Monday, October 15, 2012

NYC Theater Roundup: 'Grace,' 'Cyrano' on Broadway; 'Him,' 'Harper Regan' off-Broadway

Written by Craig Wright; directed by Dexter Bullard
Performances through January 6, 2013
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Cyrano de Bergerac
Written by Edmund Rostand; adapted by Ranjit Bolt
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Performances through November 25, 2012
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Written by Daisy Foote; directed by Evan Yionoulis
Performances through October 28, 2012
Primary Stages, 59 E 59th Street, New York, NY

Harper Regan
Written by Simon Stephens; directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Performances through October 28, 2012
Atlantic Theatre, 336 West 20th Street, New York, NY
Shannon, Arrington, Rudd, Asner in Grace (photo: Joan Marcus)
From the beginning, Grace cheats. Craig Wright’s play opens with its horrifying climax, which then runs in reverse: the gimmick recurs later, and such contrivances severely undercut the atypical—and welcome—Broadway subject matter: how religious beliefs (or lack of them) inform relationships.

Born-again Steve and wife Sara have moved from Minnesota to a Florida condo, where the pair starts a new life based on Steve succeeding in a real estate deal with a shady character from Zurich. (We know they are serious about religion because Sara sings along to Christian rock one evening when Steve returns home, after which they pray their thanks to God on their knees).

The couple lives next door to Sam, a loner who—as they find out from the local exterminator, an elderly Holocaust survivor named Karl—is dealing with the aftermath of a car crash that killed his girlfriend and left him disfigured. (But why does he wear a transparent mask so his scars are easily seen?) Steve tries to talk Sam into helping finance his deal for Crossroads Inns, a chain of hotels based on the Gospels, while Sara spends so much time with Sam while Steve works that….well, you get the picture.

Wright writes snappy dialogue, but he takes too many shortcuts, beginning with the fact that his 90-minute play is little more than a too-familiar adulterous triangle. Steve and Karl—who vividly recalls what the Nazis forced him to do (his revelation rivals that in Red Dog Howls for sheer inhuman brutality)—are defined exclusively by their atheism and the awful things that befall them: and when Grace ends, both are unfairly subjected to more unspeakable tragedy.

That violent ending seems little more than a punch line to a hoary old joke. Dealing with weighty matters, Grace appears to have more depth than it does, thanks to Dexter Bullard’s snappy direction and Beowulf Boritt’s canny set, which stands in for two apartments simultaneously, stage mischief borrowed from a far superior playwright, Alan Ayckbourn. The acting quartet—Paul Rudd (Steve), Michael Shannon (Sam), Kate Arrington (Sara) and Ed Asner (Karl) as the world’s oldest exterminator—is animated enough to pave over Wright’s bumpy writing. Well, almost.
Hodge, Poesy in Cyrano (photo: Joan Marcus)
Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is a nearly perfect romantic tragedy that begins as a comedy, slowly moves into more dramatic territory before ending with one of theater’s saddest death scenes. It needs an actor who is a swashbuckling charmer early but a tragic hero later on; Christopher Plummer, by all accounts, was an unforgettable Cyrano, but more recently on Broadway, Kevin Kline was disappointingly unheroic.

In a new Broadway staging, Douglas Hodge does much right as Cyrano: he speaks Ranjit Holt’s tart rhyming translation well and his energetic pace fits the early scenes, particularly the clever way Cyrano makes his entrance. But he has little tragic hauteur or poetry, which is especially fatal in this role.

Happily, Clemence Poesy’s devilishly charming Roxane strikingly balances what Rostand strains credulity to demand: that this beautiful young woman would fall for mere physical attractiveness over true poetic wit. Poesy is also heartbreaking in the final scenes, which play out in a strangely inert fashion in Jaime Lloyd’s otherwise physically agile staging, abetted by Soutra Gilmour’s impressive costumes and sets.
Hallie Foote, Tim Hopper in Daisy Foote's Him (photo: James Leynse)
A pale imitation of her father Horton Foote’s plays, Daisy Foote’s Him grafts its plot threads clunkily and inelegantly. Middle-aged spinster Pauline and her brother Henry, who has just returned to the family’s New Hampshire home, are worried about their faltering store’s demise after their sickly father dies. Complicating matters is their mentally slow brother Farley, who lives with them: he meets a similarly-minded young woman, Louise, falls in love with her, gets her pregnant and gets married.

Why the domineering Pauline would allow Farley and Louise to marry is never believably dramatized; whenever their subplot takes center stage, it’s nearly distasteful because it’s played so broadly. If Foote had concentrated on how this couple would deal with having a baby and building a relationship, it might have become mildly interesting. Instead, it’s merely a distraction from the main thread about revelations after the father (the “him” of the title) finally dies.

There are interludes when the performers playing “Him’s” children recite poetic entries from the old man’s journals that Henry discovers after his death. But if the father’s writing is so good, why would Pauline throw out the journals? Why not publish them to make money? And would their father have been able to keep his purchase of prime local land a secret for so long? Such holes in Foote’s writing cause Him to fatally falter, despite the efforts of the cast and director Evan Yionoulis.
Madeleine Martin, Mary McCann in Harper Regan (photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia)
Simon Stephens’ exasperating Harper Regan is a meandering attempt to inject meaning into a middle-aged woman’s decision to leave her job and family and return home to see her dying father.

Stephens’ conceit finds Harper—an intelligent woman in a troubled marriage (her husband may or may not be a child pornographer) with a typically bratty teenaged daughter—meeting with different people, beginning with her implausibly dickish boss, who refuses to give her time off. Stephens’ dishonest outline, out of Mamet by way of Pinter, fills these encounters with arbitrary weirdness and malevolence. There’s a black teenager she may be attracted to; a jerk in a bar who goes off on an anti-Semitic rant apropos of nothing (which Harper neither approves of nor repudiates); a middle-aged married man whom Harper contacts on a singles website, however unlikely; a foolish young hospital employee when Harper arrives too late to see her dad before he dies; and her remarried mom, who reduces Harper to tears.

None of these encounters is particularly enlightening and, after awhile, the accumulation of oddball characters and Harper’s equally curious responses makes the play surreally silly. Mary McCann is an expert Harper, the other actors deftly sketch their small roles, and Gaye Taylor Upchurch adroitly directs on Rachel Hauck’s artfully minimalist set, complemented by Jeff Croiter’s subtle lighting. But Harper Regan is much less than the sum of these parts.

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