Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dinner with Friends (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

This is a superbly acted revival of Donald Margulies’ perceptively written Pulitzer Prize winner (in the year 2000) about a pair of upper crust Connecticut couples: Gabe and Karen and their longtime friends Beth and Tom, and what happens to the former's relationship when they learn the latter are divorcing.

Brilliantly directed by Pam MacKinnon, who leads her cast in bringing out every nuance of the narrative, the play is so riveting you hang on every word.

At the start, Gabe (Jeremy Shamos, late of MacKinnon’s “Clybourne Park”) and Karen (Marin Hinkle) seem to have it all as, over the latest of a lifetime of gourmet meals, they enthusiastically share stories of their recent European trip with the meekly silent Beth (Heather Burns), their trapped sounding board. But when Gabe leaves the room to deal with their off-stage children, Beth finally drops the bombshell about the end of her marriage. Tom (Darren Pettie), it seems, has met someone else, a younger travel agent, and the marriage is well and truly finished.

An encounter between Gabe and Tom, who rushes over to tell his pal his own side of the story later that evening, confirms the veracity of Beth’s story.

It seems Gabe and Karen were responsible for bringing their two seemingly mismatched friends together in the first place, as the second act flashback reveals.

But the split will have more impact on the heretofore self-satisfied and complacent Gabe and Karen than their separating pals, and the way in which that psychological disturbance plays out is what gives “Dinner with Friends” its texture and extraordinary poignancy. The climactic meetings of Karen and Beth, and then Gabe and Tom are exquisitely played, with nary a false note.

Allen Moyer’s scenic design – at first a dull gray shell, soon proves highly versatile with set pieces that roll on and off showing the couple’s homes in Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard, and even a Manhattan bar.

Ilona Somogyi’s costumes and Jane Cox’s lighting are equally classy and apt.

(Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street;, or 212-719-1300; through April 13)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Bronx Bombers (Circle in the Square)

By Harry Forbes

Eric Simonson’s valentine to the Yankees begins, plausibly enough, with a tense scene in a Boston hotel room as former manager Yogi Berra (a lively Peter Scolari) hopes to use his diplomatic skills to mend the rift between manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs) and player Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste) after 1977’s highly publicized blow-up when Martin took Jackson out of the game. Team captain Thurman Munson (Bill Dawes) is on hand to arbitrate as well.

The play ends with the bittersweet closing day of the old Yankee Stadium, as in the locker room, a now aged Berra takes stock of a long career with Jackson and Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson) and an idolatrous reporter (Nobbs again) in attendance.

Simonson – who also directed – is expert at turning out these promotional sports plays. (The Yankees and Major League Baseball Properties are among the producers of this one.) I missed his basketball play, “Magic/Bird,” but “Lombardi” was solid enough and allowed Dan Lauria and Judith Light to do strong work.

The centerpiece of “Bronx Bombers,” though, is a most peculiar fantasy sequence – stage smoke and all -- which opens the second act. Berra dreams of a celestial meal with gleaming silver place settings and sparkly chandelier, and the specters of baseball greats, living and deceased: Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson), Lou Gehrig (John Wernke), Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), Mickey Mantle (Dawes again) and Elston Howard (Battiste again).

They thrash out how the team was once of paramount importance as opposed to the modern-day trend of superstar players dominating the spotlight. But at the end of the day, all the banter is still a loving homage to the team, and everyone – including DiMaggio who enters in a business suit -- eventually dons pinstripes in proud solidarity.

It’s like a Disney World diorama of historical figures come to life. Cliché-ridden and lacking in dramatic tension, if not sentiment (which is in abundant supply), the sequence – which concludes with Gehrig succumbing to the disease that bears his name, poignantly ending the bickering -- is a curious one, but one sure to please Yankee fanatics.

Peter Scolari is first-rate as Berra, striving to maintain the harmony of the great team, and touching in the play’s final moments, and the actor’s actual wife Tracy Shayne plays loving spouse Carmen.

As indicated, there’s some doubling; Christopher Jackson first appears as a hotel bellhop before returning as Jeter.

Designer Beowulf Boritt has attractively transformed Circle in the Square into a mini Yankee Stadium with white arches around the circumference of the auditorium.

Devotees of the Yankees will get a charge out of the play, flaws and all. The general theatergoer should find it more than tolerable.

(Circle in the Square Theatre, West 50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue; 212-239-6200 and

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Outside Mullingar (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright John Patrick Shanley’s first true “Irish” play turns out to be quite the charmer, thanks to its irresistible setup of two mismatched characters, a socially awkward farmer and a strong-willed chain-smoking Irish spitfire who sets her sights on him. The four endearing performances on view only enhance the glow.

Anthony Reilly (Brian F. O’Byrne) works his father Tony’s (Peter Maloney) cattle farm adjoining that of Rosemary Muldoon (Debra Messing) and her mother Aoife (Dearbhla Molloy) in the Irish Midlands. When the play opens, Aoife’s husband has just died, and we learn that neither Tony nor Aoife are not in the best of health, both predicting righly they are not long for this world.

Rosemary learns that the elder Reilly has no intention of leaving the farm to hard-working Anthony who’s devoted himself to the place all his life, but rather to an American cousin. She confesses to the older pair that she secretly loves Anthony – despite an outward grudge for his knocking her down when she was six years old -- and demands Tony leave the farm to Anthony. She declares it is fate that they should manage their properties side by side.

Her impassioned defense of Anthony sets the stage for the rest of the plot which I shan’t spoil here.

The cast is, as indicated, excellent across the board. O’Byrne is expert in this Gallic territory, of course, and plays the painfully awkward and tormented Anthony with poignancy, but the surprise is how beautifully Messing matches him. With her red hair and spot-on Irish accent, she completely inhabits her character, playing with considerable fire and conviction. Their scenes together are wonderfully modulated, as we root for the two of them to get together.

Shanley’s writing is very fine – and this is his most enjoyable play since “Doubt” (though, of course, the two works couldn’t be more different). Still, I couldn’t help feeling it could use a little fine tuning. A sickbed scene between father and son here goes on too long, and becomes a tad maudlin. Some of the bickering between Anthony and Rosemary feels protracted. Perhaps in its post-Broadway run, Shanley will be tempted to iron out the repetitive patches.

But even in its present state, “Outside Mullingar” is richly textured with fine poetic flights of fancy and some delightful twists, and certainly proves a crowd-pleaser, as the enthusiastic ovation affirmed.

Director Doug Hughes draws fine performances from all, and directs with great sensitivity, bringing out Shanley’s theme of overcoming inhibitions and opening up to the joy of love.

John Lee Beatty’s rain-drenched farm house settings Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Mark McCullough’s lighting are similarly attuned.

(Manhattan Theatre Club at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St., or 212-239-6200)

The New Moon (Light Opera of New York)

By Harry Forbes

This isn’t the first time this fearless little company has attempted a great big operetta that, by all rights, should be well beyond their modest means, but I’m happy to report that yet again, they’ve pretty much pulled it off.

This is not to say that Romberg’s hit-filled “The New Moon” was the production of one’s dreams. Encores came closer to that prize with its memorable staging a few seasons back with considerably greater resources, including a full orchestra and chorus, and a marvelous cast, including Christiane Noll and Rodney Gilfry.

Still, LOONY’s production, with its small-scale accompaniment of piano, percussion, and four strings, under Michael Thomas’ sensitive direction, put the work across more than capably, and in an admirably full musical edition, too. All the famous Romberg tunes – “Lover, Come Back to Me,” “Wanting You,” “Stouthearted Men,” and “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise” -- scored as they should, and the lesser known ensemble pieces and comic numbers were given good measure too.

Sarah Callinan as noblewoman Marianne was the vocal standout, handling such numbers as “The Girl on the Prow” and “One Kiss” with ease. Though perhaps a more natural soubrette, she delivered her showpieces with poise and dignity, and showed admirable spirit in the closing scenes of the show where she expresses her support for her revolutionary hero, Robert Mission (the stolid but likable Michael Binkowski) who, at the start of the show, had been serving incognito as a bond-servant in her father’s employ.

In the secondary comic roles, Christopher Nelson was a standout as Robert’s sidekick Alexander, delivering his lines with assured comic timing, and singing with a clear ringing tone, partnering nicely with Christina Hager as his ladylove Julie. Amy Maude Helfer matched Nelson in the comedy department as the man-hungry Clotilde, married (it is discovered) to both Alexander and the boatswain Besac (Zach Appel).

Chad Cygan offered a capable account of the high lying “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” which nearly defeated the admirable tenor in the Encores production who, as I recall, came to grief on the high notes.

The frequent contributions of the vocal ensemble (four men, four women) were a consistent pleasure throughout the evening.

Providing solid non-singing support were the ever-reliable Richard Holmes as the villain Ribaud, a detective sent from France to apprehend Robert, and versatile David Seatter as both Marianne’s father, and later a French official who aids in the plot’s denouement, bringing about a happy ending.

Stefanie Genda’s costumes nicely conjured the 18th century Louisiana period, white powdered wigs for the ladies and all.

Gary Slavin directed most resourcefully with clever little touches throughout, and an assured grasp of the shape of the piece.

Next up is Victor Herbert’s rarely staged “Orange Blossom” (4/25 and 26).

(Light Opera of New York, The Thalia at Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway, or (212) 864-5400; Feb. 5 and 6 only)

Photo: William Reynolds