Friday, November 25, 2011

Theater Roundup: Rickman On Broadway, Friel Off

Written by Theresa Rebeck; directed by Sam Gold
Starring Hamish Linklater, Jerry O’Connell, Hettienne Park, Lily Rabe, Alan Rickman
Previews began October 27, 2011; opened November 20
Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Dancing at Lughnasa
Written by Brian Friel; directed by Charlotte Moore
Starring Orlagh Cassidy, Kevin Collins, Michael Countryman, Annabel Hagg, Jo Kinsella, Aedin Moloney, Ciaran O’Reilly, Rachel Pickup
Previews began October 20, 2011; opened October 30; closes January 15, 2012
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY
The cast of Dancing at Lughnasa (photo by Carol Rosegg)

The difference between a great playwright and a merely decent one is shown in two current New York productions: the off-Broadway Irish Rep’s revival of Brian Friel’s 1990 masterpiece Dancing at Lughnasa, and the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s new Broadway play, Seminar, starring everyone’s favorite Die Hard villain (and accomplished stage actor) Alan Rickman.

Friel’s play comprises flesh and blood characters and a poignant sense of life as it’s really lived, in its joys and heartbreaks, hopes and disappointments. Rebeck, in contrast, has written an immensely clever and polished comedy populated by caricatures whose relationships are so sketchily drawn that even plentiful--and often funny--one-liners can’t mask the entertaining work’s essential hollowness.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a luminous memory play narrated by Michael, who thinks back to an Irish summer in the fictional town of Ballybeg of 1936 and the five Mundy sisters, all spinsters ranging in age from 26 to 40, one of whom--Christine, the youngest--is Michael’s unwed mother. The women, resigned to their lot in life, look forward to the annual Lughnasa harvest festival; this becomes clear as they listen to their new wireless radio and start dancing in their small kitchen: such unbridled ecstasy is one of the most joyous scenes I’ve ever seen in any play.

Friel’s wistful yet unsentimental drama has a hard-edged poetry not only in its beautifully carved, musical dialogue but also in the very souls of its lovingly rendered characters, whom we end up caring about deeply. What was a moving, humane drama in its 1991 Broadway incarnation doesn’t quite strike the same touching note in Charlotte Moore’s small-scale staging, although the cast (except the usually reliable Michael Countryman, whose lack of Irish authenticity as the sisters’ sickly older brother Father Jake is a serious misstep) is solid. Rachel Pickup is much more than that: her radiant portrayal of middle sister Agnes would have fit in snugly with the original exemplary cast.

Alan Rickman (center) in Seminar (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Seminar introduces Leonard, a bitter, burnt-out writer reduced to giving private, exclusive lessons to a select few students looking for tips to get published, who teaches a motley quartet of dull Douglas, sexy Izzy, geeky Martin and thin-skinned Kate, whose family‘s gorgeous rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment is the setting for these weekly meetings.

There’s a lot here that’s simply unbelievable: that three students (Kate excepted) could afford the $5000 class fee; that the two women enter into sexual liaisons with Leonard (both of them) and Martin (Izzy only), for mere purposes of dramatic--or, more precisely, comedic--irony when they are found out; and that Leonard would be jetting around the world to visit places like Somalia in his current position: he’s a journeyman editor and, apparently, out of favor in the business because of long-ago plagiarism (which Martin gleefully brings up after Leonard once too often destroys one of their writing efforts).

But if Rebeck is dishonest with her quintet, she can always rely on her zippy dialogue. If these characters are too smart and clever, in the way of so many TV shows, movies and plays nowadays, at least Rebeck keeps the talk lively and pointed. It’s also too bad that Seminar doesn’t end after Leonard’s big monologue in which he admits to creative and moral bankruptcy; by tacking on a final scene to provide a happy ending of sorts, Rebeck has closure, however unearned, and at the expense of a certain plausible messiness in her characters’ lives before the tidy wrap-up.

Sam Gold, who deftly stages Seminar on David Zinn’s terrifically detailed set, has an eager ensemble at his disposal, led by Rickman, who brilliantly drips with corrosive sarcasm, even if Leonard ultimately remains a cipher. Lily Rabe (Kate), Hamish Linklater (Martin), Hetienne Park (Izzy) and Jerry O’Connell (Charles) manage to keep up with Rickman, making Rebeck’s play amusingly endurable but, at bottom, unmemorable.

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