BRIEF TAKES - EARLY 2018 NEW YORK THEATER SEASON

So far, it’s a pretty damn good season, with two excellent musicals, both of which I’ve fully reviewed - director Daniel Fish’s dark, provocative re-examination of OKLAHOMA! with country/western orchestrations and the soulful marriage of Irishman Conor McPherson’s journey through Depression-era America with the songs of America’s native son Bob Dylan in GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY.

Speaking of Irish, it’s hard to find more riveting staged storytelling than Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN. Butterworth, of working-class British stock, pays homage to his Irish contemporaries, weaving an intricate, suspenseful tale that layers political, psychological, familial and generational conflicts, involving a large, Catholic farming family in Northern Ireland beset by a past run-in with IRA. Superbly directed by Sam Mendes, back at the top of his game, all the narrative threads come together in the spellbinding, shocking last minute. Forgive and forget? Not the Irish.

Old-fashioned playwriting gets full display in THE MOTHER OF THE MAID sturdily composed by Jane Anderson and sturdily directed by Matthew Penn. It’s the tried-and-true Joan of Arc tale, this time from the POV of Joan’s mother, played by Glenn Close. The cast eschews French or theater English accents and speaks in vernacular, everyday American, lending a “common touch” to the tale of Joan’s peasant family. Close is quite good, as always, though her dramatic voice slips into Iight Irish brogue and Katherine Hepburn throatiness once in a while. She chews up the scenery here and there, which is certainly captivating but the play doesn’t quite land the gut punch the tragedy calls for.

For something we’ve seen many times before but perhaps not as clear, there’s Richard Nelson’s marvelous adaptation of UNCLE VANYA. Staged in the round in the intimate Frederick Loewe Theater at Hunter College, there’s no distance between Chekov and the audience - everything transacts at the kitchen table. What’s more, Nelson's economic, new translation, along with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, takes all the emotional distance out of Chekhov, too. The big, burly Jay O. Sanders as Vanya is wonderful. His Teddy Bear forlornness and Everyman ennui erupts into I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not- gonna-take-it- anymore breakdown. I never thought of Vanya as forerunner to Howard Beale before; Nelson’s VANYA is the most emotionally comprehensible I’ve ever seen.

Funnily, the most comprehensible MEASURE FOR MEASURE comes to BAM in Russian in a co-production of London’s Cheek By Jowl and Moscow’s Pushkin Theater. No problem here with the most problematic of Shakespeare’s problem plays (in contrast to the porno twist at Theatre for a New Audience last season). With distinctive stage movement, minimalist setting, terse adaption (just under two hours) and easy-to-read subtitles, this morality tale couldn’t be more relevant. It never overextends to make a point. Shakespeare’s timeless, nuanced observations about public values and private conduct seldom achieve such focus.

The Bard gets applied entire differently in Theresa Rebick’s smart and spirited BERNHARDT / HAMLET about Sarah Bernhardt’s make-or-break career gambit to play Shakespeare’s (arguably) most famous tragic figure. So what if Rebick takes dramatic license with Bernhardt's relationship with playwright Edmund Rostand? It’s all grand backstage fun - with hints of middle-age crisis a la All about Eve late 19th century. Janet McTeer in the title role keeps the diva-ness in check, never descending to camp, still, all the while, letting us revel in a diva playing a diva. McTeer’s supporting cast is excellent, but her real co-star is Beowulf Boritt’s revolving set, which fittingly revolves all around Bernhardt.

For new contemporary drama, THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT delivers contemporary comment without banging us over the head. Based on a real life case about a journalist’s reportorial liberties with a real life story, the topic of “fake news” hangs about, but never intrudes into this funny, fast-moving play sprightly directed by Leigh Silverman. The trio cast is terrific, with Cherry Jones as editor and Bobby Cannavale as the unorthodox writer, but Danielle Radcliffe as the inexperienced yet earnest fact-checker drives this contemporary parable. His WTF take is so full of innocence and mirth; we find solace in how tenuous our grasp on perceived truth really is.

Old-fashioned politics gets down-to-earth treatment in Sharr White’s emotionally compelling and distinctly intelligent THE TRUE about the bond between Polly Noonan (NY Senator Gillebrand’s grandmother) and Albany Mayor Erastus Corning. Polly was Corning’s confidante, aide-de-camp and devoted political operative. White sets their story in the 70s when Corning’s grip on the Democratic machine was slipping, after decades of controlling elections through ward and precincts organization and jobs patronage. Playwright White deals adroitly with the common speculation that Polly and the Mayor were paramours (among old-time New York pols it was accepted as fact they were). Polly admits to a brief romantic infatuation in her younger days. Corning, as the years progress, in a dead marriage, becomes emotionally reliant on Polly. Michael McKean as Corning, the old warhorse of a pol nearing the end of his career is spot-on. Edie Falco as the tough talkin’, hard-as-nails Polly is superb. THE TRUE dramatizes the end of their mutual run at the game, with a verisimilitude about the details of machine politics seldom achieved in political dramas. Especially for those of us who’ve been in politics, THE TRUE captures exactly how politics is in the blood. This old pair, like moths to flame, bear witness to the decline of machine politics, as their candle burns down. Those were the days.

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