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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lombardi (Circle in the Square)



By Harry Forbes

Not being much of football fan (as in “not at all”), I had little interest in this bio-drama about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, but lo and behold, I found it a most enjoyable and worthy theatrical evening, with Dan Lauria and Judith Light truly outstanding as the gruff but soft-hearted Lombardi and his long-suffering, acerbic wife Marie.

The play is set in 1965, albeit with many flashbacks, as Lombardi is about to lead the second-place team to three consecutive championships. In his interaction with three players Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley), Paul Hornung (Bill Dawes), and Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan), we get to observe his tough love methods of motivating the team.

Based on the biography “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi,” by Pulitzer Prize winning author David Maranis, playwright Eric Simonson’s conceit is to view Lombardi’s life through the eyes of a visiting “Look” reporter, Mike McCormick (Keith Nobbs) who moves in with the Lombardis for an up-close look. When Vince is elsewhere, Marie and the players give him plenty of insight into his subject.

And though he comes to view Lombardi as something of father figure, Mike eventually finds himself the brunt of the latter’s volcanic temper. The lengthy scene after that blow up is the play’s only dullish stretch, coming as it does after a particularly excellent confrontation between Lombardi and Taylor, when the laconic fullback dares to ask for more equitable pay.

Director Thomas Kail utilizes the long Circle in the Square playing area better than the theater’s last tenant – the otherwise commendable revival of “The Miracle Worker” – and draws solid performances from the cast, maintaining a lively pace throughout.

Lauria is tremendous, radiating the charisma Lombardi must have had, and always showing the compassion not far beneath the bluster, and Light – with her Lauren Bacall-ish delivery and a cocktail nearly always in hand -- provides a tart and dynamic contrast.

David Korins’ setting, Paul Tazewell’s costumes, Howell Binkley’s lighting scheme are all first-rate.

(Circle in the Square, 50th St., west of Broadway, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Life in the Theatre (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

I’d not seen David Mamet’s early paean to the theater since many years ago when Jose Ferrer took over the leading role from Ellis Raab at the Lucille Lortel. I recall going with my parents, both former actors, and thus the seemingly perfect audience for this sort of backstage story.

But despite Ferrer’s excellence, I recall we were all fairly disappointed. And I had the same feeling at the conclusion of Neil Pepe’s perfectly fine production, one much slicker than what I recall on Christopher Street. But the play remains, well, thin: amusing but never truly hilarious, and occasionally touching without ever rising to poignant heights.

Nonetheless, there’s pleasure in watching Patrick Stewart – especially after his last New York outing as Macbeth (recently reprised on PBS’s “Great Performances”) -- take on such a predominantly light-hearted role. He’s Robert, a veteran actor mentoring newbie John (T.R. Knight) with whom he’s appearing in rep. We observe the pair in a series of short scenes, some backstage, some in the plays (all Mamet inventions) in which they appear.

Those pastiche excerpts – set in such diverse backdrops as the French Revolution, the Civil War, a hospital operating room, a rowboat at sea, etc. – are amusing to varying degrees, and in any event, stand in contrast to the dressing room sequences where we can see Robert’s essential loneliness and how emotionally dependent he’s become on his young colleague.

Stewart plays with a refreshing lightness and an assured sense of comic timing, his readings as masterful in their way as his interpretation of Shakespeare’s Scottish lord.

Knight, for his part, astutely conveys the protégé’s initial eagerness and compassion which ultimately morphs into wariness and fatigue towards the increasingly needy older actor. He and Stewart definitely have the requisite chemistry for this two-hander.

Thus, fans of Stewart and Knight should not be disappointed. Despite some passages in the play that are less than Mamet's best, these two pros ensure that the 90 intermission-less minutes pass pleasantly enough.

(Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

La Bete (The Music Box)



By Harry Forbes

Though it was nearly 20 years ago, I remember the original Broadway production of David Hirson’s exceedingly clever verse homage to Moliere as a particularly delectable theatrical experience, even as I recall a strong first half, followed by a less brilliant second.

But in director Matthew Warchus’s astute present production – gorgeously designed by Mark Thompson in a floor-to-flies 17th century library (the original was a stylish white, spare setting) – I felt no such drop-off. It played beautifully from start to finish with Hirson’s satiric points about high culture versus populist entertainment sharper than ever.

As Valere, the incredibly crude, vulgar, gauche, self-centered upcoming playwright with whom the established Elomire, who fancies himself the “next Corneille,” must form an alliance by order of their mutual patron, The Princess (Joanna Lumley), Rylance is simply stupendous, and I don’t use the word carelessly. With a Tom Smothers-like guilelessness and a free-associating string of non-stop gibberish (some of it scatological and sexual) pouring out of him, he surpasses his hilarious work in Warchus’s “Boeing Boeing” revival two seasons ago.

In the face of such a tremendous tour de force, co-star David Hyde Pierce is basically the straight man, but it’s a part he takes with consummate skill, and after all, Hirson sees to it that ultimately Elomire gets the upper hand in terms of our sympathy.

The gender change of the patron – originally a Prince – adds variety to the surfeit of male characters, however historically inaccurate it might be, and offers New Yorkers the chance to see the “Absolutely Fabulous” star stretch her dramatic chops in what is basically a classical role, and she is superb. Her entrance amid a flurry of gold confetti is a delightful effect.

It’s gratifying to see Hirson's literate, witty play finally get its rightful due in such a splendid production.

(Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hereafter (Warner Bros. Pictures)



By Harry Forbes

If there were still double-features, “Hereafter” would surely make a most interesting pairing with Woody Allen’s latest, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.” Remarkably similar thematically in that both deal with spiritualism and the question of afterlife, the approach could not be more different.

In Allen’s nihilistic view, mediums and such are all charlatans, and it is goes without saying that in his world, there is nothing beyond our earthly lives. In Peter Morgan’s script for “Hereafter,” however, true communication with those who pass on may just be possible, though yes, as we see in one amusing sequence, there are charlatans to be avoided.

In interviews for this film, director Clint Eastwood isn’t saying what he believes, but in any case, his direction is wonderfully persuasive in, at least, leaving the door open. And no matter what viewers may believe, his film is quite absorbing and ultimately extremely touching.

This particularly atypical Eastwood film tells three separate stories about characters grappling with mortality and death, and though it doesn’t immediately seem possible, they do eventually converge.

There’s Marie (Cecile de France), a French anchorwoman and journalist who nearly dies in Indonesia when she’s swept up in tsunami. There’s Marcus (George McLaren and Frankie McLaren who alternate in the role), a little English boy who experiences a profound loss. And there’s George (Matt Damon), a blue-collar worker with a genuine psychic abilities who wants out of the business that he finds all too painful.

“A life that’s all about death is no life at all,” he has told his opportunistic brother (Jay Mohr) who hopes to get rich off George’s special gift.

All these characters are lonely and hurting, and in their individual ways, all are inextricably drawn to contemplate life beyond this mortal coil.

The film is compelling from the start, and certainly the tsunami quite early in the film that eventually leads to Marie’s epiphany is as spectacular as that in any big budget disaster film.

Under Eastwood’s sympathetic handling, the performances are all very fine. Damon proves again how excellent he is at portraying an ordinary guy. The scenes of George putting his psychic gifts to use are played with great sensitivity.

De France convincingly conveys a woman who’s had a glimpse of something beyond, and can’t let it go, even if it hurts her career. And the McLarens are heartbreakingly appealing, as Marcus determinedly searches for answers in an adult world.

The smaller parts are all wonderfully played, including Bryce Dallas Howard as an emotionally vulnerable young woman George meets in a cooking class; Marthe Keller as an Elizabeth Kubler-Ross doctor at a hospice in the French Alps; and Thierry Neuvic as Marie’s boyfriend who believes death is simply the “eternal void.” Derek Jacobi has a cameo playing himself as his audio book versions of Charles Dickens are favorites of George’s character with whom he feels an almost spiritual connection.

The film – largely subtitled in the Paris sequences – has an appealingly European flavor, and may be the most romantic film that Eastwood has ever helmed.

Some might find certain parts of the film hokey – and skeptics may scoff at the overall premise – but I was totally enthralled, and I have a feeling the wide public which could so fervently embrace a movie like “The Sixth Sense” – not to mention anyone who’s suffered a loss -- will find it a fascinating and perhaps even comforting film.

(The film has been rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, and for brief strong language.)

Mrs. Warren’s Profession (Roundabout Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

As Mrs. Kitty Warren, Cherry Jones cuts a fine figure of a Victorian madam – even if her Cockney accent is a little dodgy – in Doug Hughes’ generally fine production of George Bernard Shaw’s once scandalous – and still provocative – play about the repression of women in Victorian society, and the sociological and financial circumstances that might push a decent woman into prostitution.

Sally Hawkins – best known here for her intentionally grating heroine in Mike Leigh’s film “Happy-Go-Lucky” – is her Cambridge-educated daughter Vivie. She talks so fast, though, that her lines are sometimes difficult to hear.

But she grows in strength (and verbal clarity) as her strong-willed character, learning the truth about Kitty's brothels, determines to break free of her mother and the men pursuing her.

Mark Harelik is particularly on the mark as one of the latter, Sir George Crofts, Mrs. Warren’s smarmy business partner who confidently tries to woo Vivie away from Frank (Adam Driver), son of the local rector (a solid Michael Siberry) who has some secrets of his own. Reliable Edward Hibbert makes a fine Mr. Praed.

Hughes’ staging is commendably ungimmicky, and he keeps the play – like much of Shaw, on the talky side – moving at a decent clip, even if he pitches the play’s confrontation scenes sometimes too high. The mother-daughter shouting match at the end is the most egregious example of that.

Catherine Zuber’s lovely costumes, including the sumptuously red number Jones wears upon her entrance, and Scott Pask’s multiple realistic sets, continually please the eye.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Pitman Painters (Manhattan Theatre Club)



By Harry Forbes

The making of art can sometimes make awfully good theater. Last season’s Mark Rothko drama, “Red,” proved that point, if occasionally on the talky side. And I’m pleased to report that “The Pitmen Painters” turns out to be an even more accessible look at the creative process.

Lee Hall, the writer of “Billy Elliot,” explores another aspect of the Northern England mining country, this time dramatizing the true story of the Northumberland miners who, breaking the stereotypical mold, became painters of some repute and were known as the Ashington Group. And their first exhibition was the first such of working class artists in Britain.

Hall begins in 1934 with art instructor Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly) vainly attempting to teach a traditional art course to the rough hewn Ashington men who have elected to educate themselves on art appreciation. Da Vinci and Michelangelo hold little interest to the men, so Lyon, in frustration, suggests they try their hands with a brush and canvas themselves.

Paintings of mine-related activity give way to other themes with growing expertise and widening horizons. There’s crusty George Brown (Deka Walmsley), the head of the group, Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson), a socialist dental technician, Jimmy Floyd (David Whitaker), a character known as Young Lad (Brian Lonsdale), and the miner with the most promise, Oliver Kilbourn (an outstanding Christopher Connel) who, though this is an ensemble work, is the nearest to what would be considered the central character.

Two female characters add variety to what could have been an all-male talkfest. There’s Phillippa Wilson as Helen Sutherland, an empathetic patron of the arts who wants to sponsor Oliver, and Susan Parks (Lisa McGrillis), a no-nonsense art study model who momentarily upsets the men’s equanimity. All are superb (and indeed have been playing these roles off and on for three years). Lonsdale doubles most impressively as the Young Lad with a heavy Yorkshire accent and artist Ben Nicholson with a posh upper crust one.

Hall’s play – inspired by a book by William Feaver --is never static and he cleverly meshes the artistic and sociological elements. Under Max Roberts’ direction, moves fluidly, as the action spans through 1947.

Gary McCann’s period costumes and scenic design – including helpful projections of the men’s work on three overhead screens – and Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting add pleasing visual interest.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47 Street, 212-239-6200 or www.Telecharge.com)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Brief Encounter (Roundabout Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

Having seen the Kneehigh Theatre’s highly imaginative, impressionistic take on the classic Noel Coward/David Lean film in London, I feared that its transfer to these shores – particularly at a large house like Studio 54 – would result in a loss of the charm and authenticity of the British mounting.

The recreation of a 1930s British cinema with cast members doubling as audience buskers and ushers, serenading the patrons, and then assuming parts in the story is, in fact, slightly diminished simply given the size of the theatre – by all accounts, not a problem at the more intimate St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last year – but thankfully, in every other respect, the impact of this lovely production is undiminished.

Despite the novelty of the multi-media staging – characters stepping out of a black and white movie screen, breaking into song and stylized movement -- and the occasional slapstick (augmenting Coward’s original light moments), this isn’t meant to be a send-up of the film like that other British import, “The 39 Steps.”

The central love story here – a housewife and a doctor (both married) meeting in a train station when he removes a bit of grit from her eye, and in that and subsequent meetings falling more deeply in love, while grappling with increasing guilt – is played with utmost seriousness. Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock as lovers Laura and Alec are as repressed and tenderly impassioned as Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the film.

Director Emma Rice (artistic director of Kneehigh) has adapted the film script – itself taken from Coward’s one-act “Still Life,” one of the playlets comprising his three-evening “Tonight at 8:30” anthology – and done so in a way that I think would have pleased Coward very much. Her work doesn’t distort the source material, in the way of, say, Ivo van Hove’s bizarre deconstruction of “The Little Foxes” at New York Theatre Workshop, but enhances it cleverly and movingly.

In fact, with crashing waves and symbolically liberating water projected on the drop, and a pulsating musical score, the romance is heightened to the nth degree.

A cast of merely nine players – many doubling – does stellar work here, including Annette McLaughlin as the refreshment center barmaid Myrtle, Joseph Alessi as amorous ticket taker Albert, and Dorothy Atkinson and Gabriel Ebert as young lovers waitress Beryl and porter Stanley.

The use of music – all Coward lyrics but, in some instances, excellent new tunes by Stu Barker – provides amusing and poignant counterpoint to the action. A gorgeous rendition of “Go Slow, Johnny” accompanies an unconsummated tryst between Alec and Laura, as they undress after getting soaked in a rowboat, and then chastely resisting their impulses, dress again. That sequence is one of many breathtaking moments.

Neil Murray’s period sets and costumes, Malcolm Rippeth’s mood setting lighting, Simon Baker’s adept use of sound, and Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll’s powerful projections enhance this truly unique theatrical experience, one that should not be missed.

(Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org)