Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Neighborhood Watch (Brits Off Broadway)

By Harry Forbes

In his 75th play, Alan Ayckbourn shows that he is still very much at the top of his game (though when has that not been the case?), and “Neighborhood Watch,” direct from Ayckbourn’s home base, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, features his usual exemplary ensemble of actors that have you marveling at the absolute perfection of each characterization.

A large part of the pleasure derived from Ayckbourn’s plays is the skill with which he orchestrates each new development, but on this occasion, the play does open with a long speech in which the the middle-aged Hilda (Alexandra Mathie) eulogizes her beloved brother Martin who, we gather, has been killed “tragically and prematurely.” That much we know. The rest of the play a flashback.

We see how said Martin (Matthew Cottle) and Hilda have taken up residence at the Bluebell Hill Development and are relishing their anticipated carefree suburban existence. But a young trespasser climbs over their fence just as they are preparing for a housewarming party. Their first guests – the ex-security guard and sometime vigilante Rod (Terence Booth) and the gossipy Dorothy (Eileen Battye) – convince them there’s danger everywhere.

Rod, in particular, warns that the lower class folk in the estate houses at the bottom of the hill are a bad lot, and Martin and Hilda had better put a strong fence, topped with barbed wire, around their house if they know what’s good for them.

In short order, we meet their other neighbors: sad sack Gareth (Richard Derrington), a retired engineer, obsessed with ancient torture devices, whose sexy young wife Amy (Frances Grey) is having her latest extramarital affair with none other than Martin and Hilda's next-door neighbor, powder-keg Luther (Paul Cheadle), abusive husband of meek music teacher Magda (Amy Loughton).

Martin is sufficiently galvanized by Rod’s alarmist talk to form the titular neighborhood watch, one which carries increasingly fascistic overtones. If the police won’t adequately protect them, as Rod has demonstrated in his cautionary tale about how his hedge trimmer once went missing, they'll do it themselves. Before long, we see that there can be just as much danger within their gated community as outside.

A dark undercurrent imbues the play, with Ayckbourn taking every opportunity to satirize right-wing, sanctimonious folks whose fear and paranoia are far more destructive than whatever they perceive as the enemy. Hilda and Martin are devout Christians, but Ayckbourn takes sharp aim at the hypocrisy beneath the good intentions. The character with the least hang-ups – the amoral Amy – is the one who most earns our sympathy.

The cast, as noted, is truly brilliant. Each brings one of Ayckbourn’s masterful character studies to vivid life. They exemplify the best of the British school of acting, with Mathie especially impressive as the sweet but, as we gradually come to see, scarily controlling sister.

Set designer Pip Leckenby’s cannily placed pair of crescent-shaped sofas, with three perfectly positioned throw pillows, makes the apt living room centerpiece, even without having to show us the dreadfully green wallpaper which Hilda has proudly covered the walls.

Under Ayckbourn’s own direction, every funny barb, delicious nuance and ominous utterance lands just as it should.

(59E59 Theaters, 212-279-4200 or; through January 1)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Seminar (Golden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

If “Seminar” offered nothing more than a chance to see Alan Rickman at his most sneeringly, witheringly sarcastic, that would probably be enough for the audience that cheers his entrance, and laps up every subsequent scene. He’s Leonard, a famous fiction writer, hired for a cool $5,000 each by four aspiring young novelists, to coach them over a period of 10 weeks.

His feedback as they tremblingly offer him a few pages of what they’ve written is anything for paternal, and he – like everyone else in this play – seems to be able to assess the quality of prose by the merest glance. But we’ll forgive playwright Theresa Rebeck this bit of dramatic license.

The well-heeled Kate – whose spacious 10-room rent controlled apartment is setting – gets the worst of Leonard, as he harshly laces into the story it’s taken her six years to write. She’s played by Lily Rabe in a sardonic, New York style eons removed from her much-praised Portia in the Al Pacino “Merchant of Venice.”

Jerry O’Connell (in his Broadway debut) is Douglas, the cockiest member of the group about to be published (though Leonard decrees his writing is perfect “in a whorish way”); Hettienne Parr is the sexy Izzy (she uninhibitedly bares her breasts early on) with a tougher skin than Kate, but with the more pragmatic outlook; and Hamish Linklater is Martin, the most insecure, and the one most reluctant to hand over any of his precious prose for Leonard’s exacting, no-holds-barred inspection. Literary matters aside, love and sex enter the picture, but I shan’t spoil what the pairings.

Rebeck has written five juicy parts, and they all rise to the occasion, under Sam Gold’s smart direction.

The play is far from profound, and more than a little implausible, though there are some astute observations on the writing process and the realities of the publishing world, and certainly, the Rebeck's setup holds your attention, with a good number of laughs. When matters take a more serious turn, we go along with the mood shift

Rickman has a long revelatory speech that he delivers with understated power. I found his projection a little understated, too, for much of the evening (perhaps the result of an acute respiratory infection that felled him earlier in the week), but in every other respect, he was at the top his game here.

David Zinn’s striking set design for Kate’s apartment defines Kate to a tee, and gives way to a striking scene change when you least expect it, lighting designer Ben Stanton’s bright illumination morphing to something more atmospheric in kind.

(The Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200 or or 212-239-6200.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Private Lives (The Music Box)

By Harry Forbes

Kim Cattrall proves the real deal in Noel Coward’s classic “Private Lives.” As the mercurial, witty Amanda, there’s nary a trace of the “Sex and the City” Samantha on display. Her assumption of the role is, in fact, the latest in a string of latter-day performances that have seen the actress stretching with a number of versatile roles, from Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” to “My Boy Jack” on PBS’s “Masterpiece Classic” to her recent stint as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in the U.K.

Cattrall received praise for Richard Eyre’s production of Coward's play in London last year, opposite Matthew MacFadyen as Elyot. Here, she’s joined by the wonderful Paul Gross, star of “Slings and Arrows,” that superb mini-series about a Canadian Shakespeare festival, not unlike Stratford, which you can still catch on the Sundance Channel.

As the formerly married couple who meet in Deauville on their respective honeymoons to other people – the stuffy Victor (Simon Paisley Day) and the simpering Sybil (Anna Madeley) -- they play with great style, tossing off their barbed lines with crisp British aplomb in a way that honors the roles’ originators, Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence, with the overlay of their own considerable personalities.

The first act is set on the traditional double balcony – though those early scenes are marred by “off-stage” music far too intrusive and not appropriately directional. The actors shouldn’t have to compete with what should only be distant ambient scene-setting. The music, of course, eventually leads into Amanda and Elyot’s sentimental favorite, “Someday I’ll Find You,” vocalized most charmingly by Cattrall and Gross.

They are far from the whole show, however, as Day and Madeley are quite wonderful in their supporting roles, both showing their mettle in the third act, after Victor and Sybil come in upon their squabbling mates who have fled to Amanda’s Paris apartment, designed – like the period-perfect costumes -- by Rob Howell in witty Art Deco fashion. But though highly fanciful, the spacious layout gives the stars ample room for the considerable slapstick of the second act, which Cattrall and Gross enact adroitly.

What makes Eyre’s production so special is the sensitivity to the serious subtext beneath the witty banter: those significant pauses and silences, the casual references to death, belief, afterlife, love, attraction, and fidelity. The seemingly idle banter of much of Coward’s dialogue belies the comedy’s true substance. One is reminded anew how human and natural is the dialogue with its quicksilver shifts from light to shade.

This is, if anyone need be reminded, a great play, and it’s happily been accorded an ace production.

(Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200 or; through February 5, 2012.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Grand Duke (New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players)

By Harry Forbes

For its annual one-night-only event – often a G&S or Sullivan-only rarity – NYGASP, under the direction of Albert Bergeret – resurrected G&S’s final operetta, a critical and popular flop in 1896, and not performed again by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company till 1975.

Under the circumstances, NYGASP’s staging was remarkably polished and full, including some delightful choreography by David Auxier (who also co-directed with Bergeret, and took the small but significant part of the Herald who brings on the Prince of Monte Carlo near the end).

Bergeret’s conducting – brisk, buoyant and graceful throughout – ensured a high musical tone, one matched by a uniformly superb cast. The concerted numbers – “Strange the Views Some People Hold” and “Now Take a Card,” to name two – were gorgeously vocalized.

All in all, Sullivan was, in fact, more faithfully served than librettist Gilbert some of whose lyrics were rewritten, albeit not egregiously. The music proved a constant delight to the ear, because even though near the end of his life and in poor health, Sullivan came up with one beguiling tune after another.

Gilbert’s libretto – an unfocused story about a theatrical troupe in a German Duchy who plot to overthrow a penny-pinching Grand Duke (the redoubtable Stephen O’Brien) and govern along theatrical lines, actually achieving that end through a game of cards (don’t ask) – lacks the sharp focus of Gilbert’s earlier work, but even so, the situation is never less than amusing.

Richard Holmes essayed the role of company comedian Ludwig who takes the Duke’s place, and learns that duty dictates his abandoning his sweetheart Lisa (Melissa Attebury) for a succession of ladies with claims to the status of Grand Duchess, including the troupe’s leading lady Julia (Charlotte Detrick), the battleaxe Bareness von Krakenfeldt (Angela Christine Smith), and finally the Princess of Monte Carlo (Sarah Caldwell Smith).

As usual, Holmes’ mellifluous tone, incisive diction, and assured stage presence made for a cherishable performance.

Daniel Greenwood as theatrical manager Ernest and Detrick brought just the right comic flair to their roles, the latter having a ball with her incongruous (for an “English” actress) German accent, and were vocally strong.

Attebury’s Lisa was exquisitely sung, and her second act lament, “Take Care of Him,” was especially lovely, garnering one of the biggest hands of the evening. As, later, did Quinto Ott as The Prince of Monte Carlo whose dazzling Roulette number, sung with firm tone and appropriate panache, brought down the house.

The purist in me didn’t care for Julia’s showpiece aria “So Ends My Dream” turned into a duet for her and Lisa, but – as both were abandoned by Ludwig at this point – it made some dramatic sense, and gave us another opportunity to hear Attebury. Also right on target was James Mills as the Notary who sang with style and fine musicianship throughout.

The performance was unobtrusively miked, the sound emanating from the stage cleanly and naturally.

The edits and revisions notwithstanding, the performance was faithful in most particulars and made a good case for the piece’s reclamation. Of all the “Grand Duke” revivals I’ve seen in town over the years by our enterprising operetta companies – including NYGASP themselves – Sunday’s performance was among the most persuasive.

(Peter Norton Symphony Space, 2535 Broadway at 95th Street, (212) 864-5400 or

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Venus in Fur (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

I missed Nina Arianda in her much praised performance in this play last year Off-Broadway at the Classic Stage Company. But now, after making an auspicious Broadway debut in “Born Yesterday,” she has returned to the role that first brought her attention, one that allows her to demonstrate even far greater range.

She’s a loopy, classless actress trying out for a part in a play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel “Venus in Fur,” about a nobleman who allows a lady named Vanda (significantly, Arianda’s character has the same name) to dominate him for sexual pleasure. (The word masochism derives from the author’s name.)

Hugh Dancy plays David, the harried playwright/director who’s adapted the novel. She arrives in a rainstorm for the audition late and frazzled, but before long, she’s persuaded him – by a combination of her forceful personality and manipulative cajoling – to read the nobleman’s part in the script (which, by the way, allows Dancy to revert to his natural English accent).

And, for the duration of the intermissionless play, they go through a series of kinky role-playing as they act out Sacher-Masoch’s story, every so often departing from the play and speaking of their actual situation which, of course, mirrors the the situation in the 19th century narrative.

Arianda is so mercurial and dazzling to watch that it almost doesn’t matter that David Ives’ play, though cleverly conceived, becomes awfully talky as it morphs from comic romp to something considerably darker, though director Walter Bobbie masterfully orchestrates the transitions.

This is not a one-woman show, however, as Dancy expertly matches Vanda’s quicksilver mood and character shifting with a most accomplished performance.

(MTC's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, 212-239-6200 or

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Other Desert Cities (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Much as I enjoyed Jon Robin Baitz’s much heralded play when it opened at the Mitzi Newhouse last year for its snappy one-liners and superlative performances (by Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Linda Lavin, Elizabeth Marvel, and Thomas Sadoski), I felt the whole was rather less than its excellent parts.

The dilemma of a daughter, a promising novelist, now divorced, and recovered from emotional problems, who returns to the California home of her staunchly Republican parents – should she or shouldn’t she publish a memoir about her late brother’s suicide that will hurt them? – seemed rather inconsequential, and the dialogue smart but overly glib.

But now on Broadway, where John Lee Beatty’s set looks just as spiffy on a proscenium stage, with Judith Light and Rachel Griffiths in the Lavin and Marvel roles, lines are delivered in a far more naturalistic, less sitcom manner, and the whole – under Joe Mantello’s sensitive direction – seems more persuasive on every level.

The returning cast members have settled into their parts most admirably. Comparisons are famously odious, but I’ll take the plunge and say that Light is every bit the equal of Lavin, as she follows her acerbic part in “Lombardi” with another sharp portrayal, and Griffiths is far more affecting than Marvel.

Griffiths seems more naturally suited to the part, and she gives a fine and touching portrayal that transcends her quality, but sometimes mannered, TV work (e.g. “Six Feet Under,” “Brothers and Sisters”). Her final moments are especially moving.

Now’s the time to see “Other Desert Cities.” If you saw it uptown, I think you’ll find a return visit most rewarding.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

(Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., or

J. Edgar (Warner Bros. Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

As with the actresses who used to play the aging and heavy Queen Victoria, make-up goes a long way to helping Leonardo DiCaprio into a convincing J. Edgar Hoover from young man to old age and death. But there’s no denying that what makes his performance so dynamic comes from the inside out.

The film focuses on several key episodes of the FBI director’s life – his pursuit of Prohibition-era gangsters like John Dillinger, the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby, his wiretapping of Martin Luther King, etc. – and in his private life, his dependence on a domineering mother (Judi Dench), and a close friendship with his number two man at the Bureau, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).

As we don’t know for sure the true nature of the latter’s closeness to Hoover, Dustin Lance Black’s script takes the safe middle ground, and the friendship is never shown to be physically consummated nor, for that matter, on Hoover’s part, is love per se ever articulated. So, too, Hoover’s rumored propensity for cross dressing only comes up in a poignant scene prompted by an emotional crisis. Platonic or not, the relationship between the two men emerges as a sort of love story, with a dotted line to Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), Hoover’s devoted secretary for many years.

Hammer and Gandy are likewise excellent, though Hammer’s old man makeup registers as patently false.

Like “Hereafter,” this is rather surprising subject matter to bear the Clint Eastwood stamp, but it’s sensitively done, with a delicate musical score by the director to match.

Some may find the narrative back and forthing through eras a tad confusing, or carp about the film’s limited focus. But as a showcase for one of our best screen actors, and as another feather in the cap of its distinguished director, “J. Edgar” is a compelling piece of work.

(This film has been rated R by the MPAA for brief strong language.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Relatively Speaking (Brooks Atkinson Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The three one-acts that make up this evening of dysfunctional family comedies are a mixed bag, but never less than amusing.

The problem with the first – Ethan Coen’s “Talking Cure” – is that it ends too abruptly, but what there is of it is intriguing. You have Larry, a patient in a mental hospital (Danny Hoch) – a postal worker who, we learn, went “postal” -- being interrogated in a series of a short blackout scenes by a doctor (Jason Kravits) fighting a losing battle with his overly verbose patient.

Then there’s a flashback cutaway to Larry's parents (Allen Lewis Rickman and Katherine Borowitz) when she was pregnant with Larry, and we understand how he turned out as he did. Both halves are funny and sharply played, but one longs for more of a wrap-up, perhaps a return to the doctor and Larry for the final coda. Still, this is an intriguing curtain-raiser.

The second (and most solid of the trio) is Elaine May’s “George is Dead.” In this, wife Carla (Lisa Emery), currently at odds with her teacher husband (Grant Shaud) who resents that he takes second fiddle in her life, is anxiously waiting for his return home after a lecture of his she missed. There's suddenly a pounding on the door, and in comes Doreen, a pampered, self-absorbed chatterbox (Marlo Thomas) whose husband has just died in a skiing accident. It happens that Carla’s mother was Doreen’s childhood nanny. Deep seated resentments surface with funny and poignant results.

All the players, including Patricia O'Conncell as Carla's mother, are fine, but Thomas is brilliant, nailing Doreen’s childish needfulness to a tee.

With snappy one-liners and a promising premise, Woody Allen’s “Honeymoon Motel,” which comprises the entire second act, seems to be the crowd pleaser, based on post-show chatter.

Newlyweds Jerry and Nina (Steve Guttenberg and Ari Graynor) are about to experience kinky bliss in a wonderfully tacky motel room, but there’s a surprising twist, which I shan’t reveal. Suffice to say, their love nest is soon invaded by Jerry’s friend (Shaud again), wife (Caroline Aaron), stepson (Bill Army), Nina’s parents (Julie Kavner and Mark Linn-Baker), a eulogy-spouting rabbi (Richard Libertini), Jerry’s psychiatrist (Kravits), and a pizza delivery guy (Hoch)

This is vintage Allen in high farce mode with a Borscht Belt gags abounding. The problem is that farce needs to be grounded in more initial reality than Allen has constructed here, and the one-liners are not very organic on such an implausible foundation.

John Turturro directs all three playlets sensitive to the varying tone of each, and draws sharp performances from his cast

Santo Loquasto goes to town with the kitschy motel set of the second act, but Clara’s cluttered middle class apartment and Larry’s parents’ wood-paneled dining room are all right on target, as are Donna Zakowska’s apt costumes, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting design.

“Relatively Speaking” is tailor-made for the proverbial tired businessman, that's for sure, but there are moments, particularly in the more literate Coen and May pieces, that strike chords on a higher level.

(Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, 877-250-2929 or

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sons of the Prophet (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

This fine and deeply affecting play by Stephen Karam – commissioned by the Roundabout as part of its New Play Initiative for emerging and established artists – will surely rank as one the best of the 2011-2012 season. And it marks the occasion of another treasurable performance by the impressively versatile Santino Fontana who shone, most recently, in Roundabout’s “The Importance of Being Ernest” last season.

Here, he’s Joseph. a Lebanese-American living in central Pennsylvania surrounded by his handicapped brother Charles (Chris Perfetti) who, like Joseph, is gay; a crotchety uncle (Yusef Bulos) in failing health; and his clinically depressed, pill-popping book publisher boss Gloria (Joanna Gleason).

In the play’s early moments, we learn his father dies of a heart attack one week after swerving to avoid what he thought was a deer while driving. In fact, the animal was on a stuffed decoy placed on the road as a prank by Vin (Jonathan Louis Dent), a local football star who had been raised in a foster home, and whose juvenile sentence is postponed till after football season. This becomes a point of contention in the town, one ultimately debated in the play’s climactic scene, a town meeting.

Joseph is beset by various health ailments, and sorely needs the insurance he gets from working for the scattered, self-absorbed Gloria, a lady who, comically, knows no boundaries. But he faces his various adversities with humor and resilience, as misfortune seems to beset his family at every turn.

When Gloria discovers his ethnic heritage and learns that his family is distantly related to Kahlil Gibran, she sees a way to boost her failing business: a memoir about Joseph’s family geared to their tenuous connection to the famed author of “The Prophet.”

Karam has ingeniously structured the play along the lines of that book with projected headings “On Pain,” “On Friendship,” “On Work,” etc. But for all the Big Issues explored in the play – suffering, sickness, death, loneliness – the play is never heavy-handed, leavened as it is by humor throughout.

Besides Fontana’s fine work, Chris Perfetti shines as the campy younger brother with a spiritual bent, influenced no doubt by their father who revered the Lebanese Maronite St. Rafca, canonized for her suffering, and whose portrait looms in the upstairs bedroom.

Also excellent are Charles Socarides as a reporter covering the hearings about the car accident and who shares a history with Joseph from high school days; and Dee Nelson and Lizbeth Mackay is various roles.

The play is finely directed by Peter DuBois who, like his cast, is ever sensitive to the frequent funny-sad shifts. Production credits are first-rate including Anna Louizos’ split-level set, Bobby Frederick Tilley, II’s costumes, and Japhy Weideman’s lighting.

I didn’t catch Karam’s first well-received play for the Roundabout – “Speech & Debate” – but clearly, he is an exciting playwright with a bright future.

(Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, (212) 719-1300 or

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I due Figaro (Amore Opera)

By Harry Forbes

Opera lovers, get thee hence to the enterprising Amore Opera which is currently offering a gem of a rediscovery: Saverio Mercadante’s tune-filled 1826 “sequel” to “The Marriage of Figaro.”

The action takes place 15 years after the events in Mozart’s opera (and Beaumarchais’ play) and involves the same sort of intrigue, this time revolving around the Count’s former page Cherubino who’s now in disguise as another “Figaro” and determined to win the hand of the Count and Countess’ daughter Inez whom the Count would marry off to an older suitor.

The music is closer to Rossini than Mozart, but it’s not just a watered down, second rate Rossini, but music of similarly high quality. Perhaps Rossini might have provided more contrasting moments of light and shade, but I’m not complaining about the steam of infectious melody that just bubbles along from start to finish. Riccardo Muti’s performance of the piece in Europe last year was hailed worldwide, so bravo to Amore for picking up on the buzz so quickly, and giving the work its New York premiere.

Company president Nathan Hull (currently playing an excellent Figaro in the concurrent Mozart work) has directed a delightful production, conducted with panache by Gregory Buchalter. The parts are mostly double cast, and at my performance, the standout of a strong roster was mezzo Hayden DeWitt’s Cherubino singing with smooth and stylish tone throughout.

Elizabeth Treat was an accomplished Susanna, like DeWitt, handling the high flying coloratura passages with ease. Rounding out the female contingent, Alea Vorillas’ Inez, the Almaviva daughter, proved a delightful comedienne, especially in her despondent second act aria where, as amusingly staged by Hull, she contemplates various methods of suicide. Though the part is smaller than in Mozart’s “Figaro,” Nicole McQuade was an attractively sung Countess, she, Treat, and Vorillas offering a most appealing trio in the first act.

In Mercadante’s work, Count Almaviva is a tenor again (as in “The Barber of Seville), and Gilad Paz sang strongly, while Daniel Quintana applied his virile baritone to the wily Figaro. But in librettist Felice Romani’s text, it’s really the women who dominate here.

The production is a treat. But hurry. The final performance is Friday, October 28.

(Connelly Theatre, 220 E. 4th St., or 1-888-811-4111)

Photo credit: Tal Karlin. Daniel Quintana (Figaro) is Figaro in Amore Opera’s American Premiere of Mercadante's hit 1826 opera "I due Figaro" ("The Two Figaros").

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Man and Boy (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

Some may disdain Terence Rattigan as dated and irrelevant (a sentiment I emphatically don't share), but surely even his critics can't deny the solid construction, effectiveness, and sheer entertainment value of his works, as a recent spate of London revivals commemorating his centennial have demonstrated.

So, too, the present Roundabout revival of his 1963 play about a corrupt Romanian financier and his estranged son proves quite mesmerizing despite, or even because of, its melodramatic trappings.

The play is set in 1934. Gregor Antonescu, played magnificently by Frank Langella, is on the brink of financial ruin. He contrives to visit his son Vasily (Adam Driver) with whom he had a terrible row five years earlier.

The latter, who has assumed the name Basil Anthony, earns his living as a lowly lounge pianist and lives in a Greenwich Village basement apartment. He has an actress girlfriend (Virginia Kull) who knows nothing of his background.

Antonescu shows up, accompanied by his sidekick Sven (Michael Siberry). Langella’s entrance – overcoat collar upturned, and a concealing fedora – heralds a great star turn, and indeed it is. This is a vivid portrayal of a charming but manipulative and emotionally repressed figure. The part was written for Charles Boyer and played to acclaim by David Suchet in a 2005 London revival, also directed, as this so finely is, by Maria Aitken.

The great man has arranged for Mark Herries (Zach Grenier) -- an American magnate who, in light of Antonescu’s financial instability, has called off a proposed alliance – to meet him there.

Antonescu has built his fortune on the principles of liquidity and confidence, both now in seriously short supply. But he has discovered that Grenier has a certain vulnerability, and comes up quite a diabolical way to use it to his advantage. Let’s just say what happens next belies the accusation that Rattigan shied away from themes that might compromise his own closeted sexuality.

Though Langella is so magnetic, he is not the whole show. Driver is completely convincing – physically and dramatically -- as Basil, conflicted by his revulsion of his father’s methods, but adoring him throughout. Kull makes the girlfriend – who takes the news about her boyfriend’s lineage with surprising equanimity – also believable. Siberry, too, offers solid support, proving again a great asset to any production in which he’s cast.

The second act is rather less unconventional than the first, though it introduces the character of Antonescu’s second wife (Francesca Faridany good in a rather stock role), as well as a further obstacle to the financier’s monetary reformation.

Derek McLane’s slightly worn two-room flat captures the 1930’s Village ambiance adeptly, as do Martin Pakledinaz’s period costumes.

Rattigan could have easily called this play “Father and Son” and certainly, as far as dramatizations of that eternal conflict go, this is one of the most intriguing. And for American audiences, the parallels to the Bernie Madoff scandal add further resonance.

More Rattigan, please.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway (227 West 42nd Street (212)719-1300 or

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Mountaintop (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett give tremendous performances as, respectively, Dr. Martin Luther King and a garrulous maid in this audacious and ultimately moving play about King's last night in Memphis' Lorraine Motel in 1968 where he would meet his death on the balcony the next day.

When the play opens, King – exhausted after delivering his "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech -- is sending his (off-stage) associate, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, off to buy him a pack of cigarettes. Left alone, King frets that the room might be bugged, misses the toothbrush that wife Coretta forgot to pack for him, relieves himself audibly in the bathroom, and takes note of his smelly feet as he removes his shoes, all the while mulling the approach of his next big speech. In short, we're seeing the human side of this now mythic figure.

When he wearily calls down to room service for a cup of coffee, Camae, an alternately feisty and flirtatious maid on the first day of her job, arrives. She’s a plain-spoken, lower-class woman but she certainly recognizes King, who, before long, begs her for a cigarette, and is asking her advice about matters large and small, including whether he should shave his mustache for image reasons. Camae indignantly replies that it's the sort of question he should more properly be asking his wife.

Carmae soon proves how there’s more to her than first apparent, when King asks her to demonstrate what she would say in his position. In a trice, she puts on King’s jacket, leaps onto one of the beds, and launches into an increasingly forceful sermon which builds to the point when she's exhorting the congregation to “f – the white man.”

Afterwards, she brags that her oratorical skills, and she chastises him for presuming she might not know what that word means. She boldly asks if she's as good as he is. He tells her she speaks nonsense; she counters that it’s poetry.

Bassett really shows her comic chops throughout, but reveals impressive gravitas when the script calls for it.

There’s a major twist in all this – thus, that audacity I mentioned earlier – but I shan’t spoil playwright Katori Hall‘s neat construction by giving it away here. The play originated in London and won last year’s Olivier Award for Best New Play.

Jackson looks rather less like King than Jesse Jackson, but he convincingly embodies King’s public persona and his personal demons.

It’s a joy to watch these two play together. They’ve got wonderful chemistry, and should be well remembered at award time next year. Bassett has the showier part, and she really is tremendous, but Jackson’s world-weary King is every bit as skillful, bringing just the right gravitas to the role.

Director Kenny Leon keeps the pace taut, deftly keeping up with the play’s tonal shifts, and making sure both stars are on an equal playing field, without one overshadowing the other. Indeed, Hall’s feminist perspective does sometimes seems to favor Camae, but in fact, the parts seem evenly distributed.

David Gallo‘s motel room set has the right slightly seedy and depressing ambience, and towards the end it breaks away impressively during the play’s climatic coup de theatre. Constanza Romero’s costumes – King’s rumpled suit and Camae’s yellow maid’s outfit – are right on target. Dan Moses Schreier‘s sound design – including the bone rattling thunderclaps that permeate the action which takes place on a stormy night – is most effective. Branford Marsalis has composed some apt original music

At my preview performance, the audience was thoroughly rapt throughout the plays 85 intermission-less, even when the play ventures into more spiritual realms, and the enthusiastic standing ovation at the end was the real deal.

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th St., 212-239-6200 or

[Pictured at top: Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Bassett as Camae. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.]

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Follies (Marquis Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

To cut to the chase, Broadway’s second revival of the Stephen Sondheim cult favorite is, not only a vast improvement on the last (the Roundabout’s oddly mediocre 2001 mounting), but a superior production by any standards.

When the evocative ghosts silently traverse the stage in the opening moments and you hear the luscious strains of the 28-piece orchestra (under James Moore’s excellent direction), you just know you’re in for a treat.

And though the sleek, modern Marquis may seem an odd fit for a show taking place in a soon-to-be-demolished old theater, masking the proscenium and boxes in black drapery (courtesy of designer Derek McLane) goes a great distance in overcoming the disparity.

On the other hand, both the 1998 Paper Mill production, which by all rights should have transferred to Broadway, and the 2007 Encores revival were, I think, more consistently persuasive, but here, director Eric Schaeffer has brought out nuances in the text that are often revelatory.

Textually, this is basically the 1971 original with none of the material from the 1987 London revival – like the “Ah, But Underneath” strip that Phyllis performed at Paper Mill – and musically, it is missing only the “Bolero D’Amore” number.

The cast is fine across the board. Danny Burstein is the best of the post-Gene Nelson interpreters of Buddy, creating an enormously sympathetic character, and bringing back at least some balletic movement to his big moment, “The Right Girl,” which people forget was accompanied by Nelson’s virtuosic dancing in the original production. Ron Raines’ Ben, the disillusioned businessman, is on the stolid side, but the approach works for the uptight, self-absorbed character, and he sings beautifully.

As for their unhappy wives, Jan Maxwell nails Phyllis, delivering a really scorching “Could I Leave You?” that makes you momentarily forget even the best of the past ladies in the role, though I didn’t quite buy her generic vamping in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” rather prosaically choreographed by Warren Carlyle.

Bernadette Peters’ Sally – delusionally carrying a torch for Ben– is alternately touching and overwrought. This lady is really losing her mind, long before she gives voice to that condition in her eleven o’clock torch song. Vocally, Peters does some lovely things, especially with that upper range of her voice which we rarely hear, though at other times, her singing seems a bit tremulous.

Though she doesn’t bring the true-life persona of the original’s Yvonne DeCarlo or Paper Mill’s Ann Miller, London’s West End musical queen Elaine Paige – who’s already proven her Sondheim chops in the New York City Opera’s “Sweeney Todd” – gives a finely shaded reading of “I’m Still Here,” a bit over the top only at the climax. At my performance, the lights and the mikes blew just as the song was reaching that climax, but Paige finished the number like a trouper. She was also a hoot in her line readings.

As for the other ladies, Terri White is as much a standout delivering “Who’s That Woman?” as she was in “Finian’s Rainbow” where she stopped the show with her almost baritonal rendition of “Necessity.” The surprise here is her nimble footwork, as she leads the gals through their paces.

Jayne Houdyshell’s drolly dour “Broadway Baby” is amusing; Mary Beth Peil’s “Ah, Paree” a bit too understated; and Metropolitan Opera veteran mezzo Rosalind Elias – accompanied by Leah Horowitz as her younger self – delivers an especially powerful “One More Kiss,” though the Romberg-esque duet is arguably more satisfying performed in a soprano timbre.

It is a delight to see Susan Watson, the ingénue lead in the hit revival of “No, No, Nanette” which ran concurrently with the original “Follies,” turn up here with Don Correia singing and hoofing through a charming “Rain on the Roof.”

Schaeffer brings out all the marital strife of James Goldman’s script and then some. The highly-charged confrontations among the four principals are as acerbic as anything by Strindberg. Some of that bitterness could be ramped down, I think, but the text does support the interpretation, and the resulting fireworks are certainly not dull.

McLane’s dark empty theater set gives way to a splendiferous burst of pink for the big “Loveland” sequence, Natasha Katz’s atmospheric lighting in the early scenes morphing into complementary radiance. Gregg Barnes, whose costumes sharply defined each of the characters, also has a field day in this sequence. The production, on the whole, looks as good as it sounds.

This is not perhaps completely the “Follies” of one's dreams, but it will do just fine until that idealized one comes along.

(Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, 877-250-2929 or

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Olive and the Bitter Herbs (Primary Stages)

By Harry Forbes

Olive (Marcia Jean Kurtz) is a crotchety old actress whose greatest fame came as the “sausage lady” in a popular TV commercial years before.

A perennial complainer about life in general and her neighbors in particular, and the sole surviving renter in her co-op, she grudgingly makes the acquaintance of the gay couple next door -- the even-tempered Robert (David Garrison) and the caustic Trey (Dan Butler) -- whose sounds and cooking smells she detests.

As with Robert and Trey, she also comes to know the co-op board chairman’s father (Richard Masur), thanks to the peace-making intervention of her cheerful, do-gooder friend Wendy (Julie Halston), a B-level theater company manager, and inveterate helper of aging actresses.

Eventually, Olive invites them all for a Passover Seder (that’s where the “bitter herbs” come in), and later, they all come over to watch Olive’s comeback part in a TV procedural.

Beyond the realistic story, playwright Charles Busch has decided to give Olive a ghost living in her ornate mirror. At first we think this may be a fancy of Olive’s faltering mind, but when, one by one, all the others see the spirit too (and know him to be a certain Howard), we realize the ghost is meant to be real.

Busch – writing in his accomplished Neil Simon manner as in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” rather than his accomplished movie spoof mode (e.g. “The Divine Sister,” “Die Mommie, Die” -- has said his play is “about connecting to the people in our lives – those with us and those who have passed on” and indeed the inter-connectedness theme gets full play in the fun, if predictable and wildly improbable, climax.

Still, Busch is equally adept at writing in both a comic and sentimental vein, and Mark Brokaw expertly draws both those qualities from his cast.

Busch veteran Halston exudes great warmth throughout, and her body language – a sort of Olive Oyl come to life – is a rib-tickling pleasure to watch from start to finish. The titular Olive is intentionally unpleasant, though we’re meant to grow fonder of her as the play progresses. Kurtz excels in the unlikable aspects of the part, but her performance could have used more colors in helping convey the other.

Garrison and Butler make a well-contrasted pair, and the bear-like Masur, who ultimately serves as Olive’s love interest, is affable and appealing.

Some of the cast stumbled on their line readings – perhaps the disorienting result of Hurricane Irene a couple of days earlier – but, on the whole, the ensemble could not be faulted.

Anna Louizos’ lived-in set suits Olive to a tee. Suzy Benzinger’s characterful costumes, and Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting – including that mirror with its glowing specter -- are also first-rate.

While not perhaps Busch’s very best work, as there’s a contrivance to the basic setup that makes it hard to suspend disbelief completely, “Olive and the Bitter Herbs” is never less than amusing, often laugh out-loud funny, and generally succeeds in making its touching point about our common humanity in a most entertaining way.

(Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, (212) 279-4200 or; through Sept. 3)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (Music Box Films/Universal)

By Harry Forbes

Eric Elmosnino gives a mesmerizing performance as the iconic singer, songwriter, poet, actor, provocateur Serge Gainsbourg (1921-1991) in this expressionistic bio.

Despite some fanciful conceits on the part of director Joann Sfar, a noted comic book artist making his feature film debut (both writing and directing), the narrative covers, in fairly chronological fashion, Gainsbourg’s life from precocious child Lucien Ginsburg – son of loving Russian-Jewish parents – to his early days as a painter, then cabaret pianist, and finally superstar pop icon.

Famously, he was the lover of Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis), Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), and Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), and they are vividly portrayed here. Casta makes a luscious Bardot, and Gordon is especially likable as Birkin. Sadly, Gordon committed suicide after filming her role her, a great loss.

Gainbourg became increasingly outrageous as the years went by, smoking and drinking to excess, finally dying in 1991 of a heart attack.

Many of Gainsbourg’s hit songs are heard, including “Bonnie & Clyde,” “La Javanaise,” and “Je t’Aime Moi Non Plus,” some duets with Bardot and Birkin, and everything is newly performed, rather than lip-synced to old recordings. The songs and background score (by Olivier Daviaud) are beautifully interwoven into the whole.

Handsomely shot by Guillaume Schiffman, the film utilizes a life-size puppet alter ego for Gainsbourg to spur him on to new challenges, get him into trouble, or remind him of his less than movie star looks, and of his outsider status.

The figure – which we first see in the childhood scenes, as if the anti-Semitic posters then posted around occupied France had sprung to life -- exaggerates Gainsbourg’s prominent ears and nose. The alter ego device becomes a bit wearying after a while, but fortunately never gets in the way of the story which Sfar has stated was meant to have the aura of a Russian fable.

I’m sure many Americans are unfamiliar with Gainsbourg; I knew him mainly for the series of catchy hit records he penned for Petula Clark in her pre-"Downtown" French period. But he was a towering figure in his native France – praised by Mitterand as a modern Baudelaire – and this interesting film, with its very persuasive performance by Elmosnino (winner of the 2011 Cesar Award), paints a vivid picture of his life and times, especially in the swinging Sixties.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Bitter Sweet (Bard College)

By Harry Forbes

One’s joy that someone finally had the good sense to mount Noel Coward’s musical masterpiece – his glorious operetta “Bitter Sweet” from 1929 – was, as it happened, seriously undermined by a minimalist, avant-garde staging that, while faithful to the essentials, was so stylized that it emerged far removed from the spirit of the original.

If this were an oft-revived work, such as one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s chestnuts, perhaps a novel approach could be tolerated. But as so many in the audience, judging by the pre-performance chatter, were anxious finally to see a legendary show they had heard much about but never actually encountered, it seemed a shame not to have rewarded their curiosity with a traditional staging.

Rather than following the script’s time frame of an old woman reminiscing in the 1920’s on the great tragic romance of her life in 1875, this production began in 1969, and traveled back to 1920, a conceit which, in many respects, worked against many elements of the period-specific text.

The story centers on Sarah Millick, a well-to-do young Englishwoman who elopes with her Austrian piano teacher Carl Linden, on the eve of her marriage to a stuffy young man. In Vienna she and Carl live in relative penury, he working as a pianist at Herr Schlick’s Café, she as one of the establishment’s dancing partners for the patrons. When a military officer presses himself on Sarah (now Sari), Carl jumps to her defense and is killed in a duel.

Normally, the actress playing Sarah gets to demonstrate her versatility, first as the wise old woman, then an ardent young girl of 16, then a poised middle-aged widow, and, finally, back to the present, as her elderly self again. Here, unaccountably, the part of the older Sarah (now Lady Shayne) was given to the great British actress Sian Phillips. Delightful as it was to see her here, the double-casting was wrong, but director Michael Gieleta seemed intent on imposing a “Follies”-like structure on the show with the young Sarah interacting across the decades with her older self.

Other ghostly effects were conveyed by Christopher Akerlind’s lighting which cast dark shadows on the wall to remind us, presumably, that this was all a flashback, an effect more creepy than evocative.

The younger Sarah was played by Sarah Miller, who sang well, although her mezzo timbre gave her songs a more covered quality than the bright, open sound the part ideally requires, and handled her line readings intelligently, affecting – like the rest of the cast – a decent English accent. But, somehow, she lacked the indefinable luminosity that a leading role such as this absolutely demands. And, sorry to say, she was saddled throughout with an unfortunate hairstyle.

Phillips appropriated what should have been Miller’s opening declaration to follow one’s heart, “The Call of Life,” and rendered it in an accomplished speak-sing manner rather than with the soaring lines the score requires. Phillips also opened the second act with an artfully studied reading of “Zigeuner,” but Miller at least got to sing that song in full near the end of the show.

There wasn’t any particular chemistry between Miller and her leading man, William Ferguson, but his gleaming tenor was outstanding, and he played with a charming Viennese accent, something of a novelty since most of the Carl Lindens on LP were Italian tenors.

Also standing tall in the cast was Amanda Squitteri as Manon, the entertainer at Schlick’s Café. She milked her big number, “If Love Were All,” for all it was worth, singing superbly and playing the vivacious star with great style that compared favorably with that of the incomparable Ivy St. Helier, the part’s originator, who memorably recreated her role in the 1933 film version.

James Bagwell conducted Jack Parton’s mercifully traditional arrangements with style. If one closed ones eyes during the songs, one almost could pretend this was an authentic presentation. But there was no overture, the extended musical set pieces were truncated, and most of the ensemble sections were sacrificed for a “chamber opera” effect. Even Sarah’s glorious “Tell Me What is Love” was shorn of most of the chorus’s response which is what really makes the number click. The opening party, the café, and Lord Shayne’s house all looked sadly underpopulated.

I didn’t care for the setting of the satiric “Green Carnations,” Coward’s paean to the gay young men of the day, as a cabaret number in Schlick’s café. And surely the saucy “Ladies of the Town” in this café were far too vulgar. Gieleta staged them as if this were the Kit Kat Klub from “Cabaret,” with a decadence that was not what Coward had in mind.

Dialogue was overly deliberate, and often had a hollow ring in the exceedingly spare setting. There was little sense of fun or gaiety. Apart from the café numbers, there was little dancing, and a dour mood pervaded all.

In his New York Times review of Florenz Ziegfeld’s original Broadway production, Brooks Atkinson wrote admiringly, “It is a production composed of miniatures, each one neatly turned. It is charming; it is subtle and witty.” You’d be hard pressed to glean those qualities from the directorial choices here, more suitable to Pirandello or “Wozzeck.”

Atkinson also called the show “decorous entertainment, reveling in the billowing costumes of a grandiose age of style, and courting humor in the bouncing bustle.” Gregory Gale’s costumes here -- though attractive in their way – couldn’t hope to be as picturesque.

Adrian W. Jones’ high-walled set, with its tall glass doors, evoked photographs of the original production. The substitution of a crimson curtain in place of the doors and the inclusion of a crescent-shaped little stage allowed a nice transformation into the café.

Still and all, misguided though the concept was, the production offered a chance to hear most of Coward’s evergreen songs performed live in something akin to their original context, generally strongly vocalized and played, and with Phillips adding a classy authenticity, however superfluous, to her inauthentic role.

Search online on YouTube for the priceless Pathe footage of the original London production (nearly 30 minutes worth, although silent) to see how “Bitter Sweet” ought to be done.

(Theater Two, The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, 845-758-7900 or; closed 8/14)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Death Takes a Holiday (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

This handsome and generally involving musical from composer/lyricist Maury Yeston and book writers, the late Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan, has a number of good things going for it.

It’s based on a once-popular play by Alberto Casella, adapted originally by Walter Ferris, (and later filmed to general acclaim with Fredric March and then again with Brad Pitt as “Meet Joe Black”), and thus it’s nice to have the property back on the boards in any form. It’s composer Yeston’s first major New York score since 1997‘s “Titanic.” It’s been cast with blue-chip actors. All the technical elements are first-rate. And it’s nicely directed by Doug Hughes in his first musical outing.

It could still use more fine-tuning, and there are some less-than-scintillating patches, but the production bespeaks quality. And the narrative holds one’s attention.

The setting is an Italian villa, post-World War I. In the opening scene, heroine Grazia (Jill Paice) and her cronies are driving along the road after a party. They crash, she’s thrown from the car. and by any rights, should have died. But Death, in the handsome person of Kevin Earley, has become smitten with this effervescent creature, and for the first time, he allows one of his intended targets to emerge unscathed.

In short order, he turns up at he home of her parents, the Duke and Duchess (Michael Siberry and Rebecca Luker), and though the Duke know who he is, Death insists he be allowed to stay the weekend incognito, and that the Duke must keep mum about his true identity. In this way, Death can learn what it’s like to be human and experience the thing called love which he’s heard so much about.

In his guise as a charming Russian prince, he sets about romancing Grazia who, before long, breaks off her engagement to her sour, heavy-drinking fiancé Corrado (Max Von Essen).

There’s also a doctor (the suavely charming Simon Jones), once engaged to Grazia’s now-dotty but ultimately wise grandmother (also outstanding Linda Balgord) who continues to mistake him for her late husband, lovelorn Daisy (Alexandra Socha) who sets her cap on Grazia’s castoff lover, and flapper Alice (Mara Davi), who had been married to Grazia’s late brother who died in the war, and who tries to seduce Death with Yeston’s liveliest number, “Shimmy Like They Do in Paree.”

Except for the majordomo (Don Stephenson), the sulky Corrado and Daisy’s pilot brother (Matt Cavenaugh) who has special reason to distrust this “prince,” everyone falls for Death’s ruse, and finds him perfectly charming.

The cast is uniformly excellent. I was disappointed not to have seen Death played by that excellent British actor and singer Julian Ovenden who was felled by laryngitis after opening night, but his replacement Earley is unquestionably a first-rate vocal replacement. His smooth manly baritone makes a nice contrast to all those “Les Miz” high tenors so prevalent in pop opera musicals today.

Yeston’s score sounds quite nice on first hearing (and I have a hunch will improve upon repeated plays of the forthcoming CD). The songs bear the stamp of his trademark romanticism, almost operetta-like at times, sounding to my ears more like “Titanic” than “Nine.” Among the standouts are Luker’s lovely “Losing Roberto” and the female trio, “Finally to Know,” and Death’s 11 o’clock number, “I Thought That I Could Live,” powerfully delivered by Earley.

There’s something of an inconsistency of the tone of the book, the bittersweet romantic quality sitting uneasily beside some tiresome comic bits, but I don’t know how much of that is true of the source material or the work of Stone and Meehan.

Kevin Stites leads the small orchestra with sensitivity, choreographer Peter Pucci provides some nice 20’s moves, though this isn’t much of a dancing show. Derek McLane’s sets, Catherine Zuber’s costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lighting all contribute to a pleasing period ambience.

(The Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, NYC), 212-719-1300 or; through September 4, 2011.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Warner Bros. Pictures)

© 2011 Warner Bros. Ent.
Harry Potter Publishing Rights © J.K.R.

Harry Potter characters, names and related indicia are trademarks of and © Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved.

By Harry Forbes

In reviewing the more reflective Part 1 of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” we predicted the sequel would undoubtedly make up for the slow patches in spades (or words to that effect), and indeed it has.

With this eighth and final film in the J.K. Rowling adaptations, we can sit back and marvel at the remarkable consistency of quality that has marked the series all along, and also wonder at the perspicacity of the casting agents who chose their three young stars so exceedingly well, for Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron) have matured quite beautifully and just as they should over the past decade, matching their characters perfectly.

It’s almost nostalgic to see Radcliffe once more in his familiar Potter spectacles, now that he’s moved on to the Great White Way, proving himself a surprisingly adept song and dance man in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

The movie at hand is slickly done with marvelous effects and nary a dull moment. If anything, there may be a bit too much action crammed by scriptwriter Steve Kloves into its 130 minutes. The digital effects by Tim Burke are marvelous. What a long way we’ve come since the stop-action animation of early films like “King Kong”!

But the script is careful to keep the strong bond among the friends, and Harry’s loyalty to his deceased parents front and center so that we still care about our heroes amidst all the distracting flashy effects.

The main thrust here, as fans know, is the young wizards’ mission to find the four remaining so-called Horcruxes that each holds a piece of dastardly villain Lord Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) soul. The “deathly hallows” are the objects that coveted by Voldemort, especially the Elder Wand that he believes will ensure his supremacy.

Along the way to the fight to the death conclusion (and we won’t say whose), our young protagonists must break into a high security bank vault booby-trapped by a multiplying treasure trove threatening to crush them, outwit a giant dragon, navigate a secret passage to Hogwarts, face a resentful ghost, escape the pursuing flames in a overstuffed supply room, and help defend Hogwarts from the invading Death Eaters,

Most of the favorites from the earlier films are back: Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis, Julie Walters, and a most delightful Maggie Smith. Some of these are only on screen for a few minutes, but the luxury casting speaks to the continued attention to detail that has characterized each film.

The film is confidently helmed by David Yates, though that's no surprise as did the last three installments so well.

I screened the film in 2D, not its 3D alternative, but found the experience quite engulfing enough without the bother of gimmicky glasses.

(The film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for some sequences of intense action violence and frightening images.)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

All’s Well That Ends Well (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Along with “Measure for Measure,” the Public Theater is presenting a second Shakespeare “problem play” this summer, also, as it happens, involving a “bed trick.” wherein a woman takes her rightful place by the man she loves in the cover of night. The excellent Daniel Sullivan is at the helm this time, but the cast is mostly the same.

Sullivan’s production (airy design by Scott Pask) – prettily set in Edwardian times – delights the eye as befitting the fairy-tale quality of the story. Helena (Annie Parisse), a gentlewoman, loves the callow Bertram (Andre Holland), daughter of her protector, the regal Countess (Tonya Pinkins) who has maternally taken the orphaned young woman under wing.

Helena contrives to force Bertram into marriage after she saves the life of the King of France (John Cullum) using the methods she learned from her late physician father. The angry Bertram – who obviously fails to appreciate Helena's finer qualities -- dutifully weds her but quickly flees the court for the battlefields of Italy. While there, he attempts to seduce the beauteous Diana (Kristen Connolly). (And here’s where that bed trick comes in.)

His comrades-in-arms are the Dumaine brothers (Lorenzo Pisoni and Michael Hayden), and the foppish Parolles (Reg Rogers) who reveals his cowardice and disloyalty when the men trick him into thinking he's been captured by the enemy.

Tom Kitt’s music is particularly lovely and adds to the physical charms of this production, which include a couple of dance sequences and picturesque battle scenes.

I didn’t much care of Parisse’s far too contemporary-sounding Helena. Her line-readings lack poetry, and the ho-hum Holland is missing the requisite charisma to counterbalance the unpleasantness of his caddish role, making Helena’s attraction to him all the more puzzling.

After her bawdy part in “Measure,” it’s good to see Pinkins demonstrating her versatility as the noble Countess. She handles the text well, even if her generalized regality falls short of Margaret Tyzack, Celia Johnson and other great ladies who have assumed the role.

Cullum, as distinguished a veteran of classic theater as he is of musicals, is especially fine, and has a much juicier role on this occasion. He's proof that American actors can sometimes measure up to the Brits when it comes to playing the Bard. Dakin Matthews as Lafew has much the same quality. And as in “Measure,” Rogers is a standout as a roguish character who gets a well-deserved comeuppance.

Sullivan has decked out the text with many ingenious touches such as having Helena and Bertram’s parting kiss (before the latter’s flight) suggest that a union with Helena might not perhaps be so odious after all.

Still, this is the sort of production that might send an audience out thinking it’s the best that can be done with a play not out of the Bard’s top drawer. But those who remember the Royal Shakespeare Company fabulous 1983 mounting at the Martin Beck with Tyzack know how much more can be mined from the tricky text.

The same might also be said for the splendid BBC production which aired on PBS’s Shakespeare series many years ago. It's worth tracking down for those seeking a more authentic performance.

(Shakespeare in the Park, Delacorte Theater in Central Park, or 212-539-8750; through July 30)

Photo credit: Joan Marcus (L to R) John Cullum, André Holland and Annie Parisse with the company

Master Class (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

Against all odds, Tyne Daly – an unlikely casting choice for Maria Callas, to be sure – is absolutely magnificent portraying the diva in her post-career teaching period at Juilliard.

Though Daly has said in interviews that she’s eschewing impersonation – a claim often made by actors when their assumption of a real-life character falls short – she, in fact, captures Callas’ speaking voice perfectly: that odd mixture of European affectation, and more common, even strident, New York intonation. She is spot-on in every respect, a charismatic and imposing presence.

Playwright Terrence McNally has distilled the essence of Callas’ Juilliard transcripts and combined them with biographical elements, with a healthy dose of dramatic license, to create a vivid portrait of the artist in her sunset days: by turns, modest and imperious, sincerely helping the students while using the occasion to reminisce on her own career, deadly serious one moment and wryly humorous the next.

Beautifully paced by director Stephen Wadsworth, the “master class” setting disappears for two bravura set pieces: a thrilling recollection of Callas’ brilliant assumption of Amina in “La Somnambula” at La Scala, and an imagined scene between Callas and lover Aristotle Onassis, with Daly alternating between the two voices. Daly is simply riveting in both sequences, and indeed throughout the evening.

As for her pupils, Alexandra Silber is the guileless, nervously giggling student who bears the brunt of Callas’ perfectionism in the first act. Garrett Sorenson varies the pace in the second as the tenor who ultimately wins Callas’ approval despite being one of the despised breed of tenors, and Sierra Boggess, Broadway’s Little Mermaid, fresh from creating the role of Christine in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” sequel “Love Never Dies,” assumes the Audra McDonald role of the overly confident student who has the temerity to sing Lady Macbeth’s aria for Callas, and crumbles and then rebounds under Callas’ penetrating critique. All are excellent, as is Jeremy Cohen who plays Manny, the accompanist.

Thomas Lynch’s scenic design – the Juilliard stage giving way to Callas’ aforementioned reveries with the help of David Lander’s dramatic lighting – Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes, and Paul Huntley’s character-defining wig for Daly contribute to this superior production.

(Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., or 212-239-6200)

Horrible Bosses (Warner Bros. Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

“Horrible Bosses” is a generally amusing albeit potty-mouthed comedy about three hapless friends – a corporate executive on the rise (Jason Bateman), an accountant (Jason Sudeikis) and a dental assistant (Charlie Day) --who are brothers in suffering under the sadistic thumbs of their respective bosses (Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston).

Under the guidance of a shady con artist whom the three mistake for a hitman (a priceless Jamie Foxx), they ultimately hatch a plan to kill each other’s bosses, a la “Strangers on a Train.” But this being a comedy, it isn’t long before things go terribly awry.

While the premise (by Michael Maarkowitz) is somewhat funnier than the execution and Markowitz and John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein’s script could use more genuine wit, many of the gags are hilarious, and the cast is so good, they help smooth over the rough patches.

The two Jasons bear a physical resemblance, but their characters are well contrasted: Bateman, the straight corporate type, appalled as the three find themselves in deeper and deeper hot water, and Sudeikis, a ladies’ man whose libido keeps getting in the way. The manic Day is their short-fused, none-too-bright sidekick.

Aniston is all but unrecognizable as the randy dentist with the hots for her assistant (Day). If she wanted a change of pace from her nice-girl image, she’s got it here, and she carries it off. Farrell, too, has a radical makeover as Sudeikis’ sleazy, druggy boss who takes over the family business when his nice-guy father (Donald Sutherland in a brief cameo) suddenly dies. And Spacey’s at his enjoyably nastiest as Bateman’s sadistic boss.

The plot has a couple of neat twists, adding to the raunchy fun.

(This film has been rated R by the MPAA for crude and sexual content, pervasive language and some drug material.)

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Friday, July 1, 2011

Larry Crowne (Universal)

By Harry Forbes

This is a pleasant if unremarkable vehicle – one that might have been cranked out in the old Hollywood days -- for the onscreen reunion of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. (They previously appeared together in “Charlie Wilson’s War.”)

On this occasion, he plays the titular character, an unemployed Umart (read Walmart) worker who has been laid off ostensibly for lack of education despite years of loyal service. The putative rationale given by his smarmy superiors is that, without a degree, he won’t ever be eligible for advancement.

After a frustratingly fruitless job hunt, he enrolls in a local community college. Roberts is Mercedes Tainot his blasé public-speaking teacher, weary after too many semesters of indifferent classes, and frustrated by her marriage to a professor-turned-writer-turned blogger-turned-(are you ready?) porn surfer (Bryan Cranston).

It’s this last point that gives Mercedes the moral pass to fall for Larry (as you know she will eventually do). At one point, the husband admits, yes he likes “big boobs,” and seconds later, when he flings the word “washboard” at her, well, you just know, the marriage is really kaput.

Hanks, who can’t afford the price of gas for his car any longer, buys a motorcycle from his neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) who runs a perennial yard sale, and promptly falls in with funky, charming fellow-student Tania (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her do-gooder motorcycle crowd. They all take a shine to the middle-aged Larry, and proceed to make him over. Roberts presumes an affair between the mature Hanks and the young Tania, and this misunderstanding keeps them at loggerheads for most of the movie, until the inevitable moment when she learns the truth.

Hanks and Roberts are pros, and carry their years remarkably well. Roberts, in particular, might have made “Pretty Woman” just yesterday. Hanks continues to embody the American Everyman with natural aplomb, and she’s a particularly deft comedienne, especially in a very funny drunk scene when she comes on to Larry, throwing all inhibition to the wind. (In a way, her performance reminded me of Lucille Ball’s very funny dinner table drunk scene in “Yours, Mine & Ours,” when tears of embarrassment give way to spontaneous, lusty laughter.)

Mbatha-Raw is an ingratiating presence and Wilmer Valderrama as her biker boyfriend evinces charisma.

Whatever the film’s good points or shortcomings, the buck stops with Hanks as, besides costarring, he’s produced, written (with Nia Vardalos), and directed the whole shebang. And yet, for all of that, it doesn’t register as a vanity piece, no small accomplishment.

So if “Larry Crowne” is totally synthetic and not for one teensy second believable (not even in its depiction of these recessionary times), there’s more than a little pleasure in watching these very likeable stars in action.

(The film is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for brief strong language and some sexual content)

Measure for Measure (The Public Theater - Shakespeare in the Park)

By Harry Forbes

The New York Shakespeare Festival has mounted a solid “Measure for Measure” as a companion piece to “All’s Well That Ends Well,” both “problem” plays because of their varying, hard-to-classify tone but, if done well, as good as anything the Bard ever penned.

David Esbjornson’s mostly traditional staging is a big plus here, as is the generally fine cast, with not too many of those flat American cadences that always used to mar Public Theater founder Joseph Papp’s park productions.

Danai Gurira as the novice Isabella -- who must plead for clemency for her brother Claudio (Andre Holland), is condemned to death for having impregnated his finacee (Kristen Connolly) -- delivers her lines with exceptional clarity and admirable conviction. I felt, though, that at moments of stress, her interpretation bordered on the overwrought, as in her repeated demands for “Justice.”

Lorenzo Pisoni is a good Vincenzio, the Duke of Vienna, who pretends to leave town but, in fact, goes undercover as a friar, when the immorality in the city hits an all-time high. (Esbjornson visualizes this with creepy devilish characters that appear at key moments.)

The Duke leaves in charge his austere, morally righteous deputy Angelo (Michael Hayden) who ferociously clamps down on licentiousness. Of course, like any number of politicians recently in the news, the latter’s rectitude proves a sham.

Pisoni’s demeanor is rather too comical in his priestly disguise, rather than sardonically humorous, but he’s authoritatively impressive in the climactic moments when he takes charge of the city once again. Hayden, for his part, isn’t anywhere near as fascinating a villain as he should be, though he speaks the text well, but in the final scenes when his duplicity is unmasked registered little anxiety.

John Cullum as Angelo’s aide Escalus and Dakin Matthews as the Provost give rock solid performances in the traditional vein. Tonya Pinkins makes a lively Mistress Overdone, entertainingly indignant that her house of ill repute is being shut down, and Carson Elrod has some amusing moments as the pimp Pompey.

Reg Rogers has a field day n the comic part of the braggart Lucio who claims false intimacy with the Duke, and bad mouths the friar, little realizing whom he’s defaming.

The long climactic scene when everything is revealed, and set right is as riveting as any production of “Measure for Measure.”

Technical credits are all polished from Scott Pask’s versatile set to Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting. Acme Sound Partners ensure every line is crystal clear, no matter your seat location.

(Delacorte Theater, 81st and Central Park West, 212-539-8750 or; through July 30)

Photo: (l.-r.) Reg Rogers, Danai Gurira, Dakin Matthews, and Michael Hayden (credit: Joan Marcus)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (Foxwoods)

By Harry Forbes

I was not among the critics who defied the embargo and went to “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” before it closed down for an extensive overhaul under its new director, or as the credits have it, “creative consultant” Philip William McKinley. So I can’t compare this 2.0 revision (as it’s been dubbed) to Julie Taymor’s allegedly more fascinating if messy original.

But the show as it stands now is still hardly one of the better musicals on the boards. And frankly, even if you choose to view the show as a new breed of entertainment – a theme park spectacle with elements of Cirque de Soleil – there’s no escaping the fact that this is a traditional book musical. And applying all the usual critical standards, it remains, I’m afraid, a not very good one.

The creative team is not, of course, without talent. First, there are the truly amazing aerial stunts (courtesy of Daniel Ezralow and Chase Brock). The sight of Spider-Man (Reeve Carney), flying briskly over the heads of the audience, or in mortal battle with his adversary, far outdoes your average “Peter Pan” or “Mary Poppins.”

Spidey doesn’t take really wing until more than halfway through the first act (“Rise Above”), however, and it’s the second act that has most of the flying bits. There are several doubles for the flying, due to Carney’s extensive on-stage acting and vocal demands, but he gets his share of air time, too.

The show reminds me of nothing so much as those London spectacles of a couple of decades ago like “Time” and “Metropolis”: bombastic generic music (for so I judged the score by Bono and the Edge), and an unremarkable book (by Taymor, Glen Berger, and Roberto Aguirre- Sacasa).

The story follows Peter’s progress from geeky high school student, target of the school’s bullies, to conflicted super hero, after he’s bitten by a genetically altered spider in the lab of mad scientist Norm Osborn (Patrick Page), all the while romancing Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano) who morphs from unhappy student with an alcoholic father to budding Broadway star, while Peter toils as a cub photographer at the “Daily Bugle.”

The principals are good. Carney has the lion’s share of singing culminating in his eleven o’clock number “Boy Falls from the Sky,” and makes an appealing protagonist. Damiano conjures Kirsten Dunst from the film, and proves a likeable Mary Jane. Ken Marks and Isabel Keating are appealing as orphan Peter’s loving uncle and aunt. Michael Mulheren’s one-dimensional “Bugle” editor grows tiresome, as the script gives him little to work with. Page has fun with the Green Goblin, but here again, the script undercuts the integrity of his performance.

Is he a fearsome villain or a comic one? The script can’t seem to decide. A scene where he tries to leave a threatening message at “The Daily Bugle,” and runs into endless voicemail prompts, is jarringly out of keeping with the frightening aspects of his character we’ve seen up to that point.

The role of Arachne (T.V. Carpio), the subject of Peter’s science project in the opening scenes, and then Spider-Man’s muse has, by all accounts, been drastically cut to the point of “why bother?”

George Tsypin’s scenic design – a lot of expressionistic forced perspective cityscapes, including the Chrysler Building at the climax – is striking, if rather dark for the youngsters who make up such a large part of the audience. Eiko Ishioka’s costumes and Donald Holder’s lighting help sustain the visual interest.

But visuals and high flying acrobatics aside, the show never grips you. And that’s the surprise. The story, even one which follows such familiar predictable lines, could easily be far more involving. Every movie-to-stage musical adaptation this year has demonstrated far more narrative skill. As my companion sighed upon exiting the theater, “‘Turn off the boredom’ is more like it.”

(Foxwoods Theatre, 213 W. 42 St., 877-250-2929 or

Photo credit: (l-r) Patrick Page and Reeve Carney in a scene from “SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark” © Jacob Cohl

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Best is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman (59E59 Theaters)

By Harry Forbes

This tightly constructed, fast-moving tribute to the eclectic songwriter packs a heap of entertainment value into its intermission-less 85 minutes.

With a personable cast comprised of some of our best performers, most of them veterans by this point, the evening – from California's Rubicon Theatre Company -- was devised and directed by David Zippel who provided the lyrics for the composer’s 1989 hit “City of Angels." He shows his cast to best advantage in a seamless succession of solos, duets, and ensemble numbers.

There’s the versatile Rachel York playing it sexy and sultry; Sally Mayes, vulnerable and playful; Howard McGillin, suave and smooth; Lillias White, funny and scorching; and at the piano, Billy Stritch. the show’s urbane musical director, whose impeccable musicianship keeps the whole enterprise, including a seven-piece Big Band at a high level. (York once played Lucille Ball in a made-for-TV movie, so it’s fun to see her essay Ball’s “Hey, Look Me Over” from “Wildcat,” though the interpretation here couldn’t be more different from Lucy's.)

Vocally, everyone’s in fabulous shape. David Burnham, the one cast member who hasn’t yet achieved the lifetime credentials of his co-stars, looks well on his way, and holds his own effortlessly with the others, including his homage to Sinatra as he croons “Witchcraft.”

That’s just one of many hit numbers from Coleman’s trunk, which includes favorites from such shows as “Little Me,” “Sweet Charity,” “The Will Rogers Follies,” “Seesaw,” and “On the Twentieth Century,” all of which are represented here. But there's also lesser-known material, including several numbers from “N*” a show about Napoleon that he and Zippel were working on which was never produced. (McGillin’s big number “I’ll Give the World” hails from that score.)

The cast groupings are often witty (“Don’t Ask a Lady” is but one example), as Zippel constructs mini-story arcs for the song clusters, ultimately building to a nightclub setting where the cast alternates as performer and audience. Mayes delivers a striking “With Every Breath I Take” in this sequence.

By a long shot, the front-running showstopper of the evening was White’s sensational reprise about being too old for “The Oldest Profession” from the musical “The Life.” The role won her a Tony, and if anything, her interpretation has only deepened with the years.

Lorin Lattaro has provided some very cute choreography, as for example in “Those Hands.”

Production-wise, everything’s first-rate, as you’d expect from Douglas Schmidt (set), Michael Gilliam (lighting), Don Sebeskey (orchestrations) and William Ivey Long (costumes).

For such an intimate space, the sound design of Jonathan Burke and the generous musical accompaniment is sometimes, I must confess, a bit overpowering, and the face mikes worn by the cast slightly mar the visual impact.

But these minor caveats aside, there’s no more tuneful playlist in any musical on the boards right now.

(59E59, 59 E. 59th St., 212-279-4200 or

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Student Prince (Light Opera of New York)

By Harry Forbes

It’s curious why it should be so, but Sigmund Romberg’s “The Student Prince,” the third and final offering of Light Opera of New York’s season – theoretically, the simplest to stage after the far more elaborate demands of “Desert Song” and “The Vagabond King” – proved more problematic to pull off.

Paradoxically, it may be because Dorothy Donnelly’s book – about a 19th century prince who falls in love with a Heidelberg barmaid before being called back to his duty - is so good, based as it is on a popular play of its day, that the acting really needs to be grippingly compelling, while the endless reprises of the big tunes and extensive use of underscoring demand a full orchestra for maximum effectiveness.

Daniel Greenwood and Elizabeth Hillebrand proved likable performers with quality voices. His phrasing had elegance and style, though like so many of the cast, he wasn’t always successful in cutting through the tubby acoustics of the Landmark on the Park church. Hillebrand’s notes sailed out in the high lying passages, but at some loss of vocal purity. Their acting was better than adequate, though he could have used more dash, she more charm.

Scott Michael Morales did an OK job with the comic shenanigans of Lutz, the prince’s stuck-up valet, and ditto Jeff Horst as his sidekick Hubert, but their dated comic business quickly grew tiresome.

Musical director Steve Vasta’s reduction of the orchestrations was tasteful as always, and the result seemed more of a chamber piece than his more vigorous previous efforts. There were some cuts in the score, but it was nice to hear many of the bits and pieces of the score less frequently recorded.

Intimate though the story is, “The Student Prince” calls for a robust male chorus. Even though “Vagabond King” and “Desert Song” contain far more muscular singing, LOONY somehow overcame the limitations of its small casts in those productions, but the crew here sounded pretty anemic, starting with their clomping onstage for their entrance, or pounding their beer steins on the table during “Drink, Drink, Drink.” The famous “Serenade” was executed with some sensitivity, but was not the knockout it should be.

Angela Christine Smith made an imposing Grand Duchess, mother of the prince’s betrothed, Margaret (Jennifer Dorre). The acting demands on the latter are minimal, but she sang the second act duet “Just We Two” nicely with Christian Smythe as her admirer Captain Tarnitz.

Matthew Kreger as Detlef, the principal student and head of the Saxon Corps into which Karl Franz is happily recruited, sang his several bits with firm tone and appropriate robustness. David Macaluso and Matthew Hughes also scored as students who have important parts in Romberg’s intricate ensembles.

By far the most consistently fine performance was given by Richard Holmes, as Karl Franz’s loving old tutor Dr. Engel who wants his charge to experience a normal life before returning to his royal responsibilities. Smoothly and sensitively vocalized throughout (so much better than the wooly baritones who usually play the part), he gave a dramatic performance to match, and had the requisite feel for the music, drama, and style of the piece. (And there were no audibility issues when he sang or spoke.)

On this occasion, resident book adapter Alyce Mott seems to have employed a light hand, given the superior source material, though she might have chopped a bit more in this instance! The book-heavy second act, with its long stretches of dialogue and paucity of new songs, was especially deadly.

Lydia Gladstone’s costumes added pleasing visual interest as usual. But the green curtains that masked the altar area became monotonous over such a long evening.

Resourceful director Gary Slavin did his best with the limited resources at hand.

Though, of course, there was no amplification when “The Student Prince” was first performed in 1924, miking would have helped this performance immeasurably. The dialogue would have been far more involving, and the balance between the singers and orchestra rectified. If LOONY ventures into less familiar territory in coming seasons -- and the attractive “operetta guide” insert in the program suggested this might be so – full audibility will be essential.

For all its faults, the audience – old-timers, operetta lovers, and showbiz pros alike – seemed to enjoy the tunes and the sentimental story.

The evening didn’t end with a standing ovation, but it began with one as board president Norm Keller paid touching tribute to co-founder Jack Behonek who died suddenly in April following surgery.

(Landmark on the Park, 76th St. and Central Park West, 866-811-4111 or; May only)