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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Accent on Youth


By Harry Forbes

This play by Samson Raphaelson -- with its dreadfully dated premise: Can a "young" woman and an "older" man find lasting love? -- was once hugely popular.

When we tell you that the woman in question, a mousy lovelorn secretary, is 29, and the man -- a playwright who has just drafted a play on the very subject -- who is (gasp!) 53, you'll have some idea how times have changed since its Broadway premiere in 1934.

Still, the play does have its mild charms. And the property was durable enough that it spawned no less than three movie versions with Herbert Marshall, Bing Crosby and Clark Gable, respectively. David Hyde Pierce is the star of this Manhattan Theatre Club revival. He plays the playwright with charm and seasoned comic timing.

Mary Catherine Garrison does well as the secretary who, after declaring her love for her boss, gets the lead in the play (and a makeover), only to have her young leading man, played by David Furr, fall head over heels for her. Charles Kimbrough is terrific as the playwright's butler who follows his employer's example.

There's some sporadically amusing banter of the sort that was once considered sophisticated, along with a rather cavalier attitude toward divorce and premarital liaisons. Like an antique movie on Turner Classic Movies, this is best viewed as a historical curiosity. (Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.; (212) 239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Philanthropist


By Harry Forbes

The Roundabout's production of Hampton's 1970 contemporary variation on Moliere's "The Misanthrope" may make you wonder why they bothered. You wouldn't be able to tell that the piece itself -- about a British don so careful about hurting other people's feelings that he carelessly does just that with his backhanded praise -- is actually a first-rate comedy.

Blame the casting, as Matthew Broderick is woefully overparted in the central role: a dull actor playing milquetoast Philip, with a singularly unconvincing English accent.

Director David Grindley had a hit with this piece in London, and indeed the excellent leading lady there, Anna Madeley, has been imported to play Celia, Philip's fiance.

But despite an amusing comic turn by Jonathan Cake as an egocentric writer, and Jennifer Mudge as a promiscuous young lady who sets out to seduce Philip, the play is uninvolving.

Slight spoiler: The play opens with a shockingly violent act, and also includes some frank sexual banter and implied activity.

Seek out an old BBC-TV production with Ronald Pickup and a young Helen Mirren on DVD for authenticity. (American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.; (212) 719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org)

The Norman Conquests


By Harry Forbes

Readers of a certain age may remember the British TV version of playwright Alan Ayckbourn's exceedingly clever comic trilogy -- "Table Manners," "Living Together," and "Round and Round the Garden" -- as one of public television's golden moments. Others may remember a so-so Broadway version headed by Richard Benjamin.

This new revival -- an import from London's Old Vic -- is closer to the TV version in demonstrating just how the piece should be played, with six splendid performances.

The premise is basically immoral, though as in all classic farces hopes for hanky-panky come to naught. Norman, a shaggy librarian, has invited his wife's sister, Annie, away for an illicit weekend. Annie, unattached (except for the attentions of the dim veterinarian next door), unkempt, and devoted to a sick mother, has accepted. But when brother Reg and his self-righteous wife, Sara, arrive to take care of mom while Annie is "on holiday," Sara thwarts the plan. Ergo, all of them stay at Annie's for an event-filled weekend.

The plays take place in the dining room, living room and garden, respectively. They can be viewed in any order, and each is self-contained.

With Ayckbourn, the comedy is secondary to his always perceptive take on the human condition. And this production features a mix of comedy and pathos such as you would find in Anton Chekhov. The basic loneliness of these characters, their frustrations and inability to connect are movingly handled. When Norman cheekily suggests to Sara that they themselves might one day have a weekend together, we laugh at the outrageousness of the suggestion, but feel deeply for Sara, whose mournful body language shows us her inner longing for affection.

Director Matthew Warchus brings out the poignant subtext as deftly as the laughs. One needn't see all three. But after seeing one, you may just want to prolong the pleasure. (Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th St.; (212) 239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mary Stuart


You honestly can't imagine how vital a 200-year-old play can be until you've seen the London import of Friedrich Schiller's "Mary Stuart," a gripping -- if not always accurate -- telling of the Catholic Scottish Queen Mary's final days as the prisoner of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

Though the original revival was four whole years ago in London, its sensational leads, Janet McTeer in the titular role and Harriet Walter as the Virgin Queen, are as spectacular as ever, and the mostly American supporting cast, including Maria Tucci, Brian Murray, Chandler Williams, John Benjamin Hickey and Nicholas Woodeson, very fine indeed.

Catholicism plays a big part in this story, and, in essence, Schiller's sympathy is with Mary. His Mary is innocent of conspiring against Elizabeth.

Schiller, like other dramatists of stage and screen after him, gives us the confrontation between these two strong women that history failed to provide. That meeting here comes after spectacular stage rain effect and it's a doozy. First, McTeer shows Mary's humble supplication, but when the cold queen spurns her pleas, she unleashes a blistering diatribe.

The Catholic elements are treated reverentially, as Mary makes her final confession, and earlier, young courtier Mortimer rapturously extols the joys of the Catholic faith to Mary.

Peter Oswald's adaptation is completely accessible. Director Phyllida Lloyd never lets the pace flag, and Anthony Ward's production design is striking in its simplicity. (Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th Street; (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Friday, April 17, 2009

State of Play


Fans of the acclaimed 2003 six-hour BBC miniseries of the same name, created by Paul Abbott, may be disappointed by the movie's streamlined Americanized distillation, but putting possibly odious comparisons aside, "State of Play" (Universal/Working Title) has emerged as a fast-moving and engrossing political thriller in its big-screen incarnation.

Now set in the District of Columbia, the protagonist is scruffy veteran reporter Cal McAffrey, who works for the fictitious Washington Globe. He is played by straggly-haired Russell Crowe in customary charismatic form.

When the research assistant (and mistress) of an up-and-coming politician, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), meets with a grisly end on the Metro subway tracks, McAffrey -- an old friend of the politician -- joins forces with Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a rookie Capitol Hill blogger at the same paper to cover the story. The conflict between old-style journalism and the newer breed that Della represents gives interesting shading to the characters' dynamic. Refreshingly, their characters maintain a strictly professional relationship, though one of growing mutual respect.

The young woman's death is first assumed to be a suicide, but it shortly develops that it was murder, one that may be connected to the two other seemingly disparate shootings that open the film, that of a delivery man and a junkie.

As it happens, Collins, chairman of a committee overseeing Department of Defense spending, is trying to expose a crooked alliance with a powerful military contractor, the fictional PointCorp, which is getting the contracts for much of the military's outsourcing. Could there be a connection to the murders?

McAffrey and Collins were once college roommates, though estranged after McAffrey's long-ago affair with Collins' wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn). That marriage has long been unsteady, though Anne still admires her husband's ideals. In any case, Collins shows up at McAffrey's apartment looking for help.

McAffrey is shown to be a man of integrity, putting his loyalty to his old friend ahead of the demands of his hard-nosed editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), who desperately needs to boost sales of her failing paper. Anne still carries a torch for McAffrey, but he demurs from any resurrection of their romance.

Kevin Macdonald directs at a taut pace, and though events are not always plausible, and some of the revelations a bit transparent, there are compensations, namely an intriguing basic setup, a solid cast (including Jason Bateman as a sleazy PR man and Jeff Daniels as Collins' hard-nosed congressional opponent), and a script -- by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray -- that eschews overt sex and violence.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Reasons to be Pretty

When Steph (Marin Ireland), girlfriend of warehouse worker Greg (Thomas Sadoski), learns he referred to her looks as simply "regular" in a casual discussion with his misogynistic co-worker, Kent (Stephen Pasquale), she lays him out in such an unrelenting tirade that you may be tempted to flee the theater.

But Neil LaBute's riff on our obsession with beauty eventually proves itself a moving examination of two people who love each but simply can't come back together.

Sadoski plays Greg with a hangdog vulnerability that ranks with the best this season, and Ireland shows a range far beyond the shrill harridan she appears at the start. Their scenes have such delicacy that the audience hangs on every word.

Pasquale is appropriately hateful as the bullying Kent, and Piper Perabo as Kent's pregnant security guard wife reveals a vulnerability underneath her uniform and cocksure manner.

Terry Kinney directs with terrific precision on David Gallo's warehouse-dominated set.

(Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th Street; (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hair

This is a more surprisingly vital revival of the archetypal 1960s musical than one might have thought possible. It began life as part of the Public Theater's Central Park summer season, and was rapturously received. It's no surprise that the hit parade of songs -- "Let the Sunshine In," "Aquarius" and "Easy to Be Hard" -- are as tuneful in themselves as ever, but director Diane Paulus has miraculously given a strong dramatic arc to the almost plotless original, as did Milos Forman in his 1979 screen version.

Will Swenson is charismatic as Berger, who serves as the show's narrator, and Gavin Creel is also outstanding as Claude, whose decision whether to burn his draft card or allow himself to be sent to Vietnam propels the action.

The work's strong anti-war message has been heightened here. The show gives us a snapshot in time on the hippie culture, but without seeming to glorify it, as the likable Berger's freewheeling attitude is eventually shown to be hollow.

(Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St., (212) 239-6200 or Telecharge.com)