Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Height of the Storm (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

If it’s by French playwright Florian Zeller, there's a pretty good chance that the subject matter will have something to do with dementia. What continues to amaze, however, is how much substantive material he has been able to mine from that singular subject. 

So here we have something of a companion piece to the first of his plays to come to these shores, “The Father,” in which Frank Langella gave such a memorable performance as the titular character André also courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club. 

Once more, we have a central male character, again named André, and again a distinguished writer, but now in a state of pitiable befuddlement and terror, sadly out of touch with reality. Apart from his wife Madeleine (superbly wry  Eileen Atkins) -- forever cooking André’s beloved mushrooms from their garden -- and daughters, dedicated if bossy Anne (Amanda Drew) and less committed Elise (Lisa O’Hare), he's utterly confused about the other characters in the play, identified as only The Woman (Lucy Cohu) and The Man (James Hillier).

We’re not even sure, of course, if all the family members are alive, at least not at first, but there are clues along the way, including flowers that would appear to have mysteriously arrived without a card. Is their purpose celebratory or condolatory? What does seem clear is that André is not able to live alone in the beautiful country house “somewhere not far from Paris” where he and his wife of 50 years have lived comfortably for so long, and Anne has somehow been entrusted with sorting out his papers and diary.

Anthony Ward’s high-ceilinged and meticulously detailed kitchen/library set, stunningly lit by Hugh Vanstone, makes the place look as idyllic as you can imagine. Besides accurately suggesting the various times of day, Vanstone’s lighting tellingly helps delineate -- up to a point -- the scenes that are real from those that may not be. There seem to be plans afoot to move André to a place where he’ll be looked after. 

The agent of that move might be The Woman (whose persona seems to morph from former flame of André to real estate agent) or The Man (Elise’s rather callous fiance and seemingly an estate agent himself).

When the Pinteresque play begins, it is the morning after a fierce storm, which in a literal sense, gives the play its title. Translated like all the previous Zeller works here by English playwright Christopher Hampton, it was done last year at Wyndham’s Theatre in London and has come with its superb cast almost intact, O’Hare being the Broadway newbie, but she fits in seamlessly. 
Jonathan Kent’s direction of the play with its ever shifting narrative and time frame could not be more stunningly calibrated, and for all the ambiguity and overall tone of melancholy, the final moments of the play are tremendously moving.    

Pryce is tremendous, ranting and raving, his frustration at not understanding, heartbreakingly real, especially as we can see his former stance was highly authoritarian. HIs pathetic repetition of “What is my position here?” in one speech -- powerfully delivered by Pryce -- has something of ring of Lear’s repeated use of “never.” And indeed there are obvious parallels to “King Lear” in this play. Atkins plays Madeleine as a pillar of common sense fortitude. 
The play runs 80 minutes without an interval.            
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; 212-239-6200 or           
Photo by Joan Marcus:  (l-r) Lucy Cohu, Eileen Atkins, Amanda Drew, Jonathan Pryce, Lisa O’Hare.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Derren Brown: Secret (Cort Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

What a splendid entertainment this is! Of all the mentalists you may have seen before, Olivier Award-winning author and UK TV personality Derren Brown’s particular brand of wizardry is in a class by itself. His tricks -- and it almost pains me to characterize them with such a prosaic word -- are mind boggling, and will have you wondering how he could possibly have accomplished them. 

With seeming transparency, Brown explains the science behind the psychological manipulation that anchors his act. He demonstrates this right at the start with a young lady from the audience whom he asks to hold a $20 bill in one of her hands, and over and over again, pretty unerringly declares with accuracy which hand holds the bill.

The second act, wherein he discerns sealed questions from the audience with the same astounding accuracy, performs the same stunt blindfolded, and then asks the audience members to telepathically transmit questions to him are, again, extraordinarily successful. He insists there are no plants in the audience, and when he articulates what certain audience members are thinking or concealing, the look of genuine astonishment or deep embarrassment on their faces says it all. (A roving camcorder comes in close so we can all see this for ourselves.)

In a couple of instances, Brown briefly puts his subjects to sleep through hypnosis, and they would seem to be genuinely under his spell. I overheard one remarking in befuddlement to his companion on leaving the theater, “I don’t know...when I got up on that stage, it was like I was in a trance.”

Brown emphasizes several times that he’s not a psychic or mind-reader and then, of course, proceeds to demonstrate skills that would seem to prove quite the contrary.

Brown doesn’t get around to explaining the title of the show till the end of the second act, but when he does, it’s a doozy. He does begin the show, however, with a confession that when he was younger, his own personal secret was that he was gay, and he didn’t come out till he was 31. But the biographical revelations pretty much stops there. As he explains, everyone constructs a “story” that informs his or her life, and that statement is more or less the theme of the evening.

If case you were wondering, you needn’t be fearful of enforced participation. Unless perhaps you allow your photo to be taken upon entry to the theater or if you catch one of the frisbees Brown throws into the audience when he’s trolling for volunteers, and even so, he sometimes explains that he’s only looking for men or women of a certain demographic.

He’s got quite a compelling personality, full of charisma. And his gentle ribbing of the audience at times sometimes put me amusingly in mind of Barry Humphries in his Dame Edna mode.

At the start of the show, Brown enjoins reviewers not to talk about the show in any detail, so perhaps even now, I’ve said too much. 

Takeshi Kata’s scenic design, Ben Stanton’s lighting, Jill BC Du Boff’s sound, and Caite Hevner’s projection design are contribute to the sparsely elegant overall presentation. 

This isn’t one of those 80 minutes without an interval shows you might expect from a one-person show; it’s a satisfyingly full two-and-a-half hours with intermission. 

Though I didn’t catch the show during its Drama Desk-winning engagement last spring at the Atlantic Theatre Company’s intimate venue, I can attest to how superbly it plays in the larger venue of the Cort Theatre. 

“Derren Brown: Secret” was co-written (and very cleverly so) by Brown, Andrew Nyman and Andrew O’Connor. The latter two also co-directed the show which, make no mistake, is as grandly theatrical and emotionally potent as anything currently on the boards on or off Broadway. 

(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street; 212-239-6200 or; through January 4)

Friday, September 20, 2019

Fern Hill (59E59 Theaters)

By Harry Forbes

Three couples -- lifelong friends -- come together at a well-appointed upstate New York farmhouse for dinner and conviviality and ponder the notion that they might all live there, commune-style, to care for each other in their declining years. All are enthused about the idea except for one who believes they’ll grow tired of each other in such close proximity. 

This would seem to be the principal, if not especially riveting, conflict of the play until, that is, a revelation about the naysayer’s infidelity, one which then shifts the focus to whether or not his wife will or will not forgive him.

“Fern Hill” was developed at the 2017 Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwright’s Conference and received its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company -- with some of the current cast -- last year, receiving generally respectable reviews.

Jill Eikenberry and Mark Blum are the farmhouse couple Sunny and Jer, she a budding artist, he a writer and teacher. They are among the A-listers who make up the present cast, which also includes Mark Linn-Baker and Jodi Long as aging rocker Billy and wife Michiko, and John Glover and Ellen Parker as artist Vincent and photographer-wife Darla. They’re all pros to be sure, and their stage savvy goes a long way towards making actor-author Michael Tucker’s comedy-drama pleasantly tolerable. 

The group -- all artists or academics -- has gathered ostensibly to celebrate the husbands’ respective birthdays: Billy is 60, Jer 70, and Vincent 80.This is the sort of setup with which Alan Ayckbourn in his heyday might have had a field day. But Tucker’s text elicits, at best, only mild chuckles (many courtesy of Linn-Baker’s wise-cracking Billy) when it’s not dealing with infidelities, aging sex lives, and the bounds of friendship. 

Mostly, though, there’s just a lot of meandering chatter, congenial enough certainly but hardly enough to hang a play on. We do like these characters, except perhaps for the self-absorbed Jer who, we are told, used to be “adorable” in Sunny’s eyes. But, as written, he certainly seems anything but, apart from his sympathetic ministrations to Vincent after the latter’s hip replacement. 

There are several observant scenes such as a nicely written and played exchange between Sunny and Vincent who finds it difficult to talk about intimacy. But for the most part, there’s a static quality and not much more depth than average TV fare.

The cast, as noted, is a definite plus. Eikenberry is nicely sympathetic, though her character’s tolerance of Jer, something of a head-scratcher. Glover is masterful as always. And Long is an especially bright presence. 

Nadia Tass’ naturalistic direction anchors the proceedings in something approximating a believable reality.

Jessica Park’s nicely detailed farmhouse set, lighted by Kate McGee, pleases the eye throughout. And Patricia Doherty’s costumes, Kate McGee’s lighting, and Kenneth Goodwin’s sound are all fine.

(59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street; 646-892-7999 or; through October 20)

Photo by Carol Rosegg: L-R: John Glover, Mark Linn-Baker, Ellen Parker, Jodi Long, Jill Eikenberry, Mark Blum in Michael Tucker’s FERN HILL at 59E59 Theaters.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Betrayal (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s a splendidly staged, beautifully nuanced version of one of Harold Pinter’s most accessible plays, which, frankly, is much superior to the last revival, even though that one was directed by the great Mike Nichols, and starred the excellent Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Rafe Spall.

Director Jamie Lloyd’s production -- first seen at the Pinter at the Pinter season in London -- is so spare, one might almost, at first glance, take this for a rehearsal or, at best, a staged reading, but all the better to enjoy Pinter’s wordplay. And the action is, in fact, meticulously orchestrated. Designer Soutra Gilmour has provided only the most essential props on a turntable with a white canvas background framing the action, and sometimes strikingly catching the shadows of the three very fine leads. Strips of light hover above. (Jon Clark designed the dramatically apt lighting.)

The play charts the adulterous affair between literary agent Jerry (Charlie Cox) and gallery owner Emma (Zawe Ashton) who’s married to Jerry’s best friend, publisher Robert (Tom Hiddleston), and tells the tale in reverse from post-breakup to Jerry’s first bold flirtation with Emma. (Pinter is said to have based the play on his own adulterous affair with journalist Joan Bakewell.) Time projections on the set tell us where we are, chronology-wise: “two years earlier” or “later” (as there are some scenes that sequentially follow the one preceding).

Lloyd and cast bring out all the humor of the piece, particularly in the early scenes, and it’s surprising to be reminded how much amusing dialogue there is. Critic John Simon, reviewing the original Broadway production, recognized similarities to Noel Coward, though he found it “second-rate Coward.” In the hands of Hiddleston, Cox and Ashton, I’d say the deprecating hyphenate would be misapplied. There is genuine wit here.

And there’s also considerable poignancy which comes through movingly, particularly in the play’s final scene, thanks to Lloyd and crew’s sensitive handling.

The original cast -- Daniel Massey, Michael Gambon, and Penelope Wilton -- at London’s National Theatre was, I always thought, definitive, not forgetting the excellent 1983 film with Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, and Patricia Hodge, but the present cast very much lives up to my memories of the creators. The rarely screened film, incidentally, is available on YouTube, and makes for a fascinating comparison with the current production. 

Ben and Max Ringham’s sound and music add to the deft mood setting. 

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45 Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Charlie Cox, Zawe Ashton, and Tom Hiddleston in BETRAYAL at London's Harold Pinter Theatre (photo by Marc Brenner)