Sunday, October 28, 2012

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

Though it may seem that we all just saw Edward Albee’s classic play of sadomasochistic marital sparring – and indeed, that fine Kathleen Turner-Bill Irwin production was a mere seven years ago – there was every reason to import Steppenwolf’s 2011 mounting.

For this is very special indeed, with four sensational performances, and revelatory direction by Pam MacKinnon. Amy Morton is, at first, less an obvious harridan than Turner, Colleen Dewhurst (who played Martha in another excellent revival opposite Ben Gazzara in 1976), Elizabeth Taylor in the film, Diana Rigg in a London revival, or originator Uta Hagen (based on the vivid three-disc set that Columbia Records issued when the play was new). But when Morton needs to show her mettle, she does. And how!

And Tracey Letts makes an almost scarily forceful George once he cuts loose, and throughout the play, he radiates a vibe of percolating danger. He’s a far less passive, browbeaten George than his predecessors in the role.

As Nick and Honey, the young couple invited over to George and Martha’s for an evening of fun and games and heavy drinking, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon are equally fine. Dirks brilliantly conveys the opportunistic aspect of the ambitious Nick, and Coon nearly steals the play with her fine-line funny/tragic portrayal of his alcoholic, emotionally fragile wife Honey.

Though it's a long play – well over three hours, with two intervals – MacKinnon maintains a riveting pace, and the play’s final moments, with Morton particularly wrenching, have never been better staged.

Todd Rosenthal’s set – book-strewn and worn with time -- is richly detailed. Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s costumes and Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting design are all ace.

This is, all around, an outstanding production of a great play.

(Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, or 212-239-6200.)

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cyrano de Bergerac (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

For me, the Derek Jacobi-Sinead Cusack Royal Shakespeare Company production from 1984 (London and New York) remains the gold standard of English-language productions of Rostand’s classic, far more so than Jose Ferrer’s much-lauded one, at least as the latter appears on film. I also fondly recall Christopher Plummer’s 1973 Tony and Drama Desk-winning performance in the musical version as also being at the top of the class, songs notwithstanding.

The 1990 French film version with Gerard Depardieu was magnificent, and carried an unbeatable authenticity. On holiday in Paris that same year, I caught a lavish stage production with film star Jean-Paul Belmondo. That, too, was also ideal in its way.

I wasn’t overwhelmed by the Kevin Kline production, and the absolute nadir was a modest production in England with the mild Edward Petherbridge utterly miscast.

In spite of some flaws, the present revival compares favorably with the best of those past productions.

The excellent English actor Douglas Hodge gives a mostly accomplished performance starting with his audacious entrance through theater’s 43rd Street entrance as he loudly derides the hopelessly old-fashioned actor Montfleury, though some of his words were sometimes lost as he endeavored to give vocal variety (and some of the seniors in the audience were clearly having problems).

I felt he didn’t quite nail the poignancy of his death scene. But perhaps he and director Jamie Lloyd were going for a less sentimental approach.

The French actress Clémence Poésy brings Gallic authenticity to her lovely Roxanne, and Kyle Soller made a superior Christian. So, too, Patrick Page’s Comte de Guiche, Bill Buell’s Ragueneau, and Max Baker’s Le Bret head a fine supporting cast.

Lloyd directs Ranjit Bolt’s rhyming but colloquial translation with admirable vigor, if perhaps occasionally too much so at times. This is a singularly boisterous production with a lot of shouting banging around especially in Ragueneau’s pastry shop scene.

Though the stage size is relatively modest, I take my hat off to Lloyd and the production team – including set and costume designer Soutra Gilmour and lighting designer Japhy Weideman -- for offering a convincing illusion of spectacle, and all in all, an authentic spirit that, in my memory, nicely matched the verisimilitude of the Belmondo mounting.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd St., or 212-719-1300)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Grace (Cort Theater)

By Harry Forbes

This is a well acted, black comedy by Craig Wright about an Evangelical Christian couple (Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington) who relocate from Minnesota to Florida in hope of opening a chain of Gospel themed motels. (“Where would Jesus stay?” is the slogan.)

As he anxiously waits for the promised financing, his neglected wife finds solace with a disfigured neighbor whose fiancee had been killed in the auto accident that maimed him. Both he and their apartment complex’s German exterminator (Ed Asner) are skeptical of the God that Rudd’s character venerates, but over the course of the intermission-less 100 minutes, attitudes change.

Dexter Bullard directs the play (first done in 2004) with admirable clarity even with the conceit of the couple and their scarred neighbor occupying the same physical space (setting by Beowulf Boritt), when, in fact, they’re in their own apartments.

Shannon has received the lion’s share of raves – and he is, indeed, superb telegraphing his character’s intense anguish – but Rudd, despite the increasingly unsympathetic character, is just as impressive. Arrington is quietly authoritative. And Asner – not a trace of his Lou Grant persona in evidence -- is outstanding as the unflappable exterminator, handling his two long monologues expertly.

In the opening scene, Wright reveals how it will all end, but there’s enough suspense along the way to hold your interest despite the initial spoiler and some overly talky stretches.

(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street,, or (212) 239-6200; through January 6)