Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Comedy of Errors (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

“The Comedy of Errors” may not be in the exalted category of Shakespeare’s later comedies, like “Twelfth Night” or “As You Like It,” but there’s no doubt that, in the right hands – even without the added delights of Rodgers and Hart (they adapted the comedy in their 1930s hit “Boys from Syracuse”) – it can be side-splittingly funny.

And, in the fast-moving, intermission-less production of Daniel Sullivan, it is most definitely in the right hands.

Set in 1940s upstate New York, a poster of Eddie Cantor’s “Roman Scandals” movie plastered on a wall as perhaps a sly nod to the play’s roots in Roman playwright Plautus (set by John Lee Beatty), the story of twin masters and servants separated as infants during a shipwreck updates very neatly indeed.

And though not a musical, there is, in fact, plenty of music of the Swing variety, along with some virtuoso jitterbugging (choreography by Mimi Lieber) during the scene changes.

Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson double as both sets of twins, the masters Antipholus and servants Dromio, a concept which works brilliantly in their expert performances. The ending – when all the confusion is finally sorted out, and all four characters are traditionally onstage together – is accomplished satisfactorily in a way I won’t spoil.

As Antipholus of Ephesus’ thoroughly confused wife Adriana, Emily Bergl is very funny indeed, and she’s evenly matched by Heidi Schreck as her sister Luciana who mistakenly believes she’s falling in love with her sister’s husband.

Others in the standout cast include De’Adre Aziza as the Courtesan who thinks she’s been deceived by Antipholus and sings a deliciously torchy “Sigh No More” (to music by Greg Pliska); Becky Ann Baker as the Abbess who figures prominently in the play’s denouement, Jonathan Hadary as the piteous father of Antiphlous; and Skipp Sudduth as a Godfather-like Duke.

(The Delacorte Theater in Central Park; through June 30. Tickets to The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park are FREE and are distributed, two per person, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park on the day of the show.)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Cornelius (Brits Off Broadway)

By Harry Forbes

Kudos to London’s Finborough Theatre for resurrecting this 1935 rarity by J.B. Priestley as part of their “rediscoveries” season, and to 59E59 Theaters for having the further good sense to import it.

The title character is the middle-aged partner of an import form at the height of the Depression. The economy is bad, and salesmen come into the office each day trying to sell wares -- everything from stationery to shaving cream -- that no one really wants. Indeed the firm of Briggs and Murrison is in dire shape itself with creditors demanding payment with increasing ferocity. But the ever cheerful Cornelius is counting on the return of his long-absent partner Murrison (Jamie Newall) after a long journey to straighten things out.

Loyally keeping the office afloat – and David Woodhead’s richly detailed set is a joy to behold, a veritable time capsule -- are the elderly bookkeeper Biddle (Col Farrell), the lonely secretary Miss Porrin (Pandora Colin) romantically pining for Cornelius, frustrated aging office boy Lawrence (David Ellis), and temp typist Judy (Emily Barber) with whom Cornelius becomes infatuated.

Though the first act is largely comprised of lightweight banter, a darker element is introduced towards the act’s conclusion, and the second act, gripping from start to finish, shows Priestley in top form, with a couple of exquisite twists.

Today’s economic situation gives the play added resonance and relevance, underscored by Sam Yates’ direction which is faithful to the period, and deftly brings out all the inherent nuance.

Spiritual matters are frequent Priestley’s themes and Cornelius has a brief speech in the second act where he ruminates about the afterlife and our purpose on earth that would seem to be the true heart of the play.

As the titular character, Alan Cox makes a fascinating protagonist: resolutely upbeat through adversity, sardonically humorous, and just that little bit off center to make him as intriguing a character as Ralph Richardson must have done in the original. His yearning for something greater in life, exemplified by his dream of finding the lost city of the Incas in the Andes, is most touchingly portrayed.

The play is beautifully cast throughout with some very deft double-casting as only the English can do, Particularly impressive in that regard is Beverley Klein as the charlady who opens the play, and then as one of the firm’s creditors, an upper crust busybody.

(59E59 Theaters, 212-279-4200 or; through 6/30)