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Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Heidi Chronicles (The Music Box)

By Harry Forbes

So how well does Wendy Wasserstein’s 1988 Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner, with its feminist heroine striving to be her own woman and to find happiness in a male-dominated world, hold up all these liberated years later?

I believe very well indeed. As the play begins in 1989 but then segues into a series of flashbacks going back to 1965, we're still able to view this as a history piece, albeit from a later vantage point than audiences in the late 1980s.

Pam MacKinnon’s clear-eyed revival with its excellent cast includes a very appealing Elizabeth Moss as the eponymous art historian heroine who is more observer than participant through the decades; Jason Biggs as her egotistical but paradoxically likable boyfriend whom she meets at a 1968 Eugene McCarthy rally and who later becomes a successful magazine editor; and Bryce Pinkham as her caustic gay friend who becomes a prominent pediatrician, and a marvelously versatile supporting cast including Ali Ahn as her ambitious girlfriend, and Leighton Bryan, Tracee Chimo, and Elise Kibler as Heidi’s various girlfriends.

Moss creates a very sympathetic protagonist, and really shines in her late second act monologue as she addresses a high school class wherein, after apologizing for not having a prepared script, she expresses, in a very public breakdown, her acute sense of abandonment despite all the camaraderie promised by the women’s movement.

John Lee Beatty has done his usual solid designs, and his white walled set for the 12 scenes allows a profusion of imaginative projections (courtesy of Peter Nigrini) which, along with the period music, further emphasizes the vintage structure of the piece, avoiding any sense of its being outdated.

(The Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street; Telecharge.com or 212- 239-6200)

Photo: Joan Marcus
l.-r.: Tracee Chimo, Jason Biggs, Elisabeth Moss, and Bryce Pinkham

Saturday, March 21, 2015

On the Twentieth Century (Roundabout Theater Company)

By Harry Forbes

A revival of the 1978 musical -- based on plays by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and Bruce Millholland – was long in coming, but here it is, thanks to the Roundabout, and I’m happy to report they’ve done the piece proud.

Kristin Chenoweth shines in the role she was born to play: the tempestuous movie star Lily Garland (nee Mildred Plotka). She’s finely matched by Peter Gallagher as the melodramatic director/impresario Oscar Jaffe who’s desperate for Lily to star in his next play after he’s experienced a woeful series of flops.

These are the roles so superbly created by Madeline Kahn and John Cullum, and the current pair live up to the high standards set by that pair.

After his latest play closes in Chicago, Oscar contrives to woo his former protégé and lover Lily to come back to him. He tells her she’ll star in a role that would be the envy of Bernhardt and Duse: none other than Mary Magdalene in a grand biblical epic. Meanwhile, a rival producer tries to persuade her to play a worldly socialite in a brittle drawing room comedy by Somerset Maugham. Her schizophrenic soul-searching in the “Babette” production number – as she’s torn between those two options – is hilariously written and played.

Spiffily designed in high Art Deco style by David Rockwell (and lighted by Donald Holder), and staged by Scott Ellis with the style and verve of the Twentieth Century Limited train itself, the revival honors the original but with a bracingly fresh interpretation. Warren Carlyle’s choreography supports the concept of a show in as perpetual motion as the high-speed train.

The supporting cast is top of the line. Andy Karl, so good in the title role of the musical “Rocky," demonstrates his very accomplished comic side as Lily’s preening silver screen co-star and lover, matching the elastic performance of Kevin Kline in the original. And Mary Louise Wilson is every bit as endearing (and funny) as Imogene Coca in 1978 as the loony Mrs. Primrose who plasters the train with “Repent” stickers. As Oscar’s press agent and business manager respectively, those seasoned pros Michael McGrath and Mark Linn-Baker generate more chuckles. All are outfitted most entertainingly in William Ivey Long’s colorful costumes.

But, above all, can only marvel at Chenoweth’s talents: inspired comedienne, deft singer, graceful dancer, and versatile songstress. She belts out the comic songs like “Veronique” and “Never” with great flair, but handles the more operatic sounding numbers such as “Our Private World” with the requisite beauty of tone.

Madeline Kahn’s stamp on the role, brilliantly captured on the CD, is an indelible as, say, Judy Holliday’s in “Bells Are Ringing,” even though Kahn didn’t remain in the show very long, but Chenoweth projects many of the same qualities. And her vocal timbre is, in fact, more like Kahn’s than that of other interpreters such as Judy Kaye (who so skillfully replaced Kahn), Marin Mazzie, or London’s much praised Julia McKenzie.

Gallagher wouldn’t have been my first choice for a part that calls for such an over-the-top ham, but in fact, he’s terrific, and plays the Barrymore-like melodramatics as if to the manner born.

Larry Hochman’s orchestrations and David Krane’s dance arrangements sound as satisfying as Hershey Kay’s originals.

Cy Coleman’s delicious score – ingeniously constructed as a zany operetta – paired with Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s witty lyrics delights anew, and with luck, will result in a new cast album.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd Street; 212-719-1300, online at roundabouttheatre.org)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Audience (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

If you caught Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning turn in the “The Queen,” written – as was “The Audience” – by Peter Morgan, you will not be surprised to hear that the actress is highly adept at capturing Queen Elizabeth II to the life. And on this occasion, I can report that her on-stage portrayal is no less vivid than her celluloid one.

But if you’re thinking that a play built on the structure of the Queen meeting one-by-one with her Prime Ministers (there have been 12 in all, in real life), might turn into a tiresome succession of dry encounters, you’d be wrong, for Morgan has most ingeniously devised his play to skirt that problem. Eschewing the expected chronological structure, the play instead jumps back and forth over time, and there's even an interlude at the royal residence at Balmoral.

There is, for instance, a neat juxtaposition of Anthony Eden’s Suez misadventure and Tony Blair’s gung-ho resolve to invade Iraq.

There’s plenty of humor, and the play also gains depth and variety with Morgan’s poignant device of Elizabeth as a young girl (an excellent Sadie Sink at my performance), as she grapples with the realization that she may one day she be queen. So, too, there are some other secondary characters such as Geoffrey Beevers’ Equerry who helpfully sets the stage at a number of key moments.

Not all the encounters are entirely cordial. This Elizabeth pushes back when she feels she must, and there is, as you might expect, definite tension in the audience with Margaret Thatcher.

The Prime Ministers are nearly all satisfying. We Yanks don’t know them as well as native Brits, but the portrayals are all fine enough, even if Dakin Matthews’ Winston Churchill and Judith Ivey’s Thatcher are not the dead ringers we've seen in other dramatizations.

But Dylan Baker’s John Major; Michael Elwyn’s Eden; Rod McLachlan’s Gordon Brown; Rufus Wright’s David Cameron and (briefly) Blair are all excellent. The standout, partly because he was a favorite of the monarch, and because Morgan paints him so endearingly is Richard McCabe’s Harold Wilson. McCabe won an Olivier Award for this role, joining Beevers, Elwyn, Wright among the cast members reprising roles they played across the pond.

Still, this is Mirren’s show. And she is absolutely at the top of her game, skillfully portraying the lady at all ages and moods. Some of Mirren’s quick costume (and wig) changes are quite astonishing and a show in themselves.

Stephen Daldry directs with a grand sense of occasion on Bob Crowley’s imposing Buckingham Palace and Balmoral sets, evocatively lighted by Rick Fisher.

We’ll never know truly how close Morgan’s imagining of the Queen’s weekly audiences come to the mark (as these encounters are, in fact, held in strictest confidence), but the dialogue and the staging never feel less than authentic. And if Her Majesty were ever to see “The Audience” I doubt she’d fail to be pleased by seeing herself as a smart, dedicated stateswoman holding her own so capably and steadfastly over the decades, with an Everyman decency and pragmatism, never wavering in her sense of duty.

(Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St.; Telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200; through June 28)

Monday, March 9, 2015

Fish in the Dark (Cort Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Fans of Larry David and his late, lamented HBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” will relish this opportunity to see him live, playing a character not unlike – in fact, almost totally like -- his lovably abrasive small screen persona.

And, indeed, he has assembled a top level cast and production team for this, his Broadway playwriting debut. “Fish in the Dark” is never less than amusing, but I’m disappointed to report that it didn’t tickle my funny bone as much as I anticipated. I’d rate it several notches below “It’s Only a Play” or “You Can’t Take It With You” on the laugh meter. Still, the audience at my performance had a grand time throughout. And I sat through the two hours with a smile on my face, though rarely feeling the urge to laugh out loud.

The premise is promising enough. David’s character, Norman Drexl, a Los Angeles urinal salesman, must take in his grumpy battleax of a mother Gloria (Jayne Houdyshell) after his father Sidney (Jerry Adler) extracts a death bed promise that she’ll be taken care of.

It’s not clear to which son he was speaking, and self-centered brother Arthur (Ben Shenkman) – who’s had the questionable taste to bring a date (the buxom Jenn Lyon) to his dad’s deathbed - abjures that responsibility. Norman’s housekeeper Fabiana (Rosie Perez in nicely subdued form) as Norman’s housekeeper reveals a bombshell secret that drives the rest of the farcical plot.

These central characters are surrounded by a numerous other dysfunctional family members (and this is an unusually large cast in this day and age), each with their own traits and eccentricities, but all strictly of the stock variety: the late Sidney’s sister (Marylouise Burke) and brother-in-law (Kenneth Tiger) who covets the departed’s Rolex, hot-head brother (Lewis J. Stadlin), Norm’s eccentric daughter (Molly Ranson) and overly tactile boyfriend (Jonny Orsini), and Fabiana’s studly son (Jake Cannavale). The Broadway veterans do their reliable thing, and David fits in well enough, though I felt at times he could have improved his vocal projection. At one point, he utters his “Curb” character’s trademark “pretty, pret-ty good,” to the crowd’s immense delight.

Perhaps it’s the presence of Adler, once the stage manager for “My Fair Lady” that occasions references to that classic musical popping up throughout. Natalie, for one thing, is appearing in a local production of the show, and can’t shake the Eliza Doolittle accent, and later two songs from the score are quoted.

The right ingredients are at hand for laughs, but the play isn’t really constructed with the skill of the slick 1960s comedies it seeks to emulate. It even lacks the surefire polish of a Ray Cooney sex farce, not to mention Neil Simon at his peak. There are some amusing running gags, like one about the propriety of tipping a doctor, but others fall a bit flat. Brenda has total recall of every day of her life, but there’s little genuine payoff to her having that talent.

The production elements represent top-of-the-line Broadway. Todd Rosenthal has designed some slickly attractive sets, including the hospital waiting room, and various apartment settings, and these are well lit by Brian MacDevitt, with everyone appropriately outfitted by Ann Roth. David Yazbek has composed a perky score befitting the lighthearted mood. There’s an especially witty touch of both blinking fish and animated death certificate drop curtains.

The talented Anna D. Shapiro directs the extremely lightweight proceedings here with the same professional polish she brings to her more characteristically intense material.

In the end, for all its flaws, I’d say “Fish in the Dark” is pretty – stopping short of pretty, pret-ty – funny.

(Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th St.; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through June 7)