Sunday, September 30, 2012

An Enemy of the People (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

“Shitty, shitty, shitty.”

No, that’s not my blunt assessment of the revival of Henrik Ibsen’s classic tale of a spa physician who tries to warn the townspeople that the waters that give the town its livelihood are toxic, only to have them revile him for it. But, truth to tell, this is, in fact, the least effective production of the work I’ve seen on either side of the Atlantic or on screen.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s pared-down, overly colloquial adaptation – which includes the un-Ibsen like exclamation quoted above – is largely to blame. Though the production is touted in promotional materials as being “often surprisingly humorous,” that approach seems to me the very problem, with much of the action played in broad sitcom style.

That tact is underscored by Doug Hughes’ direction, and some of the performances, most egregiously, Gerry Bamman as the local newspaper’s printer who is first on the doctor’s side, and then, like the paper’s editor (John Procaccino) and chief reporter (James Waterston) not, and Michael Siberry as the doctor’s crusty foster father-in-law.

As Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the always reliable Boyd Gaines morphs from endearingly enthusiastic idealist and collegial member of the community to radical defender of a more elitist and informed minority view.

The doctor at first believes he’ll be hailed as a hero for revealing the truth about the poisoned waters, but when that proves emphatically not the case, he finds himself at loggerheads with his opportunistic brother (Richard Thomas in strictly stock villain mode as black-outfitted mayor Peter Stockmann). Ultimately, he lambasts the townspeople whose majority opinion, based on outdated notions and self-interest, he comes to disparage with almost joyful vehemence.

Apart from Gaines, Kathleen McNenny as Thomas’s wife, Maïté Alina as his independent-minded daughter, and Randall Newsome as the sea captain who sticks by the family when things get rough, the performances lack texture.

John Lee Beatty’s Nordic-styled set, Catherine Zuber’s period costumes, and Ben Stanton’s apt lighting are all proficient, but the production overall trivializes a great play.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, 212-239-6200 or; through November 11)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

Jake Gyllenhaal, in a complete departure from anything he’s played on screen, makes an auspicious American stage debut as a scruffy Brit. He’s Terry, the wastrel uncle to an overweight 15-year-old girl, Anna (Annie Funke) whose well-intentioned parents are too self-absorbed to fully comprehend their taciturn daughter’s pain.

Terry’s older brother George (Brian F. O’Byrne) is a stammering environmentalist obsessed with global warming and Fiona (Michelle Gomez), a teacher at Annie’s school, who’s impatiently uncomprehending when it comes to Anna’s justifiable retaliation to her cruel classmates.

Gyllenhaal’s English accent never falters, and despite his character’s crude talk laced with f-bombs and wasted, rumpled appearance, he shows us Terry’s inherent decency, particularly where his lonely niece is concerned. Their scenes together are most touching. He’s not the whole show, though, as the others are equally accomplished.

The play – a hit at London’s Bush Theatre in 2009 by up-and-coming writer Nick Payne – is one of those dysfunctional family dramas that we’ve seen often enough. Critics praised it for its quirky humor, but here, under Michael Longhurst‘s direction, a tone more somber than even mordantly comedic predominates.

That quality is underscored by Beowulf Boritt’s water drenched setting – pouring rain at times, overflowing water from a bathtub during a climactic scene, and from the trough that catches the water from the flies – and ramshackle furniture roughly tossed aside piece by piece by the cast after each scene. The water and furniture rather obviously mirror the symbolism of the play: George’s fretful planetary concerns and the family’s emotional flotsam and jetsam.

Payne writes good naturalistic dialogue…but even at 95 minutes or so, I found the proceedings a bit tedious, while admiring the committed performances, and Gyllenhaal’s auspicious stateside debut.

(Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46th Street; (212) 719-1300 or; through Nov. 25)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Chaplin (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

In this absorbing musical drama – with its superior book by Thomas Meehan and composer Christopher Curtis – star Rob McClure gives an incredible, multi-faceted performance as silent film pioneer Charlie Chaplin, one that, even this early in the season, may be the one to beat come awards time.

Christiane Noll is his mother Hannah who had a mental breakdown when Chaplin was still a child, resulting in abandonment issues that – as Meehan and Curtis’ book would have it -- haunted him all his life, permeating his films. Noll’s recent “Closer Than Ever” co-star at York, Jenn Colella, shares the stage with her again, this time as treacherous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper who sets out to destroy Chaplin, first by tarring him with the Red brush, and then with a trumped up paternity suit charge.

Jim Borstelmann as his production manager Alf Reeves, Erin Mackey as his young fourth wife Oona O’Neill, Michael McCormick as director Mack Sennett and a couple of other roles, Zachary Unger as both the Young Charlie and child star Jackie Coogan, and Wayne Alan Wilcox as his brother Sydney Chaplin are all solid.

Curtis’ songs are not particularly memorable on first hearing, but are never less than pleasant, and register as a nice throwback to the sort of score one might have heard in London's West End in the late 1950s or early 1960s. They rarely impede – and sometimes actually enhance -- the generally serious dramatic elements.

Warren Carlyle’s direction and choreography are quite stylish – including a ballet of Chaplin look-a-likes which concludes the first act -- and support, like all the production elements, the interestingly stylized structure.

Beowulf Boritt’s black and white scenic design and the complementary costumes by Amy Clark and the late Martin Pakledinaz, Jon Driscoll’s projections, and Ken Billington’s dramatic lighting including, at one point, criss-crossing spotlights, work in harmony to present a series of striking visuals.

I appreciated Scott Lehrer and Drew Levy’s muted sound design, in this age of over-amplification. Music Director Bryan Perri leads his forces with sensitivity.

(The Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th St., or 212-239-6200)