Saturday, April 21, 2012

Theater Roundup: "Gore Vidal's The Best Man"; "4000 Miles"; "The Morini Strad"; "Federer vs. Murray"

James Earl Jones and John Laroquette in Gore Vidal's The Best Man (photo by Joan Marcus)
Gore Vidal’s The Best Man
Written by Gore Vidal; directed by Michael Wilson
Starring James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, John Laroquette, Candice Bergen, Michael McKean, Eric McCormack, Kerry Butler
Previews began March 6, 2012; opened April 1; closes July 8
Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Back on Broadway, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man—written in 1960 and taking place during an unnamed political party's presidential convention in Philadelphia—remains a pertinent, sophisticated comic drama that concerns Secretary of State William Russell, who initially refuses to smear his opponent, the crackerjack McCarthy-esque senator Joseph Cantwell, in their battle for the nomination, even though Cantwell has info he's threatening to release if Russell doesn’t bow out.

In director Michael Wilson’s exciting, tautly-paced production, Vidal’s sharp-tongued wit is kept vividly intact by cannily blending overdone histrionics with welcome restraint. There's satisfying ham in the form of venerable Angela Lansbury as Sue-Ellen Gamadge, head of a women's voting bloc; Kerry Butler as Cantwell’s southern-belle wife Mabel; Jefferson Mays as Sheldon Marcus, Cantwell's former fellow army man whose bombshell revelation might sink Cantwell’s candidacy; and, most spectacularly, James Earl Jones, whose booming, braying basso transforms ex-president Artie Hockstader from homespun folkiness into a memorable orator-in-chief.

More happily restrained are Candice Bergen’s Alice, Russell's plainly elegant estranged wife; Eric McCormack’s smilingly dangerous Cantwell; Michael McKean’s loyal but sardonic Russell campaign manager, Dick Jensen; and, zestiest of all, John Laroquette's eminent and esteemed Russell. For old-fashioned, intelligent entertainment, The Best Man wins in a landslide.

4000 Miles
Written by Amy Herzog; directed by Daniel Aukin
Starring Gabriel Ebert, Greta Lee, Mary Louise Wilson, Zoe Winters
Previews began March 15, 2012; opened April 2; closes June 17
Mitzi Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

The cross-country bicycle trip taken by protagonist Leo in Amy Herzog's comic drama 4000 Miles has nothing on his metaphorical journey of self-discovery while living with ornery grandmother Vera Joseph in her Manhattan apartment.

Even though 4000 Miles has laughs and poignancy, the relationship between Leo and Vera never strays far from the level of sentimental soap opera. Of course, these are atypical soap characters: Vera's an unrepentant radical-cum-progressive, and the family's hippie gene has apparently skipped a generation, as grandmother and grandson bond while smoking dope and bemoaning how square his parents/her daughter/son-in-law are.

Lauren Helpern’s set unerringly recreates a typical rent-controlled Manhattan apartment, even down to its corner radiators. Daniel Aukin's unobtrusive direction is helped immensely by his acting quartet. In small roles, Greta Lee acquits herself well as Leo's flaky pickup improbably scared off by his commie grandma, and Zoe Winters imbues Leo’s girlfriend Bec with welcome flashes of life.

As Vera, Mary Louise Wilson's perfectly pitched comic timing deserves better than such a superficial role, while Gabriel Ebert—particularly in the drawn-out monologue in which he describes his best friend's death while they rode through middle America—thrillingly transforms a clichéd hippie into a sweetly misguided young man.

The Morini Strad
Starring Michael Laurence, Mary Beth Peil, Hanah Stuart
Written by Willy Holtzman; directed by Casey Childs
Previews began March 20, 2012; opened April 3; closes April 28
59 E 59 Theatre, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
The Morini Strad is Willy Holtzmann's dry, facile two-hander about the conflict between a hands-on artisan and a prima-donna artist. It's famous violinist Erica Morini—a stubborn talent whose playing was derided as too “masculine” when she was younger—vs. violin maker-restorer Brian; they clash after she hires him to restore her precious (but damaged) Stradivarius violin. He obliges, later discovering she wants to sell it for an outrageous sum before vultures led by—she thinks—her conspiratorial cleaning lady swoop in to pluck the priceless instrument from her hands.

Holtzman's standard-issue premise—Brian lives a normal suburban life with his wife, sons and barking dog, while Erica's in a Fifth Avenue doorman apartment with all the arrogance of a celebrity always catered to—keeps his drama on an unsurprising path. There are humorous exchanges, but even more eye-rolling comic lines, as when Erica mentions fellatio, calls John Lennon “Lenin,” or prefers the Rolling Stones because “Michael Jagger” once came backstage.

Mary Beth Peil growls endearingly as Erica, Michael Laurence makes a believably scruffy Brian, and exemplary violinist Hanah Stuart performs Tchaikovsky and Part as a young Erica. Casey Childs has smoothly directed a play that will resonate more with artists or artisans in the audience than the general public.

Federer vs. Murray
Written and directed by Gerda Stevenson
Starring Gerda Stevenson, Dave Anderson
Previews began April 4, 2012; opened April 10; closes April 22
59 E 59 Theatre, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
Gerda Stevenson's Federer vs. Murray packs a lot into 55 minutes. The world-class tennis players of its title never appear, but their important Wimbledon match conveniently parallels the grudge match between a husband and wife, whose own sorrowful tragedy is played out on the bitterly contested battleground of their living room.

Flo (played with steely rage by the author, who also directs succinctly) works overtime at a local hospital and cannot bear to think—let alone talk—about her son, a soldier killed in Afghanistan. Her laid-off husband Jimmy (a superbly controlled Dave Anderson) wants life to go on despite their beloved son’s death: they and (unseen) daughter Mary are alive, and—huge fan of the professional and gentlemanly Federer that he is—he wants to travel to his hero’s native Switzerland and see the Matterhorn in all its snowy glory.

Yes, there are metaphors tripping over metaphors, some clunkily, others snugly: when the couple gets painted faces in their heroes' flag colors, things become amusing if obvious; when a saxophonist (the talented Ben Bryden) appears during interludes to play melancholy music, we see him as their son, whose instrument Jimmy pulls out to toot. In case we miss the connection, Bryden enters at the end wearing fatigues.

She might wield a sledgehammer instead of a racket, but Stevenson has created a powerful portrait of people being pulled apart by grief while trying to keep a tenuous hold on their tattered relationship.

No comments: