Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Closer Than Ever (York Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

Lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. and composer David Shire’s fondly remembered, critically praised 1990 Off-Broadway revue – a follow-up (by more than a decade) to their also excellent “Starting Here, Starting Now” – is enjoying a polished and well-deserved revival with an accomplished cast comprised of Jenn Colella, George Dvorsky, Christiane Noll, and Sal Viviano.

Attractively designed by York’s Producing Artistic Director James Morgan – white doors and floor against sky blue walls – and with musical direction in the sensitive hands of Andrew Gerle, the score – one amusingly or poignantly perceptive song about love, relationships, family, and life choices following another – holds up exceedingly well, helped along by some subtle updating by Maltby who also directs.

Among the minor deletions is the song about Musak, which was apparently beyond amending, though the physical fitness number (“There’s Nothing Like It”) remains, with its rather tired references to Jane Fonda videos.

The original cast – Brent Barrett, Sally Mayes, Richard Muenz, and Lynne Wintersteller – was pretty special, but this cast measures up. Voices are unamplified in the intimate venue, which is mostly a plus, though some of Maltby’s lyrics would have landed with more of a punch with some discreet miking. All four make a beautiful blend in the various combinations throughout the evening, evident right from the start.

The women’s voices are perhaps less well contrasted than Mayes and Wintersteller, but that’s a minor carp as Noll and Colella are such fine artists.

All have their standout numbers. Colella makes the Sally Mayes songs her own, with a nicely choreographed (by Kurt Stamm) rendition of “Miss Byrd,” concerning the secret love life of a prim secretary, and does likewise in the her second act "Back on Base" duet with Danny Weller, who comes center-stage accompanying her on bass.

There are some additions to the score if memory – and the original cast CD – reflects the show as performed at the Cherry Lane: “I’ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning,” “Dating Again,” and “There is Something in a Wedding,” being the seamless additions here.

The humorous numbers still elicit a chuckle (“She Loves Me Not,” “Three Friends,” and “There” to name a few). And the affecting ones still tug at the heart – “One of the Good Guys” (a faithful husband and father’s semi-regretful rumination on his fidelity), “If I Sing” (a son’s tribute to his father), the even more expansive paean to fatherhood, “Fathers of Fathers,” and the rueful “Life Story,” wherein a woman reflects on her choices with the hauntingly repeated phrase “…and I’m not complaining,” all movingly done by, respectively, Viviano, Dvorsky, both men in tandem with Gerle, and Noll.

(The York Theatre at Saint Peter’s, Citicorp Building, entrance on East 54th Street, 212-935-5820 or www.yorktheatre.org.)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Harvey (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

Strangely, some critics have expressed surprise that an “old-fashioned” play like “Harvey” (1944) should hold up as well as it indubitably does. Well, with a four-year Broadway run, a Pulitzer Prize, a much loved film version, and several TV adaptations over the years, the play’s lasting appeal should surely not be in doubt, as this winning revival triumphantly affirms. Human nature has not changed all that much in 68 years.

Jim Parsons’ “Big Bang Theory” popularity is drawing the crowds, and he delivers a beautifully modulated performance as Elwood P. Dowd, the gentle, kind-hearted tippler who sees good in everybody, and much to the consternation of his social-climbing sister Veta (Jessica Hecht) and man-hungry niece (Tracee Chimo), claims friendship with a six-foot-three invisible rabbit!

Parsons makes the role endearingly his own, even with the specter of James Stewart whose presence hovers over the proceedings nearly as much as Elwood’s invisible friend. It was actually vaudevillian Frank Fay who originated the part to huge acclaim, but Stewart is most in the public consciousness thanks to his film, TV, and stage appearances in the part.

Denver playwright Mary Chase’s play is full of wisdom about human nature, and the importance of imagination and fantasy in our everyday lives, but beyond these old-fashioned but still truthful sentiments is a riotously funny farce that snowballs as Veta attempts to commit Elwood to a mental institution only to have the staff lock her up instead, and let her brother free, resulting in delicious complications.

Hecht, affecting a pronounced upper crust accent, is very funny as she attempts to keep firm hold on propriety even as we see she’s not altogether so different than her sweetly oddball brother.

Charles Kimbrough gives a deft comic turn as the doctor who runs the sanitarium, and Carol Kane is his dotty wife who, in a beautifully played and delicately directed scene, bonds with Elwood, garnering a well-deserved hand.

There’s also good work by Rich Sommer (Harry on “Mad Men”) as the determined hospital attendant, Holley Fain as the pretty nurse who brings out all of Elwood’s gallantry, and Morgan Spector as the young doctor who mistakenly targets the wrong patient. Peter Benson has a good bit near the end as a plain speaking taxi driver who puts everything in perspective.

David Rockwell’s sets – the Dowd home and the reception area of the sanatorium – are most attractive, and Jane Greenwood’s costumes are period perfect.

Scott Ellis directs with great affection, keeping everything true to the era, without patronizing the material.

(Studio 54 on Broadway, 254 West 54th Street, 212-719-1300 or online at www.roundabouttheatre.org; through August 5)

As You Like It (Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Director Dan Sullivan’s production of Shakespeare’s arguably most beloved comedy gets the Delacorte season – which also includes Sondheim and Lapine’s “Into the Woods” – off to a very nice, if not altogether sublime, start.

Attractively designed by John Lee Beatty certainly, with the Forest of Arden improbably even lusher than the actual surrounding Central Park foliage, well lit by Natasha Katz, attractively scored in Bluegrass style by Steve Martin no less, cast with solid New York actors, and sensibly directed by Sullivan, the production has a lot going for it. But the rub, alas, is the Public’s house style of rendering Shakespeare in resolutely American accents – which comes across all too clear in Acme Sound Partners’s pristine sound design – undercutting time and again the poetry of the lines, and paradoxically, sometimes rendering them less, rather than more, comprehensible .

Though the conceit of this production is that it is set in “the rural American South, circa 1840,” the accents are little different than most other Public Theater Shakespeare productions.

Lily Rabe – last seen at the Delacorte as Portia in Sullivan’s “The Merchant of Venice” playing another of the Bard’s heroines compelled by circumstance to assume male disguise – is the raison d’etre here, and as Rosalind, she holds the stage and is generally accomplished as she affects an appropriately tomboyish demeanor. But her resolutely flat, commonplace tones grow tiresome. Her finest moment comes when she throws off the disguise and reveals her true self to Orlando in the final scene, conveying a joyful release that is quite moving, but otherwise, she’s one of the least enchanting Rosalinds of my experience.

David Furr is fine as Orlando, and his speech, more than any of the others, has the right mid-Atlantic balance for American Shakespeare.

Matters of intonation aside, there’s good work from Omar Metwally as Orlando’s bullying elder brother; Oliver Platt as the fool Touchstone, Andre Braugher, double cast as Duke Senior and the usurping Duke Frederick, though he excels far more in the former, Susannah Flood as Phoebe, smitten with Rosalind in the latter’s male disguise, and Donna Lynne Champlin’s as a lusty, high-stepping Audrey. But I found Stephen Spinella’s line readings of the melancholy Jaques – intentionally monochromatic – simply dull. His “Seven Ages of Man” speech needed more poetry.

Apart from the music (and Shakespeare’s several songs sound fine in Martin’s settings), and some of Jane Greenwood’s costumes, this is a traditional mounting in every way, which is all to the good.

But this is well below the excellence of the Sam Mendes Bridge Project production of two years ago, with its mix of English and American actors. On that occasion, even the Yanks in the cast rendered the lines with far more meaning and beauty.

Still, as a pleasant summer night’s entertainment under the stars, the experience is hard to beat.

(Delacorte Theater in Central Park, 81st St. and CPW, Tickets are free and are distributed, two per person, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park the day of the show. The Public Theater again offers free tickets through the Virtual Ticketing lottery at www.shakespeareinthepark.org on the day of the show; through June 30.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Common Pursuit (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

Mois├ęs Kaufman’s revival of Simon Gray’s now somewhat dated 1984 play about six Cambridge friends who found a literary magazine (the titular “Common Pursuit”) and the course of their lives over 20 years with its successes, disillusionments and betrayals, is a fine one. If memory serves, it’s superior to the 1986 New York Off-Broadway premiere despite a stellar cast that included Kristoffer Tabori, Nathan Lane, Peter Friedman, Judy Geeson, and Dylan Baker.

Against Derek McLane’s evocative sets – editor Stuart’s rooms at Cambridge, and then his office over the decades – the excellent ensemble cast inhabit their characters well and, though all American, register as convincingly British, only rarely descending to caricature.

There’s Josh Cooke as the ambitious Stuart, Kristen Bush as his ever-supportive girlfriend, then wife, Marigold, Kieran Campion as the womanizing, ethically challenged Peter, Jacob Fishel as rich kid Martin who becomes the publisher, Tim McGeever as the gay, self-deprecating Humphry, and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as the affected, perennially coughing acid-tongued Nick.

In a way, the plot resembles that of “Merrily We Roll Along” in its look at the tarnishing of youthful idealism, though unlike the Sondheim-Furth musical, and the original Kaufman and Hart play, the action moves forward, except for the final scene which takes us back to Cambridge.

Kaufman directs most persuasively and makes a better case for the piece – often judged a poor relation to Gray’s “Butley” and “Otherwise Engaged” -- than the 1992 BBC adaptation which aired on PBS here, with Stephen Fry, Tim Roth, and Andrew McCarthy.

Clint Ramos’ costumes, David Lander’s lighting, and Daniel Kluger’s sound design are all fine.

(The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre / Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org; through 7/29)