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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Happiness

A disparate group of New Yorkers find themselves trapped on a subway car with a sardonic conductor (Hunter Foster), and slowly realize they're all dead. They must remember their happiest moment before making the transition to the next world where they will live in that sublime moment forever. (There's no mention of God in this scenario.)

The basic premise is hardly new. Still, playwright John Weidman and director/choreography Susan Stroman make it fresh as, one by one, each passenger comes to recollect that precious moment -- a father taking his son to a baseball game, a woman's dance with a soldier before he goes to war never to return, a divorced Latino messenger sharing a bonding moment with his little girl, and so on.

Not all the segments are completely successful. There's a well acted but mawkish sequence involving a decorator saying farewell to his lover who's dying of AIDS.
The cast in this Lincoln Center Theater production is strong, including Jenny Powers as a hard-edged gal who needs to straighten out her priorities, and Joanna Gleason as a brittle right-wing talk show host.

The opening street scene sequence showing all the characters before they meet their earthly demise is particularly inventive, as is Foster's razzmatazz number about climbing the corporate ladder.

The score, by the "Grey Gardens" team of Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), sounds good, if not memorable, on first hearing.

Chances are you'll find yourself moved to reflect on your own happiest moments. (Mitzi Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th St., (212) 239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Exit the King


Absurdist theater, like mime, may not be to every taste. In fact, one nationally known critic was heard pronouncing something unprintable as he hastily exited Eugene Ionesco's 1962 tragicomedy at intermission.

But there's no denying that Geoffrey Rush -- Oscar winner for 1996's "Shine" -- gives a grand, multifaceted performance as a worldly, despotic and narcissistic king whose chaotic mythical kingdom is in ruins, and who is only willing to admit he's dying at nearly the end of the play's two hours. This highly stylized production includes much comic cavorting which Rush executes with impressive panache, but these antics only momentarily distract from the tragic whole. Rush's wandering up the theater aisle pathetically imploring the audience to show him the way to die is an especially poignant sequence.

The well-cast ensemble includes Susan Sarandon as his sardonic first wife, Queen Marguerite, urging the king to his inevitable death; Andrea Martin as the wacky palace maid Juliette; Lauren Ambrose as the emotionally raw Queen Marie; William Sadler as the blithely hard-nosed doctor; and Brian Hutchison as the loyal armored guard. Ionesco (here adapted by director Neil Armfield and Rush) delineates the death experience with stunning vividness.
God is not part of the existential proceedings here, but never have the sense of our fragile earthly nature and the futility of amassing worldly possessions and power been so strikingly conveyed.
Armfield's mounting received great acclaim in an Australian revival with Rush in 2007, and merits its restaging here. There is some rough language throughout -- and despite the comic, almost vaudevillian shtick that liberally peppers the evening -- the gravity of the death experience makes this specialized adult fare.

(Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.; (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Impressionsim


The stage appearances of Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen are all too few, which makes it all the more surprising that the vehicle chosen for their Broadway comeback is this nice, but inconsequential, trifle.

In Michael Jacobs' midlife romantic comedy, Allen plays Katherine, a gallery owner, paradoxically reluctant to part with any of the artworks which adorn the walls. Irons is a world-weary photojournalist who works for her in the store.

Through several flashbacks, thematically tied to the paintings on the gallery walls, we observe pivotal psyche-damaging episodes from their respective pasts, such as Katherine's father walking out on her mother, and Thomas (Irons) losing the child to whom he had become attached in Africa.

Ace director Jack O'Brien moves things fluidly, and Elaine J. McCarthy's physical production is classy with an understatement that matches the play's low-energy vibe. There's good work from the supporting cast, which includes veteran Andre De Shields in a couple of scene-stealing roles, and Marsha Mason as a gregarious matron.

The thematic parallels between the titular art movement and life -- e.g., how you have to stand at a distance to see things clearly -- are terribly forced.

The final scene where Katherine and Thomas finally bond romantically is charmingly played, but the events that lead up to it are didactic and obvious. (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45 St.; (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Monday, March 23, 2009

God of Carnage


By Harry Forbes

After the hilarious trilogy, "The Norman Conquests," Matthew Warchus further demonstrates his comic mastery with a wickedly funny, crowd-pleasing new comedy by French playwright Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton. The plot concerns two couples who meet to arbitrate a schoolyard altercation involving their respective boys -- one knocked out a couple of the other's teeth -- and before long, the civilized peace negotiations of the parents turn psychologically and physically acrimonious.

As with "The Norman Conquests," there's a serious subtext, this time nothing less than "might vs. right" on a global scale -- but James Gandolfini (yes, Tony Soprano) as a hardware salesman, Marcia Gay Harden as his socially conscious author-wife, Jeff Daniels as a smarmy lawyer defending a questionable pharmaceutical company while glued to his cell phone, and Hope Davis as his deceptively mild-mannered wife are splendid negotiating the mood shifts.

The play often resembles "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" in its escalating, alcohol-fueled rancor, and be warned, much like Honey in that Edward Albee play, Davis' character has a propensity to vomit, and in quite spectacular fashion. You'll wonder how the effect was achieved.

The action has been shifted from Paris to Brooklyn and the French names Anglicized. But it works, and whether or not you think the play is indeed a metaphor for the decline of Western civilization, it's mightily entertaining on the surface.

(Bernard Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.; (212) 239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Friday, March 20, 2009

West Side Story


It was hoped that book writer Arthur Laurents would work the same magic with this 1957 classic as he did with last season's "Gypsy." As with that musical, he has made some changes to his original book which, as everyone knows, is a modernized "Romeo and Juliet," set on New York's West Side with the Jets gang in deadly struggle with the Puerto Rican Sharks.

Laurents has taken a fresh directorial approach -- the most publicized change this time is the use of Spanish for the Puerto Rican characters -- but the results are somehow less revelatory.

Still, the public is welcoming back this much-loved show in droves, which has much going for it. Argentinian Josefina Scaglione makes a most delightful Maria, Karen Olivo a fiery Anita and Matt Cavenaugh a sympathetic Tony, who like Scaglione, sings beautifully.

The show does occasionally show its age, as with the comic point number "Gee, Officer Krupke" which, though well done, seems a bit frivolous in this serious context.

Jerome Robbins' landmark dances, re-created by Joey McKneely, are rather cramped on James Youmans' evocative set. But Patrick Vaccariello's large orchestra plays the classic score for maximum excitement. (Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, (212) 307-4100 or www.ticketmaster.com)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Blithe Spirit

Noel Coward's 1940s comedy about an eccentric medium who summons up the spirit of a remarried man's dead wife has never lost its popularity. The David Lean film is a TV perennial, the 1960s musical "High Spirits" spawned a memorable recording, and there have been frequent revivals on both sides of the Atlantic. The last on Broadway was in 1987 with a stellar cast that included Richard Chamberlain, Geraldine Page and Blythe Danner.

This is a first-rate production in every way with urbane Rupert Everett as Charles, the beleaguered novelist, pitch-perfect Jayne Atkinson as the befuddled new wife, Ruth (though she seems a bit matronly opposite the still-boyish Everett), and Christine Ebersole as the ethereal and dangerously mischievous specter Elvira. Ebersole also sings some Coward evergreens during scene changes.

And best of all, Angela Lansbury -- who really didn't get a chance to shine in her comeback in the unremarkable "Deuce" two seasons ago -- walks away with every scene she's in as the lovably eccentric Madame Arcati. She gives a real performance, not just a star turn, which ranks with her best work. And with such deluxe casting as Simon Jones and Deborah Rush as a doctor and his wife who take part in a seance that generates such a surprising outcome, and Susan Louise O'Connor as the skittish maid.

Australian director Michael Blakemore keeps the pace moving well on Peter Davison's expansive set.

Though lighter than the air on which Elvira wafts, the play has chops, and you won't see a better mounting of it. (Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St.; (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Race to Witch Mountain


Devotees of the 1970s franchise "Escape to Witch Mountain" and its sequel "Return from Witch Mountain" should be pleased with director Andy Fickman's engaging remake, "Race to Witch Mountain" (Disney), which pays loving homage to those earlier films, and with the added gloss of some 21st-century technology it promises to win a new generation of fans, too.

This version of the sci-fi adventure centers on Las Vegas cab driver Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson), an ex-con whose grand-theft-auto days are behind him. Early on, he gives a lift to Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino), an astrophysicist discredited for espousing her theories on extraterrestrial activity who's there to lecture at a UFO convention.

When two self-assured young teens, Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), materialize in his cab, and ask to be taken to a remote location, it's not long before Jack learns they are, in fact, aliens. Their mission, inherited from their parents, is to make their dying planet habitable again in time to head off an invasion of earth by militant factions there.

The skeptical Jack is convinced their story is real when Sara demonstrates her telepathic and telekinetic skills and her brother his adeptness at changing his body density (i.e., walking through solid objects). As the group -- soon joined by Alex, to whom Jack turns for help -- attempts to find the kids' spaceship, they are pursued by a humanoid monster called the Siphon, a team of federal UFO investigators headed by Burke (Ciaran Hinds in serious villain mode), and the goons who work for Jack's former mobster boss.

Things get even dicier when they discover the spaceship has been impounded in a top-secret government facility at the titular Witch Mountain.

Fickman's reimagining moves at a fast clip with extremely likable lead performances and more elaborate special effects than were, of course, possible in the original. There are plentiful references to the earlier films in Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback's script, most significantly, appearances by original child stars Ike Eissinmann and Kim Richards (Tony and Tia, respectively, from the '70s films) who show up in cute cameo roles. He's a local sheriff who momentarily stops the feds, and she's a good-hearted waitress who helps Jack and the kids make an escape.

There are some very funny jibes at UFO conventions, with Garry Marshall a standout as an eccentric UFO expert.

In the course of the story, the doubting Seth learns that humans can be trusted after all. Jack, of course, finds redemption in selflessly helping the kids, even at the risk of landing back in jail. Early on, the telepathic Sara had compassionately remarked of Jack, whose self-esteem is at rock-bottom, "So large outside, so small inside." This being a Disney film, there's even redemption of another sort for a vicious mutt the group picks up along the way.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

33 Variations


What was Beethoven's fascination with a mundane tune from which he derived his "The 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli," a music publisher? The answer to that question intrigues musicologist Katherine, played by Jane Fonda in a confident return to the stage. Katherine is determined to discover the answer, but the clock is ticking as her body is rapidly starting to fail as Lou Gehrig's disease takes its atrophying toll.

Despite her frail health, Katherine heads for the Beethoven archives in Bonn, Germany, and bonds with the initially forbidding but ultimately good-hearted overseer Gertrude, played appealingly by Susan Kellermann. And she also mends her fractious relationship with her daughter, Clara (Samantha Mathis), who has become involved with her mother's male nurse, Mike (Colin Hanks).

Nineteeth-century flashbacks of the increasingly deaf Beethoven (Zach Grenier) and his circle are interwoven with the modern story, while the variations themselves are played deftly by musical director Diane Walsh.

Moises Kaufman's play is a poor cousin of "Amadeus," which it sometimes seems to resemble in the Beethoven scenes, and Katherine's decline, though well-limned, is somewhat tedious.

The evening indeed plays out in 33 scenes, and truthfully, you may find yourself counting down the final variations, though Kaufman himself directs with skill, and the interweaving of the modern story and the historic narrative is smoothly executed.

(Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St.; (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Guys and Dolls


You can't go wrong with "Guys and Dolls," Frank Loesser's delightful paean to writer Damon Runyun's colorful confluence of Broadway sinners and saints -- well, gamblers and Salvation Army officers. Or so you would think.

The 1992 production with Nathan Lane is still fondly remembered, and the recent London revival with Ewan McGregor was also terrific. When plans to bring that production to New York fizzled, the field was open for this one, and it's mightily disappointing.

Though no expense has been spared, with state-of-the-art digital projections, and gigantic neon signs, something is seriously amiss.

Craig Bierko comes off best as ace gambler Sky Masterson, though he doesn't entirely avoid blandness. But Kate Jennings Grant shows more toughness than vulnerability as Sarah Brown, and Lauren Graham is a strictly by-the-numbers Miss Adelaide, the psychosomatically flu-ridden fiancee of Nathan Detroit, "good old reliable" floating crap game arranger. Oliver Pratt, fine dramatic actor that he is, is out of his depth as Detroit.
The cast needn't be carbon copies of memorable creators, but for the most part everyone seems perversely miscast.

And there's chilliness about Des McAnuff's multitiered production, beyond its reliance on those flashy digital projections. Steve Canyon Kennedy's sound design is beautifully clear, but gives everyone a flat homogeneity, further distancing the audience.

Yes, Loesser's songs still delight, but the production is a big misfire. (Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st Street; (212) 307-4100 or www.ticketmaster.com)