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March 31, 2007

Paying Tribute to "King Lear"


There have been a lot of King Lears of late. In just the past year, AndrĂ© De Shields played Shakespeare’s mad monarch in a Classical Theatre of Harlem production and Alvin Epstein did his interpretation at the La MaMa Annex. Sir Ian McKellen is scheduled to bring the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest version to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September and then to take it on the road to the Guthrie in Minneapolis and Royce Hall in L.A. Even as I type, producer and theater professor Eric Krebs is putting the final touches on Considering Lear, his 75 minute adaptation of the usually three-hour play that is scheduled to run from April 3 to April 8. And of course, there was the Public Theater’s recent production starring Kevin Kline. In his Playbill notes, the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis suggests that Lear is so much in the air because its themes of a country “thrown into turmoil and war by the stubborn, foolish decisions of the men who lead it” plugs right into the current zeitgeist.

That sounds plausible. But sometimes when you keep saying the same thing over and over again, people tune you out. I couldn’t get anyone to go with me to the final performance of the Public’s production last weekend. My friend Bill, usually as big a theater junkie as I am, said he was going to be in the country; my friend Ellie, the onetime actress, also said she had something else to do, as did my sister, perhaps the biggest Kevin Kline fan in North America. My husband K just said no. I think seeing Christopher Plummer drag his Cordelia across the stage instead of carry her in two years ago in the Lincoln Center production may have soured K on the play forever. I can’t say I loved the Public’s Lear either. Kevin Kline, lithe and toned, had no trouble carrying his Cordelia and, as always, he spoke the text beautifully. But director James Lapine’s cool interpretation—right down to the hip Urban Outfitter-style costumes and spare occasional music by Stephen Sondheim—left me cold. Still, I’m glad I went.

I always like going to the Public. At a time when Broadway audiences can too often be mistaken for D.A.R. meetings or AARP rallies, its audiences are the dictionary definition of diverse. There were blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics at the performance I attended. And nearly as many young faces as old ones. It looked like New York. And I wish the Public would share its secret for getting them all to turn out with the rest of the theater community. It seems that people aren’t intimidated by the Public and so they’re comfortable enough to come and try out what it offers. “Do you know much about King Lear?” the twentysomething young woman sitting in the seat next to what would have been K’s seat leaned over and asked me during the intermission. I said I knew a little. “Well, can you tell me what’s going on with Lear’s son?’ she asked. “Lear doesn’t have a son,” I told her. “I thought he had five kids,” she replied. I explained that Lear only had three daughters and that the sons belonged to his friend Gloucester. She listened attentively and then turned and repeated everything I had said to the man with whom she was holding hands. He leaned forward to nod his thanks too.

I don’t tell this story to make fun of them. Shakespeare couldn’t have asked for a better audience. They laughed at his jokes, gasped at the betrayals and the killings, and shook their heads in sorrow as they and Lear realized his folly. And that’s why there can never be too many King Lears.

March 27, 2007

A Safe Haven in "The Coast of Utopia"

It’s hard to figure out what the New York Times has against Tom Stoppard. Or against Russian intellectuals. Or against the New York theater-going public for that matter. Back in November, while the first part of Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia was still in previews, the Times’ Williams Grimes wrote an article warning theatergoers that they’d need to do some advanced reading if they wanted to understand Stoppard’s three linked plays about the circle of 19th century Russian intellectuals who laid the ground work for the next century’s Russian Revolution. The 11-book reading list Grimes assembled ranged from Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers to Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. My husband K is no slouch in the serious reading department and has worked his way through Plato and Aristotle, most of the Russian novelists and a big chunk of the American literary canon, but after reading Grimes’ piece, he decided that he didn’t have enough time to do the homework for The Coast of Utopia and opted not to go.

Then in February, after having seen the second installment of the cycle, the paper’s second string theater critic, Charles Isherwood, weighed in to say that he found the plays “a bore.” Well, I, too, have now seen both the first and second parts of The Coast of Utopia and I don’t know what the Times is talking about. The production, dazzlingly directed by Jack O’Brien, is one of the most thrillingly theatrical experiences I’ve seen, not only in this season but in this decade. The always brilliant set designer Bob Crowley has, with Scott Pask, created gasp-inspiring images that will linger in my mind’s eye for years to come. The 40+ member cast includes a Who’s Who of the leading young theater actors of our time including Billy Crudup, Jennifer Ehle, Ethan Hawke, Martha Plimpton and Brian F. O’Byrne. Yes, it takes some time to figure out all the characters and their relationships to one another but because the narrative plays out over three parts, there is time to figure that out. And yes, there are major philosophical issues to ponder like the role of literature in cultural identity and the role of rich men in proletarian revolutions, but there are also laugh out-loud jokes and who's-bedding-whom storylines that are as accessible as those on Desperate Housewives.

I haven’t been able to persuade K to change his mind about seeing the shows but hundreds of other people who love theater have ignored the Times and are flocking to the Vivian Beaumont and clamoring for tickets to the all-day Saturday marathons when all three installments play in sequence from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Celebrities are turning out too. Lauren Bacall and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and his wife, sat across from me at Part 1, The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, just a few weeks before Schlesinger’s death on Feb. 28. Bill Clinton attended, and got a standing ovation, the night my friend Bill saw Part 2, The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck. The biggest cheers, though, go to a theatrical experience that engages the eye, the mind and the imagination.

March 24, 2007

"Curtains" is Out of Style

If you go to the theater enough, certain Broadway houses become not only familiar but friends. The Al Hirschfeld, which used to be called the Martin Beck, is an old pal of mine. Not only is it one of the most beautiful theaters in New York, it is also the theater where my husband K was playing in the orchestra when we first started dating. The old-world glamour of the almost 83 year-old theater would seem to be a fitting home for Curtains, the last musical by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb. For although Curtains is clearly striving to be one of those post-modern musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone that pokes loving fun at the musical comedy genre, it is just an old-fashioned show. But, alas, not as good as they used to make them in the old days.

A big Kander and Ebb fan, I was rooting for their swan song to work. And I wasn’t the only one. As the Wall Street Journal’s theater critic Terry Teachout noted in his review (click here to read it), “everybody wanted their last musical to be great.” It’s not a terrible show. Anna Louizos's sets and William Ivey Long’s costumes are appropriately bright and wacky. Rob Ashford’s choreography is lively. Old hands like Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba, Edward Hibbert and Ernie Sabella do their patented terrific stuff. And star David Hyde Pierce as a theater smitten-detective assigned to solve a backstage murder seems to be enjoying himself so much that I couldn’t help enjoying him too. But the music, with the exception of one song that plays almost like a private letter from Kander to Ebb, is pretty much generic and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen all of this before, wanted something more.

After the show, K and I walked over to Sardi’s for a late dinner. For years, the legendary restaurant, its walls famously filled with caricatures of Broadway’s greatest stars, had been the theater community’s unofficial clubhouse. But over the last two decades, theater people have been more apt to go to Orso, Joe Allen and Angus McIndoe. Some made return appearances at Sard’s in the weeks following the January 4 death of the restaurant’s owner, Vincent Sardi, who was known as the mayor of Broadway. My friend Bill went for the first time in years in February and said he was surprised by how good the food was and how many acquaintances he saw there. But the few tables occupied the night K and I went seemed to be taken up mainly by tourists. We overhead a waiter explaining the portraits on the walls to one of them. The restaurant apparently makes an effort to keep up with the times by adding fresh faces. But K and I found that we recognized very few of them. They don’t seem to be making Broadway stars as distinctive as they made them in the old days either.

March 18, 2007

Tuning into "Talk Radio"

The evening my friend Bill and I went to see the new revival of Talk Radio didn’t get off to a great start. Or maybe, given the pugnacious nature of the show, it did. Bill, one of the gentlest and most gracious people you’ll ever want to meet, got into a fight about our reservation with the manager at La Masseria, which had become one of our favorite places to eat in the theater district. By the time I got there Bill was standing outside fuming. We went around the corner to have dinner but later we watched Talk Radio's star Liev Schreiber fume for most of the 100 or so intermission-less minutes he was on stage at the Longacre Theatre. I didn’t see the original production of Eric Bogosian’s drama about a night in the life of an acerbic talk radio show host when it played at the Public Theater in 1987. And I didn’t much like Oliver Stone’s film version that came out in 1988. But I was looking forward to this Broadway production because I love Liev Schreiber.

I had just seen Schreiber’s younger half-brother Pablo in Dying City and I was beginning to feel as though I were practically part of the family. And who wouldn't want to be part of such an extremely talented family. No one else today dominates a stage the way Liev does. Although there are other actors onstage (and off, giving voice to the callers) Talk Radio has always been primarily a one-man show but Schreiber stood out even in the magnificent ensemble of actors who appeared in the 2005 revival of Glengarry Glen Ross and he won a Tony for it.

In the old days, there were actors like Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, Helen Hayes and Robert Preston, who did occasional screen work but made their names as stage stars, Broadway stars. The movies and later TV never seemed able to project the full radiance of their performances. Schreiber has worked on both sides of the camera, acting in the remake of the Manchurian Candidate alongside Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, co-starring in The Painted Veil with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts (with whom Schreiber is now expecting a child), producing and directing the film version of the comic novel Everything is Illuminated and even doing a recent four-part turn on the hit CBS crime series CSI. But he always seems most at home on stage.

I didn’t like this production of Talk Radio any more than I liked the movie. But watching Schreiber made the evening worthwhile. Like Jennifer Ehle and Brian F. O’Byrne, currently onstage in Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy, Schreiber is a true Broadway star and seeing him in his element is for me always time well spent.

March 16, 2007

Sympathy for a "Dying City"

There is usually no more enthusiastic member of an audience than my friend Ellie. A one-time actor, she knows what applause, or the lack of it, can do to a performer’s spirit and I’ve seen her give standing ovations, her arms stretching out towards the stage, when she was literally the only one standing. So when Ellie made a few tepid clapping motions at the conclusion of Dying City, I knew something was wrong. Playwright Christopher Shinn packs an Oprah season’s worth of big subjects—homosexuality and infidelity, how insecure we feel after the Sept. 11 attacks and how confused we feel about the war in Iraq, the lingering pain of childhood secrets and the ephemeral comfort of late night TV—into his 90 minute drama. And, at 31, he also has the young writer’s habit of explaining too much in his dialogue. But it was the acting that turned Ellie off. Or rather, one of the play’s two actors, Pablo Schreiber. The two of us had seen and enjoyed his Tony-nominated performance in Lincoln Center’s revival of Awake and Sing! last season but this time he didn’t work for Ellie. She said she didn’t like the way he kept rubbing his nose or how he sprayed his co-star newcomer Rebecca Brooksher with spittle nearly each time he spoke. “Disgusting,” Ellie said. “Absolutely disgusting. I feel so sorry for her.”

I didn’t mind any of that so much. In fact, I thought Schreiber did an impressive job of playing very different twins; I could tell the brothers apart, even without his costume changes. Neither was really a nice guy. And I began to wonder if Ellie had been turned off more by the characters than the actor. After the performance, she and I made our way across Broadway and settled in for a drink at O’Neals’. She continued complaining about Schreiber until he came into the place and joined his girlfriend at a cozy corner table set for four that Ellie and I had coveted but hadn’t had the nerve to asked for. It seemed O.K. to me when he sat there. He is the star of a show that is playing across the street and probably has become a regular. But as the other Lincoln Center shows let out, the restaurant filled and foursomes began eyeing that table. Without being asked, Schreiber got up and moved to a table for two. It was a small gesture, but one that I doubt either of his characters would have made and a reminder of the dark places that actors often have to go to entertain, or appall, us.

March 11, 2007

Happy Returns for "Prelude to a Kiss"

Many sophisticated theatergoers, including my husband K, don’t like to go on weekends. They think it's the time when theater parties, tourists, and others they consider to be not-quite-as-sophisticated attend. I don’t know if my fellow audience members at a recent Friday night performance of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Prelude to a Kiss were sophisticated or not. I’m just happy that in this era of DVDs, iPods, Tivos and, yes, the Internet, they decided to come out and see a Broadway show. The man sitting behind me was probably one of those outsiders. His wife looked happy to be there; he much less so. Until, flipping through the pages of the Playbill, he recognized the photo of one of the stars. “Hey, it’s the guy from Frasier,” he said to his wife, now bobbing his head at her in approval at what she’d chosen for them to see. And indeed it was John Mahoney, who for 11 years played the down-to-earth dad to the effete sons on the popular, Emmy Award winning sitcom. By coincidence, both of his TV offspring have also recently been on New York stages. Kelsey Grammer played Henry Higgins in the limited four-night run of My Fair Lady with the New York Philharmonic. And David Hyde Pierce is in previews for the Kander and Ebb musical Curtains, which opens March 22.

In Prelude, Mahoney has the pivotal role of the mysterious old man who crashes a wedding and upsets the lives of the just married couple. Hollywood actors who appear on Broadway stages often get as little respect as the tourists who fill the seats in the weekend audiences. And sometimes those theatrical carpetbaggers, trying to trade on their celebrity without having packed sufficient stage technique, don’t deserve any respect. But it’s different for Mahoney. Before his Frasier success, he was an esteemed actor on New York stages, winning a Tony Award as Best Supporting Actor in The House of Blue Leaves; and in Chicago, where he has been a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company since 1979. And the years on Frasier haven’t dulled his theater chops at all. Even critics who weren’t crazy about this Prelude have rightly praised his performance. The guy behind me liked him too. “That was pretty good,” he told his wife as they put on their coats after the curtain call. I was also happy to see Mahoney back on a stage. Prelude, first produced on Broadway in 1990 at the height of the city’s AIDS epidemic, is usually seen as an homage to the power of love but for me Mahoney’s richly nuanced performance turned it into a moving meditation on the meaning of aging. I was equally happy that a performance like his might make the man in the seat behind me feel comfortable enough about returning to Broadway to try some other show, maybe even one with no guy from Frasier.