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.)