Monday, October 31, 2022

Gabriel Byrne: Walking with Ghosts (The Music Box)

By Harry Forbes

Gabriel Byrne’s acclaimed memoir has been turned into a viable and engrossing theater piece by the fine Irish actor. And I would say the evening is recommended even for folks, like myself, who don’t particularly relish one-person shows. 

Economically but cannily staged by actor/director Lonny Price -- who previously directed Byrne in a New York Philharmonic concert performance of “Camelot” broadcast on “Live from Lincoln Center” in 2008 -- Byrne’s play reveals a classic Irish gift for poetry and storytelling.

Sinéad McKenna’s scenic and lighting design is a simple one, apart from the occasional theatrical flourish like a lighted proscenium, and utilizes the most basic of props: a bench, stool, table and chairs. The focus is squarely on Byrne as he takes us back to his childhood in Ireland where he conjures up the ghosts of his past, vividly reenacting his home life with his parents and siblings, his beloved grandmother who first took him to his first movies (a life-altering experience), his aversion to school, first Communion, seminary training (at the time, he felt a genuine vocation for the priesthood), through his early days as an actor after odd jobs as a plumber and dishwasher, and subsequent drinking problems. Sinéad Diskin provided the mood-setting sound design and original music.

Byrne's tale may put you in mind of other Irish memoirs, like Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” though Byrne’s upbringing was not imbued with the dire poverty of the McCourts. The show runs two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, and both acts have their share of heartache. But there’s no shortage of humor along the way.

Though the focus is on those early years, the theatrical side of his career is not ignored. The most lighthearted sequences of the evening involve his early days as an actor. He was at loose ends when he came across a want ad for actors -- “no experience necessary” was the initial incentive -- and, in short order, found himself warmly embraced by a local company which taught him the thespian ropes. 

After early success on television, he lands a golden opportunity to appear with his boyhood idol Richard Burton. The project is not mentioned by name, but it appears to have been the starry TV mini-series “Wagner,” based on the composer’s life. (It aired on PBS in 1983.) Burton was a welcoming colleague but his alcoholism would serve as a prescient warning to young Byrne who would have his own struggles with the bottle.

Byrne doesn’t trace his career any further than the Burton encounter, nor his romantic involvements or marriages; perhaps a sequel will cover those later years.

His narrative also includes poignant recollections of the death of his parents, both movingly told.

Throughout, the "In Treatment" star proves himself a natural mimic, and his impersonations of his parents, teachers, apprentice acting colleagues, a lecherous priest at the seminary and, of course, Burton, are highly entertaining. 

Though one of the more modest offerings currently in a major Broadway theater, the queue for entry stretched far down 45th Street, affirming Byrne's charismatic appeal.

(The Music Box, 239 West 45th Street; or 212-239-6200; through December 30)

Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Topdog/Underdog (Golden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 play, essentially concerning brotherly love and family identity, and imbued with a symbolism that is never heavy-handed, is now enjoying a highly absorbing 20th anniversary revival. 

The narrative concerns whimsically named brothers Lincoln and Booth uneasily living together in a single room where they plot an uncertain future and rehash their painful past. This production features two absolutely superb performances from Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in roles originated by Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle at the Public Theater. (Mos Def assumed Cheadle’s role when the play opened on Broadway the following year.)

I didn’t see that production, but I can’t imagine that the roles’ originators could have been better than the present cast who balance comedy and underlying sadness with masterful aplomb. 

Elder brother Lincoln (Hawkins) works in an arcade as, with supreme irony, a white-face Abraham Lincoln impersonator where patrons can pretend to reenact the latter's assassination; his brother Booth (Abdul-Mateen) is a shoplifting hustler who’s never had a real job in his life, but dreams of joining forces with his big brother Lincoln who had previously excelled as a three-card monte con artist, bilking passers-by with enviable skill. (in fact, Booth announces with total solemnity that he wants to change his name to 3-Card.)

Lincoln, however, wants nothing more to do with the cards, though he fears he’s about to be made redundant by a wax likeness of Abe, and rehearses some extra business for his impersonation that just might persuade his employer to keep him. Booth, for his part, returns home wearing layers of spiffy clothes guaranteed to impress the ladies, especially a gal named Grace. His preparations for a date with Grace is a comic high point. 

Along the way, there are sobering revelations about their childhood: abandoned by their parents while the boys were still teenagers and having to fend for themselves. The frequent tonal shifts from the humorous to the poignant are masterfully handled by the two actors under the assured direction of the great Kenny Leon.

The enactments of the much discussed card scam, played out on a sheet of cardboard over a couple of milk crates in full view of the audience, are authentically executed, a marvel in themselves.

There’s a good deal of interstitial music, some at rock concert decibels. But within the play, Hawkins gets to perform a compelling blues number accompanying himself on guitar. A lovely moment, even though there’s a sinister subtext to the scene.

Arnulfo Maldonado’s claustrophobic and very plausible boarding house set is framed, paradoxically, by an elegant gold curtain  Dede Ayite’s costumes, from Lincoln’s presidential costume to the cool duds shoplifted by Booth are a show in themselves.

So who’s the top dog and who’s the underdog? Lincoln or Booth? Parks keeps us guessing right up to the end, in a most thoroughly entertaining fashion.

Highly recommended.

(Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street; or 212-239-6200; through January 15)

Photo by: Marc J. Franklin: (I.-r.) Corey Hawkins, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Cost of Living (Manhattan Theater Club)

By Harry Forbes

Martyna Majok’s deeply moving play relates parallel caregiver and patient stories before ultimately converging poignantly. That simple precis may not sound appealing on the face of it, but trust me, this is theater at its very best.

I hesitate to give away more of the plot as events unfold so compellingly, and really, the less you know going in, probably the better. But, suffice to say, “Cost of Living” -- which premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in July 2016, played MTC’s Stage 1, and won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama -- is beautifully and delicately nuanced, qualities that are mirrored every step of the way in the superb performances. Both Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan, disabled in real life,  were deservedly acclaimed in the Off-Broadway run, and now, David Zayas and Kara Young match them brilliantly.

There’s Eddie (Zayas), an out-of-work truck driver, caring for his quadriplegic ex-wife Ani (Sullivan) who has lost her legs in a car accident, while the well-to-do John (Mozgala), incapacitated by his cerebral palsy, is persuaded, despite initial qualms, to hire the inexperienced Jess (Kara Young) to assist him with his daily ablutions. 

I was familiar with Zayas from his excellent work in Showtime’s “Dexter” and many other series, but I wasn’t prepared for what an incredibly potent stage actor he is, too. He opens the play with a lengthy, expertly acted, monologue about the intense loneliness he feels after losing his wife, after which the action takes us back to the events of the past several months. Young, so charismatic in last season’s production of Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s,” impresses mightily once again as the spunky but all too vulnerable cocktail waitress turned home health aide. 

Both plot strands involve scenes where the caregivers tenderly bathe their charges. And these are among the most moving I’ve ever seen.

The sequence involving Eddie and Ani is highlighted by a wonderfully affecting childhood remembrance from Eddie, accompanied by a haunting piece of music by Mikaal Sulaiman whose original score for the play is another asset. During this sequence, I’m quite sure there was nary a dry eye in the house, as they say. And yet those profoundly affecting moments are followed by an incredibly harrowing episode, mercifully brief, but all the more powerful for coming after such a heartrending scene.

Wilson Chin’s spare turntable scenic design, sensitively illuminated by Jeff Croiter’s lighting design, and Jessica Pabst’s spot-on costumes are just right.

Jo Bonney’s direction maintains the exquisite delicacy of Majok’s writing with its aching themes of loneliness and connection, and she elicits, as indicated, pitch perfect performances. 

It’s a sad story, yes, but such a relatable one and so finely done, that one leaves the theater not depressed but exhilarated. 

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street;, by phone at 212-239-6200; through November 6)

Top  (l-r) – Katy Sullivan, David Zayas Photo credit © Julieta Cervantes

Below (l-r) – Gregg Mozgala, Kara Young Photo credit © Jeremy Daniel


Tuesday, October 18, 2022

1776 (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

I approached Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus’ all female -- that is to say, female, transgender, and nonbinary -- production of the enduring 1969 Sherman Edwards-Peter Stone musical with no little trepidation. Surely this was wokeness run amok. 

In the Playbill, Roundabout Artistic Director Todd Haines writes of placing “our shared foundational mythology in the hands of a talented group of artists who reflect multiple representations of race, gender, and ethnicity.” And Page speaks of blurring “the lines between the occluded and the included,” and illuminating “new dimensions of our national story.” And so on.

That sounded like much the same familiar rhetoric heralding the arrival of “Hamilton” and other shows in its wake. But, much to my surprise, I found this “1776” a thoroughly enjoyable and commendable piece of work which does respectful justice to the show, while at the same time, yes, validating the creative team’s stated goals.

Casting and overall concept notwithstanding, the production is still very much the show as written. The narrative unfolds in its customary way, and there’s no camping or sense of “look at us; we’re dressing up as men.” This is a straight reading of Peter Stone’s book, though the staging takes a very fresh approach. Page has devised much clever choreography and coordinated movement which gives the production an admirable fluidity even as, of course, Philadelphia’s Chamber of the Continental Congress remains the centerpiece.


For the record, the production marks the second time around for “1776” at the Roundabout. Their excellent 1997 revival (which transferred to Broadway for a healthy run of 300 plus performances) was cast along traditional lines, and resulted in a fine recording. 

Here, Scott Pask’s versatile set design -- which also accommodates the Jefferson house, and various Philadelphia locales -- includes diaphanous curtains pulled across the stage during scene changes, and lively projections by David Bengali. Of the central characters, Crystal Lucas-Perry captures the irascibility of John Adams. Patrena Murray is the model of a curmudgeonly Benjamin Franklin, rather in the mode of Whoopi Goldberg. And Elizabeth A. Davis makes a patrician, appropriately recalcitrant Thomas Jefferson. 

The score, though reorchestrated by John Clancy, remains a delight. The opening sequence “Sit Down, John,” and then John Adams’ “Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve” has lost its operetta-like period charm, which I missed, but thereafter, the arrangements adhere more satisfyingly to the original in spirit, albeit with a piquant freshness.

Thus, John and Abigail’s “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours” play as touchingly as ever in the hands of Lucas-Perry and Allyson Kaye Daniel. And Martha Jefferson’s “He Plays the Violin,” wherein she explains the charms of husband Tom, is sung quite beautifully and traditionally by Eryn LeCroy, though with perhaps too obvious an emphasis on the double entendre lyrics. Shawna Hamic’s Richard Henry Lee delivers “The Lees of Old Virginia” with its customary bravado. 

Dramatically, Carolee Carmello is very strong in the important role of Pennsylvania's John Dickinson, who stubbornly holds out on declaring independence, and leads a highly choreographed revamp of “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.”  Liz Mikel’s John Hancock (who served as President of the Congress) is also a strong presence. 

The Courier’s anti-war ballad, “Momma Look Sharp” is sung in a gorgeously orchestrated choral arrangement, but at the same time, I did think Imani Pearl Williams’ words were rather clouded by the florid arrangement and her soulful embellishments. And Sara Porkalob (as Edward Rutledge) leads an elaborate and powerful staging of “Molasses to Rum.” 

The signing of the Declaration at the show’s end is as moving as ever, and my Sunday matinee audience gave the show a rousing ovation. While I wouldn’t want this version to become the standard performing edition of “1776,” and nor will it be, for the time being, it’s an exciting variation well worth your time.

(American Airlines Theatre, 212-719-1300 or; through January 8)

Photo by Joan Marcus: The company of Roundabout Theatre Company's 1776

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Leopoldstadt (Longacre Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Tom Stoppard, arguably Britain’s greatest living dramatist, has an undeniably stellar track record, and his latest -- lauded in London and now on Broadway with an almost all American cast -- is no exception. And unlike some of his other works, which can be intellectually challenging, the main hurdle for audiences here is keeping track of the myriad characters and their relationships to each other. 

For this is a multi-generational story of two blended families in Vienna’s Jewish district which gives the play its name. By the time we get to grandchildren and great-grandchildren, one’s mind is a muddle. And this despite Stoppard applying all this considerable dramaturgical skills to allow an audience to identify and differentiate the characters. 

But no matter. The principal relationships in each scene -- which take place in 1899/1900, 1934, 1948, and 1955 respectively -- are clear enough. And though there is, at times, rather too much exposition, starting with a lengthy exchange between mathematician Ludwig and brother-in-law business tycoon Hermann about assimilation, for the most part, this is very much an identifiable human story with as much action as cerebral talk.

The play is two hours and 10 minutes without a break, a longish stretch that would not, I would venture, be damaged by a standard intermission after the second scene. Bladder considerations aside, the break might even allow audience members to consult their programs, and parse the characters’ relationships amongst themselves.

The first scene (1899) is an elaborate Christmas celebration; yes, Christmas, as a couple of the family members have Christian spouses, illustrating how Christmas and Hanukkah were at that time casually intermingled as when young Jacob (Hermann’s son) impishly places a star of David on the tree. The second revolves around a largely comical bris of Ludwig’s niece’s infant son. The third takes place the violent night of anti-semitic demonstrations and violence known as Kristallnacht and the Nazis at last breaking into the family’s cozy domain. And the last act, with three of the descendents meeting at the now stripped down location of the earlier acts, reveals the sad fates of nearly everyone in the family. 

We’ve seen variations of this story many times before, to be sure, especially in films, so the ending is perforce predictable, but told through the prism of Stoppard’s superlative pen, it’s a worthy addition to those Holocaust-themed stories of the past. And it’s also the most personal statement about Stoppard’s own Jewish background of which, like young Leo in the final scene, he was mostly ignorant as he was raised in England. 

Richard Hudson’s luxurious scenic design for the spacious apartment where the action takes place, warmly lit by Neil Austin, and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s richly textured period costumes are all you could wish for. Isaac Madge’s black and white projections provide vivid scene setting between scenes.

Playwright/director Patrick Marber (“Closer”), a Stoppard veteran, directs with a predictably skillful hand, not only eliciting fine performances from his large ensemble but blocking the actors for maximum comprehension, at least as much as Stoppard’s dense panoply of characters allows. The play opened in London in 2020, winning the Olivier Best Play award, and there’s already been one of those National Theatre Live video relays, one which was blacked out in the states presumably because of the incoming Broadway production. But it would be fascinating to compare the two casts. (The holdovers from the London are Faye Castelow as Herman’s adulterous wife Gretl, Jenna Augen as Ludwig’s sister Wilma and, later, her daughter Rosa, Aaron Neil as Ludwig’s brother-in-law Ernst, and Arty Froushan as arrogant dragoon Fritz and later Ludwig’s clueless grandson Leo, who’s more or less the Stoppard prototype.) And the narrative would no doubt be aided by close-ups.

This is such a seamless ensemble of 38 players, it’s difficult or even wrong to single out individual performances, but Brandon Uranowitz is particularly dynamic as Ludwig, and David Krumholtz outstanding as Hermann, his character sadly confident that he has cracked Viennese society and that anti-Semitism is on the wane. The former shows up in the last scene as his grandnephew Nathan. The stories of Ludwig and Hermann dominate the first scene and as such, register as predominant characters.

No matter how often we’ve seen stories like this dramatized, from “The Diary of Anne Frank” onwards, they never fail to provide a gut punch, and in the hands of a master like Stoppard, the effect is ineffably moving and devastating.

(Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street; or by phone at 212-239-6200.; through March 12)

Photo by Joan Marcus:

Brandon Uranowitz (Ludwig), Aaron Shuf (Young Jacob), and David Krumholtz (Hermann)