Sunday, March 18, 2007

Springtime on (and off) Broadway

Talk Radio
Written by Eric Bogosian

Mary Rose
Written by J.M. Barrie

Prelude to a Kiss
Written by Craig Lucas

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare

Springtime in New York means big revivals (like a Pulitzer Prize nominee and a Shakespeare tragedy) and even bigger stars (Tony, Emmy and Oscar winners) on and off-Broadway.

Eric Bogosian's play Talk Radio seemed prescient when first performed in 1987: its portrait of a loud-mouthed, controversial Cleveland radio host anticipated such disparate voices as Howard Stern, Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh. So-even though Oliver Stone's 1988 film starring Bogosian is pretty much the definitive version-it's definitely time to revisit Talk Radio to see if it's still relevant.

The new Broadway production, directed by Robert Falls and starring Tony-winning actor Liev Schreiber in an excellent turn as DJ Barry Champlain, makes a Bogosian's play compelling and, if anything, even timelier now, since our entire airwaves-TV and internet as well as radio-have gone far beyond the merely irritating baiting that Champlain partakes in.

It's easy to see Champlain as the ur-Stern/Rush/Imus, but Bogosian is too smart a writer to allow his creations to be pigeonholed: even his solo shows, during which he enacted dozens of people of various persuasions, showed off his genius at transforming stereotypes into complexly flawed, if sympathetic, individuals.

That happens in Talk Radio too, as we get to know Champlain through his tirades and interactions with his callers along with his frayed relationships with those who work at the radio station. (It must be admitted that the short monologues given to his girlfriend/assistant, his producer and his boss are the weakest parts of the play.)

Although Bogosian himself was brilliant in the original production and Stone's movie, Schreiber nearly equals him in demonstrating how Champlain can be both exceptionally obnoxious and charismatic on and off the radio. Schreiber-a good actor in the right role, which will never include the romantic leading man-captures the abrasive host perfectly, down to his arrogant puffs of cigarette smoke.

A capable supporting cast-led by Sebastian Stan in an hilarious cameo as a stoned fan-and superb set design handsomely contribute to this talky but continually fascinating Talk Radio.

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J. M. Barrie's Mary Rose is a creepy ghost story that was reputedly one of Alfred Hitchcock's favorites in the genre. Barrie's tale of a grown son who returns to the family home and confronts the spirit of his dead mother is, when done right, an astonishingly effective, even moving drama that could be considered the "adult" version of Barrie's classic Peter Pan.

Too bad that's not forthcoming in Tina Landau's staging which, though terrific in some ways, is seriously flawed at its center. Landau creates a credible atmosphere of foreboding and dread, even leavening the proceedings with lighthearted moments, and her cast (with a notable exception) is thoroughly professional. The director, however, is to blame for creating a new character, who speaks the stage directions that Barrie deliberately overwrote for readers to describe what's onstage (at least 2001's astronaut, Kier Dullea, makes him charming if never necessary).

Landau also cast Paige Carlyle Howard as Mary Rose, a fatal mistake. Howard- yes, she's another of Ron Howard's daughters-is currently an acting student at NYU, and her lack of experience is painfully apparent: she overdoes the early scenes when Mary Rose is a teenager, and cannot bring any conflicting emotions and depth of feeling to the final scene, when Mary Rose's ghost confronts her grown son. Perhaps in the future, Howard might tackle this difficult part, but failing to do so in an off-Broadway revival is unfair to the audience and to her.

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I was never a big fan of Prelude to a Kiss, whether in its original incarnation onstage (which I saw in 1990 with Timothy Hutton and Mary-Louise Parker) or in its 1992 movie version with Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin (which I skipped).

Craig Lucas's fey comic fantasy--which actually was nominated for a Pulitzer and Tony as Best Play of 1990--has never seemed either fantastic or plausible enough to believe: Peter and Rita meet cute, date cute and marry cute, and at the wedding an old man kisses Rita and switches souls with her. After the man promptly disappears, the newlyweds must deal with the consequences, notably that Peter's lovely bride has an elderly man's soul to go with her young woman's body.

The triteness of Lucas's concept--shouldn't the straight old man trade souls with Peter so he wouldn't have to be on the receiving end of lovemaking?--is matched only by the stupidity of the characters. Rita's parents (overacted by James Rebhorn and Robin Bartlett) never notice how obviously different their "daughter" has become; Peter (enacted nicely by Alan Tudyk) confronts "Rita," then allows her the opportunity to leave, which she does; the "old man" (played with endearing hangdog charm by "Frasier's" John Mahoney) starts hanging out at the bar where Rita worked, apparently unbeknownst to the bartender who attended the wedding and would surely remember the commotion when they kissed; and so on.

Lucas's characters act so ludicrously that the fantasy element takes a back seat to their foolishness, killing sympathy and humor simultaneously. Even director Daniel Sullivan's adroit staging doesn't help, although he coaxes a lovely performance from Annie Parissie as Rita, a combination of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Sandra Bullock. Still, Prelude to a Kiss remains inert, tragically.

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Oscar-winner Kevin Kline has had his Shakespearean triumphs-notably Falstaff in Henry IV four years ago, and now tackles the most imposing mountain of them all: King Lear, that most treacherous and stunningly dark of all tragedies, a play about the thin line between love and lunacy, the yawning chasm between parents and children, along with much else.

When done well, King Lear is a draining but cathartic experience; when done badly-as it is at the Public Theater-it's meaningless and diluted of its power. Director James Lapine stages King Lear in the most obvious way: three little girls-Lear's daughters at a young age-are together onstage as the play opens. Of course, they're not in the text (unless Lapine found a lost quarto) but are brought back periodically to spur Lear's descent into madness and hover near the adult daughters' dead bodies.

Although Lapine sets a brisk pace at times, he is unable to properly build toward the final, heartwrenching tragedy, resulting in the least moving Lear/Cordelia death scene I've yet witnessed.

Kevin Kline is charming and funny, but he was far better doing this when he played Falstaff with the same grey beard and hair. The actor speaks clearly and enunciates well, even if he often accentuates the wrong words. On the plus side, Kline's different emphasis on each of Lear's final "never's" brings those extraordinary final phrases of Lear's into dramatic focus.

At least Kline isn't embarrassing, unlike most of his co-stars, none of whom can even begin to speak the Bard's poetry with any sense of rhythm or purpose. Kristen Bush (Cordelia) and Michael Cerveris (Kent) give it a go--and Bush even has a few nice early moments--but there's no one onstage to rescue this aborted King Lear.

originally posted on staticmultimedia.com

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