Thursday, November 21, 2013

NYC Theater Roundup: More Shakespeare on Broadway; Beckett, Beth Henley off-Broadway

Richard III/Twelfth Night
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Tim Carroll
Performances through February 2, 2014
Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, New York, NY

All That Fall
Written by Samuel Beckett; directed by Trevor Nunn
Performances through December 8, 2013
59 E 59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

The Jacksonian
Written by Beth Henley; directed by Robert Falls
Performances through December 22, 2013
Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Barnett and Rylance in Twelfth Night (photo: Joan Marcus)
Although Mark Rylance has two Tony awards—he won for his memorable turns in the rickety farce Boeing Boeing and the rickety epic drama Jerusalem—his current mugging as Olivia in Twelfth Night and the title role of Richard III for the Shakespeare's Globe all-male, “authentic” Elizabethan productions might be cause to return them: for all his formidable skills, the actor and his self-centered antics are a disappointing comedown from his previous highs.

Since Twelfth Night is an ensemble piece whose masterly mix of comedy and romance is handled with aplomb by other actors in and out of drag, Rylance’s interpretation of the grieving Olivia who falls for Cesario (actually heroine Viola in disguise)—go-between for Duke Orsino, whose love for Olivia is not reciprocated—doesn’t entirely ruin it. But as Richard, he’s the whole play, so his stuttering, stammering, wink-wink/nudge-nudging quickly becomes tiresome, much of the time remindful of another brazen comic ham: Robin Williams.

Mork III would be a more accurate (if less catchy) title: Rylance is so busy playing to the audience (which includes dozens of people onstage seated at either side of the stage for closer proximity) that he never creates a compelling, consistent characterization of Shakespeare’s loathsomely conniving but monstrously charming king. Rylance makes comic faces while speaking, then gives blank stares, similar to what Williams does on talk shows after going off on some kind of riff or impression, putting on his “normal Robin” face to gales of laughter.  

Rylance’s brazen hamming as Richard (who knew “tragedy” is spelled “travesty”?) also deflects from decent “drag” acting by Joseph Timms as Lady Anne and Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth; in fact, Timms is the sole reason the infamous wooing scene—when Richard sweet talks the newly widowed Ann in front of the body of her husband whom he killed—works at all, since Rylance is too busy making sure we “get” that he’s being an utterly magnificent bastard.

Although he reins it in for Twelfth Night, his Olivia is basically the same as his Richard except for a more feminine voice, which makes him sound like Williams’ own drag role Mrs. Doubtfire. He goes for cheap laughs by, for example, overreacting when discovering that Cesario/Viola and Sebastian are twins, saying “Most wonderful!” before falling into an exaggerated faint.

Barnett, as Viola/Cesario, gives a textbook example of how to beautifully underplay as a man playing a woman playing a man: everything that Rylance overdoes is balanced by Barnett’s graceful but riveting performance. Also worth mentioning is Stephen Fry’s lower-key Malvolio, a comic villain often camped up; Fry’s more elegant demeanor, which makes him more sympathetic, allows his final threat of revenge to be more bittersweet than funny.

Tim Carroll’s competent if uninspired directing is enhanced by Jenny Tiramani’s hand-stitched 16th century costumes and Stan Pressner’s lighting, which works subtle wonders on Tiramani’s functional unit set—but why are electric lights used for supposedly authentic stagings instead of just candles? These shows’ gimmickry, like Rylance, far outstrips their real pleasures, like Barnett, Timms and Fry.

Gambon and Atkins in All That Fall (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Along with game-changing classics Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Happy Days, Samuel Beckett wrote several works that only diehards defend or even remember. Case in point: the obscure but patently autobiographical 1957 radio play All That Fall.

This 75-minute black comedy, which begins with elderly Mrs. Rooney going to the train station to meet her blind husband after work, is another Beckett play about earthly pain and suffering in a world devoid of God. Mr. and Mrs. Rooney, both suffering from physical and spiritual ailments, deal with life’s unrelenting bleakness that culminates with an explanation of why the train was late—a small girl fell out of the train and died—that the old man may have had something to do with. At the end, their cathartic explosion of laughter at the theme of that Sunday’s sermon—“The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down”—is their own revenge on a vengeful (or non-existent) God.

Trevor Nunn's staging puts us in a radio studio watching the actors (who sit in chairs on either side of the stage when not part of the action) play their roles while various sound effects are heard: they walk around with scripts and speak into overhanging microphones. The lone stage prop, of the car in which Mrs. Rooney gets a ride, seems out of place, raising the question of whether Beckett’s blunt, meandering play should remain in its original audio-only form.

But a superior 10-member acting troupe—led by Michael Gambon, who perfectly embodies Mr. Rooney’s torturous existence and, even more exquisitely, Eileen Atkins, whose Mrs. Rooney (Beckett’s first female protagonist) is simply and heartbreakingly real—makes every single word count, the ultimate compliment for any Beckett production.

Harris and Pullman in The Jacksonian (photo: Monique Carboni)
In her new play The Jacksonian, Beth Henley dives headfirst into the depths of depravity, surfacing with a diverting if improbable melodrama. Set in the eponymous motel in Jackson, Mississippi—and moving back and forth between April and December 1964—the play is narrated by precocious teenager Rosy Perch, whose parents are local dentist Bill and mentally unbalanced Susan; Bill, staying at the motel since they’ve separated,  finds his life spinning out of control. Then there’s the motel’s menacing bartender Fred Weber and flirty waitress/maid Eva White, whose relationship is in flux: Eva, who desperately wants to get married, sets her sights on the estranged dentist after Fred lies to her about his terminal heart condition.

Two murders—one offstage, one on—propel the hackneyed plot to an enjoyable conclusion after 90 minutes of characters twisting themselves into pretzels. Henley’s (in both senses) hysterical dialogue provides local flavor, with 20/20 hindsight, of course: Eva, who profusely and casually uses the N word, insists after Bill tells her to say “Negro” that “it doesn’t matter what you call them—they’re still not white.” Henley obviously identifies with awkward, acne-scarred Rosy, who’s out of place with these people in this era and locale.

In Robert Falls’ brisk staging on Walt Spangler’s knockout set of a bar and hotel room, a terrifically game cast makes the most of these wildly careening characters, even if four of them are a couple decades too old for their roles: but Ed Harris (Bill), Bill Pullman (Fred), Amy Madigan (Susan) and Glenne Headly (Eva)—who looks smashing in her underwear, by the way—give committed, fiercely funny performances as people unable to escape traps of their own device, while 20-year-old Juliet Brett—who looks all of 14—is scarily perfect as a youngster scarred by what adults are up to around her.

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