Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Holiday Theater Roundup

The Farnsworth Invention
Written by Aaron Sorkin

The Seafarer
Written by Conor MacPherson

August: Osage County
Written by Tracy Letts

Cymbeline
Written by William Shakespeare

Is He Dead?
Written by Mark Twain; adapted by David Ives

The Homecoming
Written by Harold Pinter

The recent Broadway strike lasted 19 days; aside from inconveniencing theatergoers–especially out-of-towners planning trips to the city to see their favorite shows–and forcing producers and striking stagehands to lose income, the biggest headache was that, once an agreement was reached, shows scheduled to open during the strike opened almost immediately afterwards.

Most surprising about this fall’s Broadway scene is the lack of star names: sure, there’s Kevin Kline (the best thing about the Cyrano de Bergerac revival), Jennifer Garner (the worst thing about the Cyrano revival), Claire Danes (surprisingly, the best thing about the Pygmalion revival) and Deadwood’s Ian McShane (one of the best things about The Homecoming revival).

But, this winter, the playwright’s the thing on Broadway: in addition to older plays by authors living and dead—Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Harold Pinter—new plays by three living, breathing playwrights dominate the Great White Way.

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Let’s start with the latest play by Aaron Sorkin, who followed his riveting stage drama A Few Good Men (which starred Amadeus’ Tom Hulce in its 1989 Broadway premiere) by heading to Hollywood, where he scripted the Few Good Men adaptation and The American President for director Rob Reiner and the current Mike Nichols-directed Charlie Wilson’s War, and created the TV shows Sports Night, the Emmy-lauded The West Wing, and recent failure Studio 60.

Now Sorkin returns to Broadway with The Farnsworth Invention, which asks the question: “Did Philo Farnsworth really create the most important–if ruinous– invention of the 20th century?” Up against Farnsworth was Russian immigarnt David Sarnoff, founder of NBC and head of RCA, who wanted to ensure that the patent, glory and riches went to him and his company and not a country bumpkin from Utah.

Sorkin’s play began as a movie script until he decided that the shifting tone, chronology and narration lent itself to a more abstract stage conception. As it stands, The Farnsworth Invention is another dazzling visual achievement by director Des McAnuff (The Who’s Tommy), utilizing a multi-tiered stage to “cut” from one scene to another as time and location continually shift. The dueling protagonists who narrate each other’s stories are nicely enacted by Jimmi Simpson (Farnsworth) and Hank Azaria (Sarnoff), whose one unfortunate tic is falling into his Moe the Bartender voice from The Simpsons.

Ironically, Sorkin’s script is too sitcom-ish to effectively dramatize this fascinating tug-of-war between “David” Farnsworth and “Goliath” Sarnoff; it’s not so much that he plays hard and fast with the facts (though he does that) but that each character is far too self-consciously witty in the manner of current TV shows where seemingly everyone is clever beyond belief. In its own way, then, The Farnsworth Invention is an indictment of what’s become of that amazing invention.

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Sorkin’s play is preferable to the latest by Irish playwright Conor MacPherson, whose The Seafarer is another disposable yackfest that, if anything, makes drunken Irishmen look more obnoxious than seemingly possible. Although there is no shockeroo like a ghost’s appearance at the end of Shining City (MacPherson’s last Broadway play), the devil appears in the form of Mr. Lockhart, who plays cards with a quartet of low-class types in an effort to regain the soul of one of them, Sharky, as an overdue debt of sorts.

Such unoriginal drama wouldn’t even pass muster on a half-hour Twilight Zone episode; at two acts and over two hours, with much nonsensical gabbing and a lot of a certain obscenity that sounds like “fick,” The Seafarer is interminable. Why would the devil appear on his most hated day, Christmas Eve, when other, less conspicuous days would work far better, why would he be so affected by drinking, and why can’t he stop the stereo from playing that infernal holiday music, especially since he has supernatural powers over these mere mortals at other times?

None of these questions is answered satisfactorily, needless to say. Instead, MacPherson is left to direct a quintet of actors–led by St. Elsewhere’s David Morse (Sharky), There Will Be Blood’s Ciarin Hinds (Lockhart), and brilliant character actor Jim Norton (Sharky’s blind brother, Richard)–that magisterially enacts these cardboard cutouts as if inhabiting a play by a much superior Irish dramatist like Shaw, Synge or Friel.

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One of the most anticipated new dramas in recent seasons, Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, got raves in The New York Times from the same writer twice: first when the play opened at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, and secondly when it opened on Broadway. Letts’ play–an old-fashioned, three-act tragicomedy about a dysfunctional family–includes every malfunction imaginable under one roof. If psychological acuity isn’t his strong suit, but Letts is a terrific playwright who writes vivid characters and dynamic dialogue. (His off-Broadway hit Bug was turned into a shocking movie thriller by William Friedkin starring Ashley Judd.)

August: Osage County concerns the Weston family: father Beverly, a drunkard, disappears one day, presumably a suicide; his wife, Violet, is a pill-popping monster whose three daughters return home when they hear about their father. What ensues is a well-written and acted tug-of-war among several combatants, with the eldest daughter, Barabara, eventually turning the tables on Mom until she is about to turn into her mom herself. Of course, closet doors are thrown open, revealing skeletons including incest, adultery, pedophilia and drug abuse.

Since Letts has such a superb ear, the conversations in this three-hour and 20-minute play are engrossing and often hilarious: a dinner table scene has nine characters embroiled in a fantastically funny, thoroughly beastly trashing of each other that hasn’t been seen on Broadway since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Anna D. Shapiro’s direction may be too broad at times, but she puts her large cast through its paces persuasively. The acting from the entire cast is astonishingly good, from the playwright’s father Dennis Letts in an opening cameo as the soon-missing patriarch to the star-making portrayals of Steppenwolf regulars Deanna Dunagan (Violet) and Amy Morton (Barabara).

If Letts’ play bites off more than it can chew, it is–along with Tom Stoppard’s Rock’n’Roll–true must-see theater, a rarity on the Great White Way.

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Two long-dead geniuses are on Broadway right now, including Shakespeare, whose Cymbeline is being given a first-rate revival at Lincoln Center Theater. One of the Bard’s most difficult plays with an insanely complex plot and abstruse poetry, Cymbeline is rarely done; what director Mark Lamos has fashioned out of this brittle tragicomedy about family strife and reunion is a magical journey into the realm of fantasy that only theater at its best can take an audience.

Lamos enlists the best designers in the business: Jess Goldstein’s colorful costumes, Michael Yeargan’s stupendous sets and Brian MacDevitt’s marvelous lighting work complementarily to achieve the stunning effects Lamos seeks that it’s a bonus that the acting is mostly so good. John Cullum is a regally intense King Cymbeline; Martha Plimpton is a revelatory Imogen, the king’s daughter and main protagonist of Shakespeare’s convoluted plot; Michael Cerveris speaks powerful poetry as Imogen’s husband, Posthumous; and Jonathan Cake makes Iachimo, the villain who bets Posthumous that Imogen is unfaithful, funny and frightening. Only Phylicia Rashad as the evil queen is deadly to both the drama and Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue. Otherwise, this Cymbeline flies on eagle’s wings.

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Never a playwright, humorist Mark Twain tried his hand in 1899, penning a long-lost, unproduced farce, Is He Dead?, which asks if a poor artist can be worth more after faking his own death to boost the prices of his paintings. Such questions rarely are asked on Broadway these days, so it took a mountain of comedic geniuses to bring Twain’s bumpy ride to the stage. Playwright David Ives has adapted and streamlined Twain’s original, giving it a glossy sheen and many more one-liners than it had originally; director Michael Blakemore has staged it all as richly as possible without crossing the line into pure camp. And it’s acted by a bevy of big hitters: you might not know them, but they certainly know their stuff.

This is a fictionalized life of the great 19th century French painter Jean-Francois Millet, whose exquisite portraits of field hands and other quotidian workers are now considered masterpieces. Twain and Ives show him as a painter without a future as long as he’s alive, so he and his cronies concoct a scheme to kill him off, sending prices for his paintings soaring. It works beyond their wildest dreams, and Millet–disguised as his widowed “sister”–must deal with unwanted suitors for “her” hand and his own inability to let his own fiancĂ©e in on this absurd plot.

Of such comic shenanigans are hilarious farces made, and though Is He Dead? is not great, it does contain many funny lines and some of the best physical comedy ever seen on Broadway. The cast is led by Norbert Leo Butz (Tony winner for the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels musical) as Millet, who has sublime comic timing and, when he’s in drag playing the sister, does so much with a mere wink, nod or blink of an eye that he’s practically subtle in overdoing it. A brilliant physical comedian, Butz makes every silly thing seem effortless while literally sweating under the bright lights.

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Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter has been lionized as one of our best playwrights, and his style of pauses followed by non sequiturs, all spoken by characters who are self-contradictory from moment to moment, is certainly distinctive.

His most famous play, The Homecoming, has returned to Broadway in a superbly-acted revival adroitly directed by Daniel Sullivan. Still, those nagging characters, typically for Pinter, act in nasty ways that have nothing to do with either reality or–also typical for Pinter–surreality.

Philosophy professor Teddy returns home with his wife Ruth to meet his father Max, uncle Sam and brothers Lenny and Joey. In scenes that play out as a soap opera with added viciousness, Ruth is both whore and mothering figure, Teddy is astute outsider and cowed victim, Max is domineering father and crawling proselytizer, Lenny is a crude pimp and a learned debater, and so on. Pinter’s dialogue is filled with vulgarities and repetitions to go along with the infamous pauses, which is enough for some to conclude that The Homecoming is a great achievement.

It’s not, but the acting is: Raul Esparza (Lenny), Gareth Saxe (Joey) and James Frain (Teddy) make a formidably malicious trio of brothers; Laverne and Shirley’s Lenny, Michael McKean (Sam) and Deadwood’s Swearengen, Ian McShane (Max), inhabit their roles as persuasively as possible; and Eve Best, who has the most ridiculously unbelievable role, invests Ruth with the simultaneous sexiness and chilliness that Pinter apparently calls for.

The Homecoming is a pretty bad play, but when it’s done as well as it is in its current Broadway incarnation, it almost passes for a real theatrical event.

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