Sunday, April 29, 2012

Regrets **

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I was surprised to learn that Matt Charman, the author of this period drama about the inhabitants of a divorce ranch for men in Nevada in 1954, is British. It's hardly an obvious topic for a contemporary playwright, especially one from across the pond. Charman succeeds in setting up an interesting situation, when a mysterious young arrival, Caleb Farley (Ansel Elgort),  disturbs the equilibrium of the three current residents -- Alvin Novotny (Richard Topol), Gerald Driscoll (Lucas Caleb Rooney) and Ben Clancy (Brian Hutchinson). Adriane Lenox is fine as Mrs. Duke, the scrappy black owner of the ranch. Alexis Bledel is less convinicing as a kind-hearted young prostitute who visits the ranch, but the role is poorly written. The arrival of Robert Hanraty (Curt Bouril), an investigator from the House Unamerican Activities Committee sets the plot in motion. Unfortunately, the second act runs downhill and fails to fulfill the play's early promise. The set by Rachel Hauck, the costumes by Ilona Somogyi and the direction by Carolyn Cantor are all effective. The results are sufficiently interesting that I had no regrets about seeing it. It was certainly the best of the three new plays that Manhattan Theatre Club has offered at City Center this season. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Peter and the Starcatcher **

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I wish that I could join the chorus of praise for Rick Elice's Peter Pan prequel, which moved to Broadway from the New York Theatre Workshop. Unfortunately, despite inventive stagecraft, committed performances (especially by the three leads -- Christian Borle, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Adam Chanler-Berat), a wonderful scenic design by Donyale Werle, fine costumes by Paloma Young, pleasant music by Wayne Barker, terrific lighting by Jeff Croiter and assured direction by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, the play did not captivate me. The first fart joke should have been a warning signal. The frenzied action, sophomoric humor and stratospheric twee quotient merely wore me down. All the cleverness did not compensate for the play's basic hollowness. Since everyone around me, especially the children, seemed to be having a wonderful time, I felt that the fault must surely be mine. It was an alienating experience. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gore Vidal's The Best Man ****

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Ah,  for the good old days before focus groups, 24-hour cable bloviators, nonstop polls and super-PACS. You can escape there for a few hours at the Schoenfeld Theatre, where this star-packed revival of Vidal's 1960 drama is playing. The theater is decorated with patriotic bunting, state delegation signs and black-and-white tv monitors and the sound design by John Gromada recreates the background noise of a lively convention. William Russell (John Larroquette), a principled, patrician, intellectual, womanizing, liberal candidate is competing with Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack), a younger, telegenic, unscrupulous, ambitious, straight-laced, populist conservative, for the endorsement of former president Arthur Hockstader (James Earl Jones). Cantwell is prepared to sabotage Russell's campaign by releasing a report on a nervous breakdown in his past. Dick Jensen (Michael McKean), Russell's campaign manager, turns up a witness, Sheldon Marcus (Jefferson Mays), to a potentially damaging episode in Cantwell's past. Russell must decide whether to violate his own principles by using this information to neutralize Cantwell's attack. Russell's estranged wife Alice (Candace Bergen), Cantwell's relentlessly ambitious southern belle wife Mabel (Kerry Butler) and Sue-Ellen Gamadge (Angela Lansbury), chair of the party's women's division, fulfill the traditional roles expected of the distaff side. The action progresses through three well-formed acts to a satisfying conclusion. The play is far less dated than I expected it to be. In a sense, only the forms have changed; politics is basically the same. It's a treat to see actors the caliber of Jones and Lansbury chew up the scenery. Larroquette is more effective than McCormack, although the latter improves as the play progresses. Bergen is to be commended for taking on an unglamorous role and playing it well. Butler and Mays are a bit over the top, in Mays' case delightfully so. Even the minor roles are well-cast. Derek McLane's sets, Ann Roth's costumes and Michael Wilson's direction are all admirable. All in all, it was an enjoyable evening. Running time: two hours, 40 minutes including two intermissions.

Monday, April 23, 2012

How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying ***

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After the string of disappointing plays I have recently endured, I decided I needed a musical break, so I picked up a TDF ticket for this long-running 50th anniversary revival. While it's not at the exalted level of Guys and Dolls or The Most Happy Fella, even lesser Loesser is a treat. The original cast is long gone, but the current leads (Nick Jonas and Beau Bridges) are fine. Jonas is a natural-born entertainer whose Finch, according to many, is an improvement over Daniel Radcliffe's. Michael Urie is hilarious as Finch's nemesis. The women did not fare quite as well. Stephanie Rothenberg was a bit colorless as Finch's love interest. In a shameless nod to Mad Men, Tammy Blanchard's Hedy LaRue is dolled up as a Christina Hendricks clone. The satirical book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert is corny, but that is part of the charm. Catherine Zuber's costumes are delightful. Derek McLane's attractive scenic design is a technical marvel, almost to the point of distraction. Rob Ashford's direction is smooth and his choreography is clever. Loesser's music and lyrics are fresh as ever. It was an enjoyable afternoon. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

An Early History of Fire [zero stars]

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To say that David Rabe's first new play to be seen in New York in a decade is a disappointment is a gross understatement. While this alleged drama set in 1962 in middle America may have deep meaning for the playwright, its trite half-baked ideas and half-developed characters did not hold my interest for even five minutes. I will not force you waste your time reading about the many ways it fails. While I can't recover the time I lost on this dud, I can at least warn you away. The cast (Gordon Clapp, Erin Darke, Jonny Orsini, Devin Ratray, Dennis Staroselsky, Theo Stockman and Claire van der Bloom) and director Jo Bonney do their best to breathe some life into this New Group production,  but you can't light a fire with wet matches. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Now. Here. This. **

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The appealing quartet (Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff & Jeff Bowen) whose [title of show] was a big hit at the Vineyard Theatre a few years ago are back with a new show. I wish I could say that lightning struck twice in the same place. Alas, what seemed fresh and cute the first time around seemed to me stale and trite this time out. The book puzzlingly tries to link Merton's philosophy of the importance of staying in the present moment to the group's excursion to the Museum of Natural History, where each recalls moments from his or her past. Though I was unimpressed by a lab production last year, I was hopeful that further work might improve the show. The production values are now first-rate, with an excellent projection design by Richard DiBella. Michael Berresse's smooth direction and clever choreography cannot hide the thinness of the material by Bell & Blackwell or the mediocrity of Bowen's music. I would be remiss not to report that the vast majority of the audience looked under 30 and appeared to be having a wonderful time. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes without intermission.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Columnist **

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It's wonderful to see John Lithgow back on Broadway in David Auburn's new biographical play about Joseph Alsop, now in previews in a Manhattan Theatre Club production. Lithgow's Alsop is arrogant, egotistical, irascible, untroubled by self-doubt, yet not without charm. Boyd Gaines ably plays his brother Stewart. Margaret Colin is less impressive in the somewhat underwritten role of Alsop's wife Susan Mary. Grace Gummer (who is the spitting image of sister Mamie) brings a welcome warmth to the role of Abigail, Alsop's stepdaughter. Stephen Kunken makes a fine David Halberstam. Brian J. Smith, despite being saddled with a thick Russian accent as Andrei, makes a good impression. Marc Bonan has a walk-on as Abigail's visiting friend Philip. The scenic design by John Lee Beatty is attractive, as are the costumes by Jess Goldstein. Daniel Sullivan's direction is unobtrusive. The weak link, alas, is playwright Auburn. The play has a certain connect-the-dots, made for television biopic quality about it. The highs aren't very high and the lows aren't very low. One of the main plot points turns out to be a red herring (or, in this case, a Red herring). Nevertheless, Lithgow's performance makes it essential viewing. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Don't Dress for Dinner **

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Robin Howdon's English adaptation of this broad French farce by Marc Camoletti ran in London for six years. Go figure! The characters Bernard and Robert from his earlier success Boeing-Boeing are back. Bernard (Adam James), now married, is planning a weekend with his mistress Suzanne (Jennifer Tilly) while his wife Jacqueline (Patricia Kalember) is away visiting her mother. His best friend Robert (Ben Daniels), who, unbeknownst to Bernard, is Jacqueline's lover, is also spending the weekend. Bernard has engaged a chef, Suzette (Spencer Kayden), to prepare a romantic dinner. Jacqueline's abrupt cancellation of her trip sets off a tightly scripted round of mistaken identities, misunderstandings and pratfalls. The physical humor is extremely well-choreographed and the actors, except for Tilly, are very good. Daniels, who has the thankless task of portraying a character that Mark Rylance played, acquits himself admirably. Kayden repeatedly steals scenes. David Aron Damane makes the most of the small role of George. I suppose it's unrealistic to look for any depth of characterization in a farce, but I felt very little stake in what happened to anyone. What pleasure there is comes from watching the complications unfold with the precision of a Swiss clock. John Lee Beatty's set and William Ivey Long's costumes are fine. John Tillinger's direction keeps the action lively in this Roundabout production. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including intermission.