Saturday, April 16, 2011

Comics Unleashed

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Written by Rajiv Joseph; directed by Moises Kaufman
Starring Robin Williams, Arian Moayed, Glenn Davis, Brad Fleischer
Performances through July 3, 2011
Richard Rodgers Theatre
226 West 46th Street

The Motherf**ker with the Hat
Written by Stephen Adly Giurgis; directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Starring Bobby Cannavale, Chris Rock, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Annabella Sciorra, Yul Vazquez
Performances through June 25, 2011
Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street

Marie and Bruce

Written by Wallace Shawn; directed by Scott Elliott
Starring Tina Benko, Marisa Tomei, Frank Whaley
Performances through May 7, 2011
The New Group/Acorn Theatre
410 West 42nd Street


                                                  Williams in Bengal Tiger... (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Although Robin Williams, Chris Rock and Marisa Tomei are all award-winning comic performers, only one of them is a stage veteran. Anyone who’s seen her in Top Girls, Oh the Humanity, Salome or other plays knows that Tomei has become a nuanced, mature actress. So it’s interesting that both Williams and Rock have taken on roles in difficult-to-sell plays by Rajiv Joseph and Stephen Adly Giurgis for their Broadway debuts, while Tomei once again shows off her abundant comic chops in a revival of a 30-year-old Wallace Shawn play. 

When Robin Williams first appears in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, he stalks around inside a cage; with his grizzled, gray beard and husky frame, he actually resembles a bear more than he does a tiger, but let that pass. In Rajiv Joseph’s provocative but unsatisfying drama inspired by a news item about a tiger biting off a soldier’s hand, Williams plays the title tiger, whose ghost walks among the U.S. soldiers and Iraqis thrown together by the war, asking unanswerable questions about God and human nature.
Joseph has filled his play with too many over-explained passages that rub shoulders with equally (and inexplicably) unexplained passages, along with an abnormal interest in graphic ravaging of the body, as also in his aptly named Gruesome Playground Injuries. But Joseph does have his finger on the 21st century intersection of the personal, the political and the mystical; it’s too bad that his brighter ideas are less than felicitously worked out.
Moises Kaufman’s shrewd staging on Derek McLane’s gorgeously detailed set—complemented by David Lander’s crafty lighting—gives Tiger more seeming substance than it has. The play is also helped by Williams’ surprisingly straightforward, agreeably cantankerous interpretation of the title role and excellent acting in support from Arian Moayed as Iraqi interpreter Musa, Glenn Davis and Brad Fleischer as American soldiers and Hrach Titizan as the frightful ghost of Saddam’s son Uday.

Cannavale and Rock in The Motherf**ker... (photo by Joan Marcus)
With a title like The Motherf**ker with the Hat, you’d expect Stephen Adly Giurgis’ play to be completely crude, rude and lewd…well, it’s all that and more. This cracklingly comic examination of current and former addicts—especially lovers Veronica and Jackie, his sponsor Ralph and Ralph’s wife Victoria—struggling with their addictions comes off as a cousin of Martin McDonough’s A Behanding in Spokane from last season: its tremendously coruscant dialogue, which takes flight when spoken by its sharply caustic cast, gives the illusion of it being more penetrating than it is.
For 95 fast-moving minutes, Giurgis unleashes a unbroken, profane stream of words out of the mouths of his characters, thanks to Anna D. Shapiro’s concise direction, which makes great use of Todd Rosenthal’s amazingly flexible sets. Then there’s the terrific cast, which gives glorious voice to Giurgis’ endlessly vulgar dialogue.
Yul Vasquez’s Julio (Jackie’s cousin) finds unexpected laughs every moment he's onstage; Elizabeth Rodriguez’s Veronica is a coke-snorting spitfire of epic proportions; Annabella Sciorra’s finely-etched Victoria is the closest anyone comes to levelheadedness; and Chris Rock’s sincerely insincere Ralph, a laconic extension of his stand-up persona. Best of all is Bobby Cannavale as Jackie, a parolee with a jealous streak that sets what little of the play’s plot in motion, and who makes Giurgis’ foul-mouthed tirades soar in a physically draining but exhilarating performance.

Tomei and Whaley in Marie and Bruce (photo by Monique Carboni)
Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce, which purports to be an acidic, absurdist look at a woman leaving her dead marriage, doesn’t play fair from the start: Marie is competent, smart, and charming while Bruce comes off as a jerk with a fatal flaw: annoying friends. Encouraging us to take Marie’s side from the start makes the play so lopsided that it’s drained of any drama, humor, heartbreak or credibility.
Director Scott Elliott keeps things interesting through his clever staging, but that only works to a point. Frank Whaley has no chance to create a coherent character of Bruce because the playwright has mercilessly caricatured him. Conversely, Marisa Tomei uses all of her considerable appeal to keep the audience watching, but even this resourceful actress can’t get a handle on a woman marked almost exclusively by her bilious outbursts. Her interchangeable monologues tell us virtually nothing about her marital dilemma, leaving the audience in the same prone state that Marie is seen in during an interminable dinner party—slumped down, eyes closed, oblivious to what’s going on.

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