Friday, May 25, 2012

NYC Theater Roundup: Megan Hilty ("Smash"), Topher Grace ("That 70s Show"), Simon Gray's Play Onstage

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Starring Megan Hilty, Simon Jones, Aaron Lazar, Deborah Rush, Rachel York
Music by Jule Styne; lyrics by Leo Robin
Book by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields, adapted from Loos’ novel
Directed by
John Rando
Performances from May 9-13, 2012
New York City Center, 151 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Lonely, I’m Not
Starring Topher Grace, Olivia Thirlby, Mark Blum, Lisa Emery  
Written by Paul Weitz; directed by Trip Cullum
Previews began April 10, 2012; opened May 7; closes June 3
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

The Common Pursuit
Starring Kristen Bush, Kieran Campion, Josh Cooke, Jacob Fishel, Tim McGeever, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe
Written by Simon Gray; directed by Moises Kaufman
Previews began May 4, 2012; opened May 24; closes July 29
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

She may not have become a Broadway star on Smash’s season finale, but Megan Hilty was a head turner in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She started out playing Lorelei Lee, the prototypical dumb blonde, as if channeling Kristen Chenoweth—and let’s not forget the ghost of Marilyn Monroe and Carol Channing—then came into her own with a winning comic performance.

Belting out notable numbers like “I’m Just a Little Girl from Little Rock” and the ultimate showstopper, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Hilty’s brassy voice hinted that Lorelei’s not dumb at all, but really a smart modern girl. That’s not what Lorelei is about, but Hilty’s powerful lungs and zesty timing erased that quibble. Rob Berman conducted the Encores Orchestra in luscious renditions of Jule Styne’s classic tunes.

This season’s final Encores! revival, directed with brio by John Rando, was old-fashioned in the best sense: double entendres butted heads with witty one-liners, the sensational dancing was terrifically choreographed by Randy Skinner, and the wonderful cast on the NYC-to-Paris cruise ship included the spirited Rachel York as Lorelei’s sidekick Dorothy Shaw; Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley as the Beekmans, an hilariously mismatched British couple; and Aaron Lazar as Dorothy’s sweet-voiced paramour Henry Spofford.

I didn’t find Hilty that arresting on Smash (or in Broadway’s 9 to 5, for that matter), but—based on Blondes—I’ll give her another chance.

For his first stage starring role, That 70s Show’s Topher Grace has chosen something close to his roots: a new play by Paul Weitz (American Pie), cleverly superficial—and TV sitcomish—in its look at 20-somethings caught in an alienating modern world.

Lonely, I’m Not, like Weitz’s other plays Trust and Show People, is an expertly constructed trifle with a twist. The hero, Porter (the hangdog and amusing Grace), has been feeling sorry for himself since his breakdown after failing as a Wall Street “master of the universe.” When a mutual friend sets him up on a blind date with—get this—a blind but aggressive junior executive, Heather (the magnificently expressive Olivia Thirlby), he discovers that returning to the world from which he retreated might be a viable option.

Directed crisply by Trip Cullum, Weitz’s play telegraphs its obvious points so bluntly that enormous words explaining each scene light up behind the actors, i.e., CAFFEINE, JOB INTERVIEW, EXERCISE. Such a conceit palls quickly, but Grace and Thirlby’s rapport makes us care about their budding relationship: Grace’s smart underplaying lets Thirlby’s physically graceful performance deservedly dominate.
Simon Gray, who died in 2008 at age 71, wrote superior dramas like Butley, probably his best known (Nathan Lane played the lead in the 2006 Broadway revival). So the return of his uncommonly intelligent The Common Pursuit is a heartening development.

Directed with a healthy but not rigid respect for the text by Moises Kaufman, The Common Pursuit has juicy roles for six performers able to age believably over a period of 20 years. At Cambridge, five young men and one woman start work on the literary journal “The Common Pursuit” and, over the two decades the play encompasses, the men work together, befriend one another, and—after editor Stuart marries university sweetheart Marigold—loyalties eventually waver as friendships and professional relationships are severely tested.

Yes, the characters’ dramatic arcs have been predestined from the start, and the play’s structure precludes any surprises or revelations, but Gray’s superbly detailed writing makes even characters only discussed and never seen—colleagues, girlfriends, wives—as fleshed-out as those onstage. This very specific type of British play might seem passé, but in a spring season where overwritten, underwhelming works like Cock have garnered inexplicable raves, The Common Pursuit’s straightforwardness is refreshing and, in its own way, daring. (Even throwaway lines are wonderfully droll, like Marigold’s response to the question “Are you distraught?”: “No, perfectly traught, thanks.”)

Kaufman adroitly handles the all-important passage of time between scenes, even slipping in the Beatles’ soaring “Free as a Bird” at the end of Act I. Among a first-rate sextet of performances, Kristen Bush’s Marigold is especially vulnerable and sadly “traught,” while Tim McGeever’s Humphry is knowing and sardonic. Gray’s drama shows uncommon insight into people and their common pursuits.

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