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Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Stage Addiction: My Best Brantley Impersonation

Other than the not-so-secret news that Angela Lansbury is returning to Broadway in Blithe Spirit next February (opposite Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett), it's a slow news week in the theatre world (unless you want to talk about the depressing number of empty seats, but who wants to dwell on this wrist-slitting economy?). So instead, I'm taking you on a tour through the shows I've recently seen, from best to worst. I'm no Strange Interlude or Show Showdown, but I'll do my best. In order of preference:

WIG OUT! (Vineyard Theatre, through November 2)
Whenever a new play has defeaning buzz there are questions to be asked, but they all essentially boil down to one: is it really all that? In the case of Tarell Alvin McCraney's drag-ball family fantasy, Wig Out!, the answer is unmistakably yes. Exploring the bonds between fabulous queens, kings, and legendary children with sensitivity and a fierce grace, the play exposes the tender flesh underneath the glittering surfaces of its "Houses" (which anyone who has seen Paris Is Burning knows are a idiosyncratic mix of street gang, family, and competitive team). McCraney weaves in mythological references and advertising catchphrases in his stunningly beautiful text, and the cast -- led by powerhouse performances by Nathan Lee Graham, Clifton Oliver and Joshua Cruz as three generations of divas in the House of Light -- is simply the most impressive ensemble of 2008. I'm still decided whether Wig Out is a classic for the ages; its rough edges trigger questions that the script doesn't always feel the need to answer. But in historical terms, it is undoubtedly the first great gay African-American play in history, taking its place beside Angels in America, Torch Song Trilogy, and other landmark works. It is also important in one other aspect...as the first, and at present only, unmissable piece of theatre this year.

THE ATHEIST (Barrow Street Theatre, through January 4)
Truly something to see -- Ronan Noone's solo monologue, about a embittered celebrity journalist narrating his own rise and fall, is being given one hell of a production at Barrow Street (despite and unattractive set and thudding technical elements). Why? Because it has Campbell Scott, the son of Hollywood royalty and a tremendous actor in his own right, ripping American culture down to its garish, insubstantial threads. As Augustine Early, Scott is mercurial, pernicious, stubborn, aggressive, pathetic and powerful...a molotov cocktail of a performance that can't help but revel in its own inconsistent morality. If our country is indeed a land gorging on its own social detritus, then The Atheist is the bracing jolt of castor oil we need to right ourselves.

CHEKHOV LIZARDBRAIN (Ohio Theatre, through October 19)
Philadelphia's acclaimed performance ensemble, Pig Iron Theatre Company, has set up shop this month in SoHo, presenting its warped mashup of The Three Sisters and the "Three Brain" theory of Paul D. MacLean. Like most of Pig Iron's work, it has a specific gestural style and a gently comic underbelly; also like their work, it feels at times unfinished, archly hip, and a little cold. But solid performances and a luxurious design make the piece, which runs well under 90 minutes, a most peculiarly enjoyable diversion for the theatrically adventurous.

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (American Airlines Theatre, through December 14)
Full disclosure time: I, unlike most people I know, am apparently immune to the charms of Tony winner Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon). Where many see a deft, expressive master, I see a bag of well-polished tricks, all pregnant pauses and cheating glances. But in the Broadway revival of A Man For All Seasons, I must admit that Langella is never less than...competent. But "competence" seems to be the problem in this production, which as directed by Doug Hughes never takes even the smallest of risks, settling for middlebrow mediocrity instead of daring. The politics surrounding Sir Thomas More's refutation of Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn cries out for pathos and violent emotions; sadly, it feels more like a dusty installment of Masterpiece Theatre. Its lone transportive moments are found in the work of the dashing Patrick Page (Henry), Dakin Matthews (Cardinal Woolsey), and Maryann Plunkett (as Thomas More's long-suffering wife). But in a play that focuses on More, that's not nearly enough, not by a longshot.

13: THE MUSICAL (Jacobs Theatre, open-ended run)
It would take a real bastard to trash a show that features a cast (and an orchestra) comprised entirely of teenagers; I'm tough, but not that tough. Instead, I'll just say that this new musical by Jason Robert Brown (The Last 5 Years), chronicling the well-worn tribulations of high school popularity, has some charming songs, including the Motown-inspired "Hey Kendra" and "Bad, Bad News." And if you wonder why a musical with text-messaging, Facebook-friending kids has 50's-era Motown production numbers, you're not alone. You can also wonder why a blatant High School Musical ripoff has been funded for a Broadway appearance, when it is clearly intended for community theatres across America. But like I said, I'm not going to trash it. Not me. No way. Absolutely not. Seriously, don't make me. Please, I'm trying to be nice, goddamnit.

Spin OctoberSPIN (Cherry Lane Theatre, through November 8)
This evening of six commissioned short plays by playwrights best described as "hot" or "buzzworthy" -- including Adam Rapp (Red Light Winter), Elizabeth Meriweather (Heddatron) and Gina Gionfriddo (After Ashley) -- is a study in perspective. How do we see these plays...as leftovers by writers who are normally better than this, or as an indictment of the sorry state of American playwriting? I'm inclined to believe the former, especially since Spin often transcends its texts thanks to a crackerjack cast. Gionfriddo's opening socio-political salvo, a game show called "America's Got Tragedy" where Britney Spears and a dead Iraqi soldier debate their respective Aristotelian bonafides, lacks the complexity that Gionfriddo normally displays. The rest are an imperfect grab bag; most affective is "Fun," a disturbing two-hander by Kesselring winner Mark Schultz, which finds surprising intimacy between a couple waiting to filma scene in a porn movie. Spin benefits from a superb ensemble of five actors, especially the sharp-edged work of Rebecca Henderson and the postmodern boy-next-door vibe of Patch Darragh. A qualified recommendation, sure, but still worth a look.
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Blogger Esther said...

I'm not sure if I'd like it, but I think Chekhov Lizardbrain is one of the greatest titles ever.

10/14/08, 12:39 AM  
Blogger thombeau said...

Back in the 80s, my female roommate dated Campbell Scott for a brief period---until she found out he was married!

10/14/08, 10:07 PM  
Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I'm going to wait to read what you've said about 13 until after I've seen it, but your placement toward the bottom doesn't seem to bode well.

On another note, tag, you're it!

10/15/08, 11:57 AM  
Blogger ladydisdain said...

I read the novelization of 13 (wtf? since when does a musical get a novelization?) and it sucked.

10/15/08, 2:49 PM  

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