, has asked the above to throw a funeral bash for her while she’s still alive. Also invited is Bait Boy (Joe Tippett), an erstwhile Hummingbird resident now relocated in Atlanta with a wealthy older woman.

Sounds familiar? Well, it should. Apart from echoes of Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Lanford Wilson’s Hot-L Baltimore, O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, the play also owes a huge debt to Tennessee Williams. The character of Bait Boy is an unashamed amalgam of Chance Wayne (Sweet Bird of Youth), Val Xavier (Orpheus Descending) and Kilroy (Camino Royale). Miss Ruby is also straight out of Williams. Despite some excellent performances and expert direction from Joe Mantello, the play feels stale and contrived. It belongs to another era.

Not so Lincoln Center’s production of Bathsheba Doran’s thought-provoking The Mystery of Love & Sex, which embracers such issues as sexual ambivalence, race relations, religion, identity crises and how, through a generational divide, they apply to both parents and their children.

In this case the parents are Lucinda (Diane Lane), a Southerner who fancies herself a “bohemian,” and her conventional Jewish New Yorker husband Howard (Tony Shaloub), who writes thrillers and who, when we first meet him at a dinner party (butterless bread and salad) thrown by his daughter Charlotte (Gayle Rankin), is trying to unravel the details of her ongoing relationship with Jonny (Mamoudou Athie), an African American whom she has befriended from childhood.

Everything in Miss Doran’s compelling play, which is full of twists and revelations, is driven by one’s need to experience change and, as a result, to grow and mature from it. Her characters, as fleshed out by an excellent cast under Sam Gold’s nuanced direction, throb with life and keep you engrossed.

There’s a definite thematic overlap between The Mystery of Love & Sex and the ironically titled musical Fun Home (also directed by Sam Gold), which Lisa Tron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) have adapted from the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. The sexual identity of its heroine Alison, played as a child by Sydney Lucas, as an adolescent by Emily Skeggs and as an adult by Beth Malone, and the uneasy relationship she has with her gay father Bruce (Michael Cerveris), is the pivot on which this autobiographical plot swivels.

Bruce runs a funeral parlor and sidelines as an English teacher at a local school. (Or is it the other way round?) He’s also an avid collector of antiques and is as house-proud as Harriet Craig in George Kelly’s Craig’s Wife. Yet for all his multi-tasking, he has no parenting skills whatsoever. Also, as played by Michael Cerveris, he’s extremely unlikeable and unsympathetic and the main reason I disliked this musical as much as I did. Other reasons are the book and the score, both of which left me unmoved and uninvolved. That said, it’s well acted, especially by Judy Kuhn as Bruce’s passive, long-suffering wife and by all the distaff members of the cast.

Nor was I involved on any level with The Visit, Kander and Ebb’s long-gestating Broadway swan song. Frederich Durrenmatt’s play, first seen at the Lunt-Fontanne in 1948 in an adaptation by Maurice Valency, strikes me as being a wholly unsuitable subject for a musical, a fact that Terrence McNally’s dreary book reinforces in spades. It’s the grim story of a vengeful old cow called Claire Zachannasian – the richest woman in the world – who returns to her poverty-stricken village in order to exact a terrible revenge on the man who years ago jilted her. Quite literally there’s little to sing and dance about.

The fact that it stars the legendary Chita Rivera in what will probably be her last Broadway show should, at least, have been an occasion for cheering. But Rivera brings very little of her renowned star quality to the role of Claire and is so under-energized that at the matinee performance I attended, the audience barely found the energy to give her the obligatory standing ovation expected of them.

Even more underpowered is her co-star Roger Rees, who, as the man who jilted her and whose death she demands in return for paying the heavy debts incurred by the village and its feckless residents, makes no positive impression at all. Neither does the undernourished Kander and Ebb score, the minimal choreography of Graciele Daniele and the uninspired direction of John Doyle.

Another leading man in a musical this season who left me underwhelmed is Ken Watanabe, who might as well have been speaking Siamese for all the sense he makes. He has a certain physical presence, to be sure, but his diction is often unintelligible and his rendering of A Puzzlement is, well, a puzzlement. I did not understand a single word of it.

No qualms at all, though, about Kelli O’Hara’s Anna Leonowens in The King and I. It’s a stunningly good performance, effectively understated but with no shortage of emotion. She’s moving without resorting to sentimentality, sings like an angel and manages to command the stage without ever drawing attention to herself.

I felt the same about Barton Sher’s staging. He blows the show’s budget big-time in the gasp-inducing opening scene, after which the production plays down the spectacle without ever compromising the show’s good looks. Michael Yeargan’s elegant designs and Catherine Zuber’s attractive costumes are tasteful and never in your face.

I could have done with a more charismatic Tuptim – both vocally and physically – than Ashley Park, but Ruthie Ann Miles is the best Lady Thiang I‘ve seen. A gorgeous revival.

Having never curbed my enthusiasm for Curb Your Enthusiasm, I was really looking forward to Larry David’s debut Broadway play, Fish in the Dark. I laughed every now and then, but oy! (whatever that means) it’s little more than a 25-minute Curb sketch elongated out of all proportion to fill the basic requirements of a full-length play.

In a throwback to the golden age of Norman Krasna, George Axelrod and Neil Simon, David’s ethnic comedy hinges on the upheaval and confusion occasioned by the death of Sidney Drexel (Jerry Adler), neither of whose sons, Norman (Larry David) and Arthur (Ben Shenkman), want the unenviable responsibility of looking after their demanding, freshly widowed mother Gloria (an enjoyably over-the-top Jayne Houdyshell).

Historic grudges, perceived slights and ongoing family resentments are some of the overworked items on David’s shopping list as he attempts to shape these ingredients into a palatable play. It doesn’t happen. But even with a voice that is showing the strain of eight performances a week, while he’s on stage the familiar Larry David persona occasionally manages to camouflage the thinness of the material. In the end, though, what you’re left with is an implausible premise that takes two hours to go nowhere. I wanted to enjoy it, but at $159 a ticket I felt robbed.

I also wanted to enjoy It Shoulda Been You, a new musical, capably directed by David Hyde Pierce, with a potentially engaging cast (Lisa Howard, Tyne Daly, Edward Hibbert, Harriet Harris), about a Jewish wedding that, for reasons it would be churlish of me to reveal, goes catastrophically wrong. It’s one of those mindless concoctions in which you’re supposed to check your disbelief with your coat before taking your seat. I tried, but the sheer inanities of the plot made it difficult to accept the good-natured hokum its creators Brian Hargrove (book and lyrics) and Barbara Anselmi (music) clearly intended. There’s a self-conscious feel-good quality to it that, despite its modest length (just over an hour and a half without intermission), I found hard to take.

I much preferred Something Rotten. It’s never going to be anyone’s desert island musical, nor will it ever appear on a 10-best list. And given that it’s another instance in which a comedy sketch is stretched to breaking point, Casey Nicholaw’s staging and choreography excavate as many laughs as they possibly can. Set in 1595, it’s about a pair of unsuccessful playwright brothers (Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariant) who, unable to compete with a certain Will Shakespeare (Christian Borle) invent a new art form called musical comedy. It’s Spamalot meets The Producers, and while no masterpiece, heaven knows, it does everything it says on the label.
The book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell. and music and lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrtick, are a tad undergraduate (so is much of The Book of Mormon), but the pace is so fast and furious Nicholaw rarely allows you to dwell long enough on how obvious and simple-minded it really is. Good fun for the masses.