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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Parisian Woman (Hudson Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright Beau Willimon’s adaptation and updating of Henry Becque’s 1885 comedy “La Parisienne” -- set in present-day Washington, D.C. -- is reasonably intriguing and entertaining, if not, it must be said, entirely successful.

Uma Thurman, in her first appearance on the New York stage since CSC’s “The Misanthrope” in 1999, has the titilar role of Chloe (originally Clotilde), wife of tax attorney Tom (Josh Lucas) who has keen political ambitions hoping for appointment as a court of appeals judge. But, lo and behold, she has a lover on the side, here named Peter (Marton Csokas, a bit off his game at my performance), a White House insider and in the midst of a divorce. 

Tom takes that fact in stride (that being one of the elements which so scandalized 19th century audiences). Peter, for his part, can accept Tom in Chloe’s life, but obsesses about her having flings with others.

Peter can help Tom get the judicial appointment he so craves, and so might Jeanette (Blair Brown), a DC power broker and soon to be head of the Federal Reserve. When Chloe and Tom are invited to one of Jeanette’s dinner parties, Chloe uses her charm to find out where her husband stands in the running for the position. While there, she meets Jeanette’s bright Harvard grad daughter Rebecca (Phillipa Soo), a liberal and Democrat, despite her family’s staunch Republicanism. To reveal more would be to give away some interesting plot twists.

The frequent allusions to Trump -- not actually mentioned by name till the end of the play -- but otherwise identified pointedly as “him” or “the current president” (and some ruder terms), feel terribly forced, and though I can’t say I know Becque’s original play, one feels that the European sensibilities of the plot and characters don’t quite jibe with the updating.

Thurman gives a confident, authoritative performance, and captures the enigmatic aspects of the character well. The women come off best, in fact, including Brown’s pitch perfect matron, and Soo’s youthful political aspirant.

Pam MacKinnon directs with a sure hand, helping the tale unfold smoothly with its various twists. Willimon, creator of “House of Cards,” his pretty much removed the farcical elements of Becque’s original, and drama predominates. (The allusion to Paris in the title now refers to a youthful affair Chloe once had there.)

Derek McLane’s sets -- Chloe and Tom’s town house, Jeanette’s home, an elegant hotel -- are all lovely, and there’s a high-tech LED display separating the set changes (projections by Darrel Maloney). Jane Greenwood’s impeccable costumes and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting are further pluses.

I can’t say I was bored for a second, and minor though it is, “The Parisian Woman” provides a painlessly diverting evening.

(Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street; or 855-801-5876)

Friday, December 8, 2017

Once On This Island (Circle in the Square)

By Harry Forbes

Splendidly staged by Michael Arden, actor and Tony-nominated director of the 2015 Deaf West Theatre “Spring Awakening” revival, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s 1990 musical has made an extraordinarily impressive return to Broadway.

The show originally launched the career of LaChanze back in the day, enjoyed a respectable multiple Tony-nominated run on Broadway after starting out at Playwrights Horizon, and won the Best Musical Olivier Award when it premiered in London a couple of years later.

This “Romeo and Juliet” themed fable -- based on Rosa Guy’s novel, “My Love, My Love” --  concerning native girl Ti Moune and the high-born lad Daniel whom she nurses back to health when his car crashes near her village is beautifully told. Ti Moune, ravishingly played by Hailey Kilgore, had been rescued as a child after a tumultuous storm by a compassionate peasant couple, Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller). Her upbringing, like the island overall, is overseen by four gods: Agwe (water) (Quentin Earl Darrington), Asaka (mother Earth) (Alex Newell), Papa Ge (death) (Merle Dandridge), and Erzulie (love) (Lea Salonga).

When the injured Daniel is brought back to his home, Ti Moune defies her parents and the skeptical townspeople, and sets out to find him. At first, he doesn’t know her, but she convinces him of the truth of her tale. But the happy reunion is tarred by their class differences.

There’s been some gender rearranging in the casting of Papa Ge and Asaka, and both Dandridge and Newell are outstanding. All the performances here are quite splendid with Kilgore making as memorable an impression as did La Chanze originally. Boykin and Miller are the epitome of loving parental concern for their adopted charge. Those all-important gods are distinctly embodied by the actors, and Salonga is lovely as ever. Powell sings beautifully and strikes just the right balance of romantic ardor and insensitivity for his rich boy role.

The Circle in the Square playing area has been cleverly transformed into a picturesque, storm-swept island environment (scenic design courtesy of Dane Laffrey) with such unusual items as a live goat, chicken, and and water. The contrast between the native and the high-born city folks is well conveyed both in the performances and Clint Ramos' evocative costumes. And the estimable team of Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting beautifully defines every mood.

Peter Hylenski’s sound design is pitched rather loud during the rambunctious island numbers, but is appropriately refined for the more refined upper crust scenes of the latter half of the show.

Under Chris Fenwick’s music supervision, Flaherty’s Caribbean-styled score is plenty lively, and Camille A. Brown has supplied wonderful choreography, including Ti Moune’s uninhibited dance at a fancy ball.

Arden’s ingenious stagecraft is demonstrated in numerous instances, from the storm scenes to Daniel’s car crash to Ti Moune’s journey to the big city.

Under his direction, every number lands, and the evening is a joyful and profoundly moving experience.

(Circle in the Square, 235 West 50th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Monday, December 4, 2017

Junk (Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s a taut drama from Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar (“Disgraced”) set in 1985 about an unscrupulous financier (Stephen Pasquale) plotting a hostile takeover of a family business, a Pennsylvania steel company, while its owner Thomas Everson (Rick Holmes) frantically attempts to hold onto it and protect its workers in whom he takes a paternal interest. Pasquale’s character, Robert Merkin, is a thinly-disguised stand-in for disgraced investment banker and junk bond trader Michael Milken.

The takeover will be the self-proclaimed “deal of the decade.” Merkin has made the cover of Time magazine which has dubbed him "America's Alchemist," and touted his dubious philosophy that "debt is an asset.”

The play has been accorded a large-scale, very spiffy production with a sleek compartmentalized John Lee Beatty set, attractive 1980s-style Catherine Zuber costumes, Mark Bennett’s original music and clever sound design; and eye-catching lighting by Ben Stanton. Ever changing background colors and projections (59 Productions) provide further visual interest.

If you know little about matters of high finance, that will not ruin your enjoyment of the play as Akhtar has skillfully constructed a clear narrative. And the conflict -- not unlike a sprawling Shakespeare history epic -- is completely absorbing.

Merkin’s outrageous “creative financing” -- shakily reliant on an intricate debt structure -- and the callousness with which he manipulates those around him make him a fascinating anti-hero, even if we’ve seen this Wall Street skullduggery before on stage and screen. Still, Akhtar’s voice is unique, and he entertainingly dramatizes this crucial period that laid the groundwork for the supremacy of money today.  Director Doug Hughes, fresh from “Oslo,” yet another play inspired by real events, shapes the action with a sure hand, and draws terrific performances from his cast.

Besides the superb work of Pasquale and Holmes, there are outstanding turns from Michael Siberry as an old-school financier who tries to bankroll Everson’s business with old-school means; Matthew Rauch as the callous corporate raider; Matthew Saldivar as Merkin’s lawyer; Joey Slotnick as a crooked trader, Miriam Silverman as Merkin’s calculating financial wizard of a wife; Teresa Avia Lim as an investigative journalist chronicling Merkin’s story; Ethan Phillips as one of Merkin’s hapless investors; Henry Stram and Ito Aghayere as Everson’s advisors; Charlie Semine as a U.S. attorney with mayoral ambitions; and so on.

(Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street; or 212-239-6200; through January 7)

Photo by T. Charles Erickson: Matthew Rauch, Steven Pasquale.