Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Anarchist (Golden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Patti LuPone and Debra Winger (in her Broadway debut) are very much at the top of their game in David Mamet’s mercifully short (70 minutes) play charting the meeting of Cathy (LuPone), a prisoner convicted of murder during a politically-motivated bank robbery, and Ann (Winger), her jailor of the past 35 years.

The conversation -- I might say confrontation but that would suggest a sense of drama sadly missing here -- revolves around Cathy trying to convince Ann that she deserves her freedom for good behavior, and that she poses no threat to society, particularly as her crime was not ultimately judged politically motivated.

Ann reminds her that the families of the two policemen who were killed that day want to keep her in there, and she continues to be skeptical of Cathy’s avowed conversion to Christianity and breaking with her old cronies, including a woman who apparently had been Cathy’s girlfriend.

There is the implication that Ann is about to be transferred, and this may be Cathy’s last chance to win her over.

Both actresses deliver Mamet’s dense and tricky script with dexterity. LuPone has the longest passages, which she handles beautifully, reminding us again what a fine dramatic actress she is. Winger’s demeanor is something akin to Lorraine Bracco’s psychiatrist’s cool, dispassionate probing of Tony Soprano, and she, too, is solidly assured.

The basic argument is reasonably interesting, of course, but it can’t be said that Mamet succeeds in creating the requisite dramatic tension, or making the central argument sufficiently provocative and intriguing. The question of Cathy winning her freedom takes second place to the intellectual argument.

Thus, the chief pleasure is to be found in watching these two pros hit Mamet’s exchanges back and forth as adeptly as they do, under the directorial guidance of Mamet himself.

Much as one may admire that talent on stage, and the skill of Mamet’s writing (and indeed, the writing is never less than intelligent and the meat of the discourse is intermittently interesting), “The Anarchist” demands too much of its audience, and much as one may decry the paucity of serious theater on Broadway these days, the work would – in hindsight -- have been far more sensibly mounted Off-Broadway.

Set designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein (who also created LuPone’s drab prison attire and Winger’s tailored suit) has created a good playing field for the discourse, as lighted by Jeff Croiter.

(Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 or

Dead Accounts (The Music Box)

By Harry Forbes

In Theresa Rebeck’s latest play, Norbert Leo Butz again proves himself a comic marvel playing New York banker Jack who returns home to his mother and sister in Ohio. Despite his fast-talking evasiveness, he is clearly concealing some mysterious shenanigans back east. Exactly what he's been up to comes out late in the show, so I shan’t spoil it here.

His co-star Katie Holmes is fine as the pragmatic 30-something sister Lorna, the sole sibling still living at home with their devout Catholic mother (Jayne Houdyshell) and ailing (offstage) father. Josh Hamilton is the sweet neighbor who’s loved Lorna since school days but never asked her out as an adult. The cast is rounded out by Judy Greer whose pivotal character appears in the second act.

Rebeck has concocted a promising setup, and for its first half, “Dead Accounts” plays as an amusing comedy of Midwest foibles. But eventually, the funny business gives way to thuddingly serious observations on the purity of Midwestern life versus the immoral, soullessness of the big city and corporate greed, a rather unremarkable – not to mention tired – theme.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of amusing and observant lines, and a couple of priceless instances of overlapping dialogue, as Lorna tries to talk on the phone, while her mother rattles on obliviously. (Houdyshell, always the pro, is a hoot, and she has some good poignant moments, too.)

Butz is a dynamo whose outrageous antics make his every moment enjoyable, from his first appearance where he blithely recounts the lengths to which he has gone to acquire his favorite ice cream after discovering the store was closed. Holmes is completely convincing in a generally self-effacing part, and Rebeck has given her two emotional outbursts that she handles with aplomb.

Jack O’Brien directs with his customary assurance, and David Rockwell’s set, Catherine Zuber’s costumes, and David Weiner’s lighting design are all top drawer.

But for all its occasional pleasures, “Dead Accounts” is awfully thin stuff.

(The Music Box, 239 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 or

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Scandalous (Neil Simon Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Yes, Carolee Carmello is giving an excellent, Tony-worthy performance as Hollywood evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, although the vehicle in which she shines so brightly is hardly one of the Broadway musicals for the ages.

But credit where credit is due: composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman and lyricist, book writer, and composer of additional music Kathie Lee Gifford have given their star reasonably solid material to work with (or Carmello wouldn’t be able to “transcend” it, as she seems she is doing). Still, McPherson’s story is told way too simplistically, and the songs – on first hearing – don’t grab you as they should, either. They’re perfectly serviceable, but only generic.

The cast is certainly capable. Besides copper-headed dynamo Carmello, who manages to be as delightfully convincing as rebellious teenager as she is as confident preacher, there’s Candy Buckley as her disapproving then supportive mother, Edward Watts and Andrew Samonsky as husbands Semple and McPherson respectively, and later, as men with whom she becomes romantically involved, and at the performance reviewed, Joseph Dellger (subbing for George Hearn) as both kind father and rival preacher. Roz Ryan gets the snappiest lines as a madam turned devoted assistant Emma Jo Schaeffer.

I liked Samonsky’s smooth vocalizing in the second act “It’s Just You,” and would like to hear him in a classic show. And Watts is impressively versatile as a charming Irish preacher Robert Semple in the first act and opportunist David Hutton in the second.

But the narrative is never involving, in the way that “Chaplin,” to name a concurrent 1920s biographical musical, manages to be. And though McPherson emerges as mostly likable and sincere in her motivations, she’s not particularly empathetic in the long run. Charlie Chaplin, incidentally, makes an appearance here. It would be something if Carmello and “Chaplin” star Rob McClure turn out the big winners at awards time in the spring, which could very well might.

Walt Spangler’s unit set, an art deco homage to Aimee’s temple, is imposing and briefly impressive (rather like something out of Oz’s Emerald City), but it becomes ultimately tiresome as it dominates all the scenes. Spangler has fun with the otherwise ho-hum “Adam and Eve” and “Samson and Delilah” tableaux. (But I couldn’t help but think longingly of Ethel Merman belting out the Gershwin’s “Sam and Delilah” in “Girl Crazy” on that very same stage.) Natasha Katz’s lighting provides some variety.

The show has posted a closing for this weekend – always a sad turn when so much has gone into it – but the show’s flaws aside, you just might want to make the effort to catch it before then for Carmello’s star turn.

(Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52 St., 877-250-2929 or