Sunday, February 4, 2007

Winter Theater Roundup

The Scene
Written by Theresa Rebeck

The Clean House
Written by Sarah Ruhl

The Coast of Utopia
Written by Tom Stoppard

Written by Brian Friel

Some stars act in plays because of name recognition (for example, Julia Roberts in last spring's disappointing Three Days of Rain), while others return to the theater from television or the movies simply because they love it. Currently, several star turns light up Manhattan stages.

The Scene, a flimsy comedy by Theresa Rebeck (a writer of such TV shows as "NYPD Blue," "L.A. Law" and "Law and Order"), follows the unlikely story of an unemployed actor, with a successful casting-director wife, who embarks on a career-killing, friendship-destroying and marriage-ending affair with an irresistible, gorgeous bimbo.

If there was anything believable about this loser's fall from grace, it might have been an instructive black comedy, but Rebeck is only after cheap laughs and plot twists: the scene where wife walks in on hubby and blonde screwing on the sofa has to be seen to be disbelieved. Save some funny lines and the occasional astute observation, The Scene is best left unseen.

The actors try their best, however: Christopher Evan Welch (friend) is making a lucrative career out of his miraculous slow burns and double takes, and Anna Camp (bimbo) is so frighteningly good in both the physical and the thespian aspect that she embodies the ultimate "dumb blonde."

Two TV actors score as the play's anti-hero and his wife. Patricia Heaton ("Everybody Loves Raymond") overcomes her cliched "put-upon wife" role with emotion and serious outbursts of profanity. (The first time our gal says the "f" word there are audible gasps in the audience.) And Tony Shaloub ("Monk") wrings whatever pathos and humor he can out of this loser-husband role, even making us forgive him at the end. Well, almost.


To see Blair Brown (best known for "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," and a superb stage actress for decades) and Jill Clayburgh (Oscar nominee for An Unmarried Woman, then largely invisible for years) onstage together is a no-brainer.

They're appearing in Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House, an unsuccessful attempt at injecting surrealism into a typical dramatic play; it's still worthwhile, if only because it offers the chance to watch these talented actresses spar as sisters as different as the Sunnis and the Shias. Brown plays a doctor whose surgeon husband left her for an elderly patient, whose housekeeper hates cleaning, and whose sister does said cleaning behind her back.

It's an admittedly weak premise (the Brazilian housekeeper hopes to create the world's greatest joke, so we hear jokes in Portuguese sans any translation), but Ruhl can write witty dialogue, and the production--staged by Bill Rauch, with sets by Christopher Acebo and lighting by James F. Ingalls--is a visual delight. Then there are the actors: aside from Brown's and Clayburgh's splendid turns, there are John Dossett as the husband, Concetta Tomei as his new flame, and Vanessa Aspillaga as the "stand-up"housekeeper, all believably funny and warm.


In a playwriting career filled with various clever manipulations of literature, history, romance, even mathematics--including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Thing, and Arcadia--it's Tom Stoppard's latest, a trilogy of plays about pre-revolutionary, 19th century Russian intellectuals under the title The Coast of Utopia, that may be his richest and most illuminating achievement yet.

Lincoln Center is showing the three plays in the trilogy--titled Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage--in repertory through May 13, 2007, and there are even days when one can watch all of them back to back to back. If you think that's a bit much to watch dozens of smart aristocrats discuss theories of revolution, think again: Stoppard's writing has rarely been so elegant, so finely-tuned, so humorous and wise in its revelations of the human brain and even heart.

Of course, the sterling production helps immensely, as director Jack O'Brien moves his actors around the stage so brilliantly that scenes set in different cities months or years apart blend seamlessly. O'Brien's collaborators are also up to the task: Bob Crowley and Scott Pask's eloquent sets, Catherine Zuber's costumes, the lighting designers of each part (Brian MacDevitt, Kenneth Posner, Natasha Katz), and the richly evocative music of Mark Bennett.

There's also one of the most formidable ensembles ever assembled on a Broadway stage. Ethan Hawke, Billy Crudup and Tony winner Brian F. O'Byrne may be the true stars--their characters are the trilogy's main protagonists--but everyone is excellent in their various guises, including Amy Irving, Jennifer Ehle, Martha Plimpton, David Harbour and Richard Easton.

It's nearly nine hours, but The Coast of Utopia still flies by.


Translations is one of Irish playwright Brian Friel's most remarkable creations, a searing and honest study of how language can be a barrier to both love and life: the British and Irish can't get along, and the lone attempt to find romance--between a British officer and a young Irish lass--is doomed to fail.

The last time on Broadway--in a starry production featuring Brian Dennehy, "China Beach's" Dana Delaney and the great Irish thespian Donal Donnelly--the result was an unmitigated disaster; even that lovely love scene, where the pair can't find words that they both understand to convey their emotions, didn't come off. This time, in the Roundabout Theater's adequate production, the scene is the centerpiece of the play; overall, this staging may do for those unfamiliar with the play (after all, Friel's rich language and heartbreaking characters are still in evidence), but there was a missed opportunity to make Translations a towering theatrical event.

Director Gerry Hynes does a credible job, but her pacing is often suspect: the second act drags interminably near the end, which mutes the onrushing tragic events. Her actors also do acceptably well, although only Niall Buggy finds the inner life that Friel's characters are full of, but are too rarely viewed onstage.

Still, a simply decent Translations is better than no Translations at all.
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