Saturday, August 18, 2012

NYC Theater Roundup: Vidal's 'Best Man' Revisited; Foote's "TX"; Harrelson's "Bullet"

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man
Starring James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Cybill Shepherd, John Stamos, Jefferson Mays, Mark Blum, Angela Lansbury, Kristin Davis
Written by Gore Vidal; directed by Michael Wilson
Performances began March 6, 2012; closes September 9
Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Harrison, TX
Starring Hallie Foote, Jayne Houdyshell, Devon Abner, Mary Bacon, Jeremy Bobb, Alexander Cendense, Andrea Lynn Green, Evan Jonigkeit, Jenny Dare Paulin
Written by Horton Foote; directed by Pam Mackinnon
Performances began July 24, 2012; opened August 14; closes September 15
Primary Stages @ 59 E 59 Theatre, New York, NY

Bullet for Adolf
Starring Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brandon Coffey, David Coomber, Shamika Cotton, Shannon Garland, Lee Osorio, Tyler Jacob Rollinson, Nick Wyman
Written by Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman; directed by Woody Harrelson
Performances began July 19, 2012; opened August 8; closes September 9
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street; New York, NY

Shepherd, Larroquette in The Best Man (photo: Joan Marcus)
Gore Vidal’s recent death makes seeing his best play, The Best Man, a must during the last weeks of its Broadway run. Despite his reputation as a sardonic, unapologetic liberal (which drove opponents like Norman Mailer and William Buckley batty), The Best Man is a remarkably evenhanded, hilarious and still-relevant political expose that shows how little American electioneering has changed since 1960.

But that’s not the only reason to see Michael Wilson’s superlative staging, which I caught when it opened in the spring. Many of the main roles have new actors who are as good as if not better than the originals. John Stamos, as conservative candidate Senator Joseph Cantwell, has the perfect mix of cocksure smugness to go up against his opponent, John Laroquette’s impeccably decent Secretary of State William Russell. Both candidates’ wives are new: Kristin Davis capably shows that Cantwell’s wife Mabel can be as amusingly bimboish as a brunette as Kerry Butler was as a blonde; Cybill Shepherd has taken over Alice, Russell’s wife, from Candice Bergen, and the result is a wash, the part snugly fitting both of their personas.

As Dick Jensen, Russell’s campaign manager, Mark Blum is less subdued than Michael McKean was, which makes more sense as the tense candidates’ stand-off plays out at the convention. As the scene-stealing Sue-Ellen Gamadge, the women’s organization leader both men are courting, Elizabeth Ashley has a grand old time hamming it up even more boisterously than Angela Lansbury did. And still towering above all is holdover James Earl Jones, whose former President Hockstader shouldn’t work: it’s too oversized a portrayal to fit with what’s essentially a realistic ensemble. But Jones’ unerring instincts make this ex-president appropriately larger than life and at the same time give The Best Man its comic and human pulse.
Green, Foote in Harrison, TX (photo: James Leynse)
Horton Foote, who died in 2009 just shy of his 93rd birthday, was a genteel gentleman, which shows in his plays: common people are given the decency and respect they deserve. The result, over a huge number of plays in an astonishingly prolific career, might be a certain sameness, but at the same time, the modesty on display has its own reward as a valid artistic purpose.

Harrison, TX, comprising three one-act Foote plays, is a case in point: with each set in the fictional title town that stands in for Foote’s own Texan hometown (Wharton), the format works well for these slight but shrewd portraits of regular folk acting a bit irregularly.

Harrison, TX opens with Blind Date, where an interfering aunt tries to get her visiting young niece to act like a lady when a gentleman caller arrives with amusingly disastrous results; The One-Armed Man is a short, tense drama about a former mill employee who lost his arm in a workplace accident who comes to call, armed with a gun, on his former boss; and The Midnight Caller combines Date’s lightness and Man’s darkness for a tragicomic soap opera about a jilted man who drunkenly screams for his ex-girl outside the boarding house where she lives every night, affecting her friendships with the other boarders and her relationship with a new beau.

Foote’s pen, as always, draws these people assuredly and humanely, resulting in an enervating visit to small-town America sans condescension. Pam Mackinnon directs with sure rhythm and pacing; Marion Williams’ set feels a little cramped, especially in the third play, which needs opening up, but overall it conveys a proper small town atmosphere. The performers are up to the task, especially Foote’s daughter Hallie, who appears in the first and last plays, as does the delightful Andrea Lynn Green. The others fill their roles well (excepting Jayne Houdyshell, who doesn’t fit place or period), and the late master would have been pleased.
Bullet for Adolf (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Bullet for Adolf is one of the biggest onstage fiascos in awhile: co-writers Woody Harrelson (who also directed) and Frankie Hyman mined their own friendship to come up with this ludicrous, disjointed and episodic play that meanders to no discernible point.

The non-story introduces several people over the course of a few summer days in hot Houston in 1983, and when a luger used in a Hitler assassination attempt goes missing (don’t ask), they try to discover who did it. The problem is that the characters are so sketchy that it’s hard to care what happens to them. Although jokes are tossed out—mostly off-color, even intentionally offensive—nothing is very funny, even though Harrelson and Hyman obviously think their offbeat characters are loveable losers.

Harrelson’s chief directorial contribution is to fill time between scenes with loud early 80s pop (Prince, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins) and accompanying video footage—MTV, President Reagan, the space shuttle, Beirut—which makes no commentary on anything happening onstage. The actors, bless their hearts, give it their all, but they can’t make this 2-1/2 hour self-indulgence more than risible.

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