Tuesday, May 8, 2012

NYC Theater in Brief: Streetcar, Shakespeare, Silver, Shaw, Rabe, Pinter

Underwood and Parker in Streetcar (photo by Ken Howard)
A Streetcar Named Desire
Written by Tennessee Williams; directed by Emily Mann
Previews began April 3, 2012; opened April 22; closes July 22
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Ignore the dubious notion that black and Latino actors in A Streetcar Named Desire provide some sort of extra illumination (they don’t) and Emily Mann’s new production is not without interest. Terence Blanchard’s music is appropriately dusky and sexy, while Eugene Lee’s set nicely evokes New Orleans’ French Quarter. If Mitch and Stella are played without much nuance by Wood Harris and Daphne Rubin-Vega, at least there are sparks between Stanley—never identified as Kowalski here, for obvious reasons—and Blanche Dubois: Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker.

Underwood has charismatic appeal, and he’s a decent enough Stanley; if he can’t compare with Brando…well, who can? The breathtakingly beautiful Parker, meanwhile, is almost too delicate for Blanche, but she invests her with an empathy missing from an otherwise respectable production. After so many inferior Streetcars on New York stages over the years—Alec Baldwin/Jessica Lange, John C. Reilly/Natasha Richardson, the Cate Blanchett import—respectability is just what Blanche’s doctor ordered.

Neuwirth and Heald in Dream (photo by Joan Marcus)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Tony Speciale
Previews began April 4, 2012; opened April 25; closes May 20
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY

For a few gloriously giddy minutes, Tony Speciale’s misguided A Midsummer Night’s Dream basks in its (and Shakespeare’s) element. Right before intermission, the quartet of mismatched lovers runs around in a physically demanding romp that underlines rather than overwhelms the fast-moving text. The four nimble performers—Christina Ricci, Halley Wegryn Gross, Nick Gehlfuss and Jordan Dean—aren’t top-notch Shakespeare speakers, but they are able to convey (with a great assist from George De La Pena’s frolicsome choreography) the hilarious and bittersweet absurdities that the relationships in Dream abound in.

The rest of the time—with the exceptions of a well-spoken Oberon (and Theseus) by Anthony Heald and Mark Wendland’s eye-popping set dominated by a wall-sized mirror that reflects the magical goings-on—this Dream is a campy nightmare: especially ludicrous are Taylor Mac’s Puck and David Greenspan’s Flute. Steven Skybell’s Bottom occasionally amuses, Bebe Neuwirth’s Titiana looks smashing in a black leather outfit, and Erin Hill sings pleasingly while accompanied herself on harp. But Speciale’s Dream is nothing special.

Lavin and Latessa in The Lyons (photo by Carol Rosegg)
The Lyons
Written by Nicky Silver; directed by Mark Brokaw
Previews began April 5, 2012; opened April 23
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Nicky Silver’s The Lyons (which should be The Lyonses), a superficial comic study of the ultimate dysfunctional family, has enough nastily funny lines to make for a tolerable couple of hours. As patriarch Ben lies dying in his hospital bed, his wife Rita is giddy with excitement that she’ll finally start a new life, while their children—gay, unattached Curtis and straight, alcoholic, divorced Lisa—helplessly look on.

Silver gives many of the best (or, at least, nastiest) dialogue to Rita, whom Linda Lavin plays to the hilt in an unself-consciously hammy performance that’s the show’s highlight. Dick Latessa is a fine Ben, although his foul-mouthed outbursts aren’t as gut-busting as Silver apparently thinks they are, while Kate Jennings Grant and John Wernke (the understudy was at the performance I attended) are capable as the cardboard Curtis and Lisa. Mark Brokaw directs with brio, but The Lyons is as undernourished as Silver’s others. And why, for the sake of a bad pun, does he mistitle his own play?

Man and Superman (photo by James Higgins)
Man and Superman
Written by Bernard Shaw; adapted and directed by David Staller
Previews began April 26, 2012; opened May 6; closes June 17
Irish Rep, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY

David Staller’s adaptation of Bernard Shaw’s mammoth masterpiece should be called Scenes from Man and Superman: although worthy of the master, enough has been shorn to make one long for what’s missing. In this typically witty and erudite exploration of the relationship between eternal bachelor Jack and his ward Ann, who has her designs on him, Shaw has written a play massive in scale, including one act, Don Juan in Hell, that’s often presented separately—or deleted entirely from Superman stagings.

Director Staller includes everything, but his cuts and dialogue changes (including unnecessary scene changes) are questionable. Still—as it always does—Shavian wit saves the day, the actors (particularly Brian Murray’s blustering Ramsden) are fine individually and as an ensemble, and the Irish Rep’s tiny stage is used adroitly by Staller and set designer James Noone. It’s not a perfect Man and Superman, but can there be?

Stockman and Van Der Boom in An Early History of Fire (photo by Monique Carboni)
An Early History of Fire
Written by David Rabe; directed by Jo Bonney
Previews began April 5, 2012; opened April 30; closes May 26
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Belatedly pitting the square ‘50s against the with-it ‘60s, David Rabe’s An Early History of Fire has a whiff of moldiness in its story of Danny, a restless young man in a small Midwest town whose new girlfriend, the delectable Karen—a beautiful and rich local girl whose college education back East opens new doors to him—transforms his relationships with his friends and widowed, Old World father in the course of a long night.

Although the scenes between Danny and Karen (played with authenticity and directness by Theo Stockman and Claire van der Boom) are beautifully written, Rabe has trouble with the other characters, which are mere tangents to the central relationship; and his reliance on obvious pop culture markers (JD Salinger! Jack Kerouac! Elvis!) preclude any fresh statements at this late date. But Jo Bonney’s compact staging and the fine cast of seven are able to convey the outlines of real lives anyway.

Pryce in The Caretaker (photo by Shane Reid)
The Caretaker
Written by Harold Pinter; directed by Christopher Morahan
Previews began May 3, 2012; opened May 6; closes June 17
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY

In Harold Pinter’s dreary The Caretaker, which is filled with the arbitrarily malevolent relationships that the playwright returned to again and again, Jonathan Pryce adroitly plays Davies, a vagrant who forms unlikely bonds with two brothers, Mick and Aston, and expertly plays them off each other.

Christopher Morahan’s claustrophobic production, played out on Eileen Diss’s exceptionally scattered mess of a set, solidly grounds the constantly shifting power plays among this motley trio. But despite Pryce’s, Alan Cox’s and Alex Hassell’s heroic efforts, The Caretaker never amounts to much; whether it’s because the play itself lacks gravitas or because we’ve become numbed to Pinter’s rug-pulling is hard to say. Later Pinter works like The Homecoming and Celebration, for all their exaggerated nastiness, have characters worth dissecting: not so The Caretaker.

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