Admiring Ayckbourn: ‘A Brief History of Women’

 

I consider Alan Ayckbourn the great playwright of my theatergoing lifetime. Through most of the 1980s and ’90s, I would plan my trips to London to coincide with new plays from the prolific British dramatist: Henceforward, The Revengers’ Comedies, Man of the Moment, Wildest Dreams — an amazing string of masterpieces, most of which have not even been produced in the U.S. (never mind Broadway; not even Off, or in the regionals). Over here, Ayckbourn is still best known for his earlier, lighter-weight comedies, like Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests, and for his high-concept stage gimmicks (one weekend at a country house replayed three times from three different rooms, for example, in the Norman trilogy).  This has only affirmed his typecasting as a clever boulevard farceur — rather than, more accurately, as a profound chronicler of the human tragicomedy, an incisive social satirist and intrepid stage innovator, surely our best living playwright.

He is still going strong at 79, and thanks to the invaluable 59E59 Off-Broadway company,  New Yorkers have been able to see many of Ayckbourn’s recent plays, in productions directed by the playwright himself for his home company in Scarborough, England. A couple of recent offerings have been lesser works, and I was beginning to fear that age is finally catching up with him. But the latest 59E59 import, A Brief History of Women, shows that Ayckbourn is still in top form.

As usual, he starts out by setting up strict stage parameters. The play is made up of four scenes, spaced exactly 20 years apart, starting in an English manor home in the mid-1920s — which becomes, by turns, a girls boarding school just after World War II, a community arts center in the turbulent ’60s,  and finally a boutique hotel in the gentrifying ’80s. The eras are linked by one character — Anthony Spates, a 17-year-old servant in the manor house, who becomes a teacher at the school, the administrator of the arts center, and finally owner of the hotel. The title is somewhat ironic, since the play is less a history of women than of the self-effacing Anthony’s encounters with them — the females who variously enchant, ensnare and love him over the decades.

The play is both funny and poignant, perfectly balanced, with light brushstrokes of social commentary and feminist history.  But what struck me most, on this go-round with Ayckbourn, is how thoroughly (unlike so many current playwrights) he conceives of his work as theater creations — not with showy gimmicks, but with the simple confidence of a man who believes that the medium and the message are inextricable. So, in this case, we have one set, divided into three parts — on the left a study, on the right a ballroom, in the middle a sort of anteroom, through which characters move back and forth, opening and closing imaginary doors, with sound effects that rise and fall as the rooms are entered and exited. For each new scene, the furnishings are altered — the study becomes an office, the ballroom a school auditorium — in full view of the audience, with an economy of movement that belies the drastic changes from era to era.

The transformation for the last scene is done with such amusingly precise choreography that it actually gets applause. Leave it to Ayckbourn to create a play in which even the stagehands become stars. A small thing, perhaps, but worth savoring  — like this warm and winning play. 

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The Tonys: Wrapping Up a Weak Season

The Tony nominations are out, and they have brought home something that hadn’t really occurred to me as I raced through the busy last few weeks of Broadway openings.  It’s been a pretty bad season.

Yes, I saw several things I enjoyed, but as I look back, nearly all of them were revivals. The powerful two-part revival of Angels in America, imported from London, certainly deserves its 11 nominations (the most for any play), and Denzel Washington is a force of nature in George C. Wolfe’s fine revival of The Iceman Cometh. I had some quibbles with the revivals of Carousel and My Fair Lady, but heck, they’ll make for some great numbers on next months’s Tony show.

But when you look at the nominees in the two major categories — Best Play and Best Musical — you realize how slim the pickings were. For Best Musical, The Band’s Visit is the clear critical favorite — but I still maintain it’s an off-Broadway show that’s in over its head. That Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants got a whopping 12 nominations apiece is testament to the dearth of credible contenders. Oh yes, and there’s Disney’s Frozen,  which did manage a Best Musical nod (and would probably be my pick for the award). But this beautifully designed show was, unaccountably,  shut out of every single technical category. How much does the New York theater establishment hate Disney? They think The Band’s Visit has better scenery. 

The two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, another London import, is a shoe-in for Best Play, and no argument here: even for a non-Potter fan, the show is a marvel of stagecraft and narrative ingenuity. But talk about a weak field: None of the four other nominees — The Children, Farinelli and the King, Junk and Latin History for Morons — is even still running, and (not to be cruel) I’m not so sure any of them deserves to be. The imbalance between the shortage of new plays and the abundance of worthy revivals is only emphasized by the snub for Saint Joan, which failed to get a nomination for Best Revival. The critics were surprisingly cool, but I was totally absorbed by Daniel Sullivan’s straightforward, well-acted production (with Condola Rashad as a fierce and commanding Joan) of Shaw’s great play, which is as challenging and relevant as ever. 

That Awful Ending to ‘My Fair Lady’

Let’s talk about the ending to My Fair Lady. None of critics apparently want to — that is, give away the little twist that director Bartlett Sher has tacked onto the last scene of his Lincoln Center revival of Lerner and Loewe’s great musical. I understand their caution, but I don’t think you can properly talk about the production without grappling with the way it ends.

And so— spoiler alert, here goes — let me be the bearer of bad news. Eliza walks out on Henry Higgins.

I was actually pretty satisfied with the show most of the way through: not as fresh an interpretation as Jack O’Brien’s expressionistic new revival of Carousel, or as visually sumptuous as Sher’s own revival of The King and I a couple of years ago, but pleasant enough. I liked Harry Hadden-Patton’s imperious Henry Higgins a little better than Lauren Ambrose’s Eliza; she lacks charm in the opening Covent Garden scenes, and her singing voice is pretty but not especially strong. Yet my overall reaction to the revival was: fine, but what’s the point?

Well, the point comes in the last scene. In the original, you’ll recall, Eliza — after rebelling against the manipulative professor who has picked her off the streets and turned her into a “lady” — returns to Higgins, for a (sort of) happy ending. Once he’s secure that he’s won her back, Higgins plops in his chair and utters the last line — “Where the devil are my slippers?” Curtain. But Sher has decided that, in the enlightened #MeToo age, we cannot have Eliza return to being a doormat. So here, Higgins utters the final line pugnaciously, in Eliza’s face; she stares back at him silently, then gazes off toward the audience — and walks out.

Some of the critics have praised the revisionist ending (without quite describing it) as being truer to the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, on which the musical is of course based. To be sure, Shaw was not writing a conventional romance, and he ended the play ambiguously: Eliza running off to her father’s wedding, ignoring Henry’s blithe request that she pick him up “a pair of reindeer gloves, number eights” on her way home. In an epilogue to the play, Shaw expressed doubts that the two were destined to marry, speculating playfully that Eliza would wind up instead with Freddy, the callow rich kid who is infatuated with her. But he also noted: “Eliza’s instinct tells her not to marry Higgins. It does not tell her to give him up.”

But all that is really beside the point. My Fair Lady is not Pygmalion — it is My Fair Lady, one of the most perfectly constructed of all American musicals. True, Lerner and Loewe gave Shaw’s play a more conventionally romantic spin. But they retained a surprising amount of his cynicism and ambiguity. Yes, Eliza comes back to Higgins — but she’s full of self-confidence now, and the last line shows he as incorrigible as ever. Who knows if they will be together for long?  But the musical has spent the whole evening delicately, expertly moving them toward each other — piercing Higgins’ armor of hauteur, giving him that great I’m-not-in-love song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” To split them up at the end destroys both the romance and the ambiguity.

My suggestion: If My Fair Lady is not woke enough for the #MeToo age, don’t revive it. And if you do, don’t ruin it.

What’s Wrong With ‘Carousel’? And Does It Matter?

My feelings about Carousel are complicated.

On the one hand, it’s hard to argue against this 1945 show as the best of all the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. It is the one that blends song and story most felicitously, boasts some of team’s most beautiful (and narratively ambitious) musical numbers, and has an emotional resonance that few musicals can match. Still, the show has some annoying flaws, most of which are only exacerbated by Jack O’Brien’s new Broadway production.

One problem lies at the very core: the love story between sheltered Julie Jordan and the blustering (and eventually abusive) carnival barker, Billy Bigelow. It is set up and consummated so quickly — essentially all in the course of one song, the marvelous “If I Loved You” duet — that it depends a lot on the director and performers to fill out the picture. Joshua Henry is a fine singer and actor (a black Billy Bigelow, for a change), and he delivers strongly in much of the show, particularly the famous “Soliloquy” and the afterlife scenes. But as a romantic partner for Julie, I’m afraid, there is no collusion — excuse me, no chemistry. He is too surly and dyspeptic from the start — no charm, or vulnerability, or even danger.  Jessie Mueller’s Julie, moreover, seems a little too much of a modern, self-aware girl to be falling for this bad apple. I took a look back at the “If I Loved You” scene from 1956 movie, and even Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, in their square 1950s earnestness, are more convincing.

The show’s other big drawback, for me, is that big slab of cornball uplift at the climax —  “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Even opera diva Renee Fleming, as Nettie, can’t quite redeem it. Fleming is always nice to have on Broadway (though did she really need to horn in on “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” too?)  But for my money, the most gorgeous Broadway voice of the evening belongs to Lindsay Mendez, as Julie’s friend Carrie — who almost persuaded me that “When I Marry Mister Snow” is the best song in the show.

I could have done without some of O’Brien’s moody expressionist touches — having the heavenly judge, for example, hover over scenes even before Billy meets him in the other world. Still, the show is lovely to look at, Justin Peck’s dance numbers are dazzling, and in the end, this old warhorse still delivers. Like always, it made me cry.

‘Lobby Hero’: Second Time’s a Charm

I saw the original off-Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero in 2001, and though I don’t recall many specifics about it, I remember being disappointed — it seemed a comedown from the playwright’s smashing off-Broadway debut a few years before, This Is Our Youth. The new Broadway revival, however (a Second Stage production in the newly refurbished Helen Hayes Theater) left me feeling much different. If ever there was a play that has grown wiser and more pertinent with age, this is it.

The timing couldn’t be better. Nearly all the issues the play deals with, either directly or tangentially — sexual harassment, police brutality, the ethics of “leaking” — have moved to the forefront of our national conversation. Set in the lobby of a Manhattan apartment building, where a sad-sack security guard grinds his way through all-night shifts, the play revolves around four characters faced with moral dilemmas. The security guard’s boss is wrestling with whether to support an alibi for his brother, who is implicated in a brutal murder.  A rookie female cop must decide whether to rat on her harassing veteran partner. The lobby guard who is the sounding board for both of them has to figure out when to keep his mouth shot. Which turns out to be never.

Lonergan has created four very specific and believable characters and unspools the plot complications with absolute fidelity to the way real people talk and act. Some characters do the right thing, some don’t, and Lonergan refuses to judge or simplify the choices. A lesser playwright, for example, would have made the “bad” cop the one who is possibly guilty of an unprovoked police beating; Lonergan pins it on the sympathetic rookie. Maybe it’s Trip Cullman’s sharp production (with uniformly excellent performances from Michael Cera, Brian Tyree Henry, Chris Evans and Bel Powley), or maybe I’ve just belatedly seen the light. But this is one revival that seemed a revelation.

Can ‘Frozen’ Warm Up Broadway?

Frozen, the new Disney musical that has just opened on Broadway, is a beautiful piece of work— sleek, visually splendid and in many ways ingenious. Bringing to the stage the wildly popular animated film, about a princess who can freeze her constituency with the flick of a finger, at first glance seemed a daunting task. But director Michael Grandage and his design team have managed it with graceful simplicity: scenery turns to ice with a mere adjustment of lighting, some crackling sound effects and a few pop-up shards.  Favorite characters from the film — Sven the reindeer, Olaf the talking snowman — are rendered with amusing low-tech puppetry (with a bow to The Lion King, the show that invented everything). The story is briskly told, in the usual Disney manner; Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have added several peppy numbers to the film’s score; and the cast is just fine. Though Cassie Levy, as the snow queen Elsa, looks a little too Hillary Clinton in her spangled pantsuit and regally coiffed hairdo, I give her credit for pulling out all the stops in the big, first-act-closing number “Let It Go” without making the adults in the audience gag.

If the show left me a little, well, cold, I think the main reason lies in the story itself — at least, as Jennifer Lee has adapted it from Hans Christian Andersen. Yes, fairy tales are often dark, but Elsa’s childhood punishment for accidentally turning her sister into an icicle — the two don’t get to talk to each other for the next 10 years— seems uncalled for, even disturbing. The dual-track storyline is also frustrating: the most interesting character is Elsa, but we spend most of the time following little-sister Anna (a feisty Patti Murin) on her trek to — well, on the stage it’s a little unclear where, since we don’t get the lovely vistas of the animated film. Nor are the villains up to Disney snuff: either too comic (the pint-sized Weselton) or too late to the party (Prince Hans, the knight in shining armor who breaks bad at the last minute).

In the end, I’m afraid, my main problem is that the central tension of the story— yet another fantasy hero/heroine whose big predicament in life, poor dear, is learning how to cope with superpowers — doesn’t have the emotional resonance of, say, The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, despite all the fervent messaging about the power of sisterhood. You go, girls. And you too, Disney — still master creators of stage magic, who have created a show that will please a lot of them. But I’m just lukewarm.

‘Jerry Springer’: Has the Moment Passed?

The strange fate of Jerry Springer—The Opera is one of the mysteries of the recent theater past. The show, an operatic send-up of the tawdry daytime reality show, was a smash hit when it opened in London in 2003, a sellout at the National Theatre and winner of the Olivier Award for best musical of the season. I saw the show there, thought it was pretty terrific, and — at a time when virtually every big London musical was making its way to the U.S. — assumed it would soon be the Next Big Brit Thing on Broadway.

And yet, strangely, the show disappeared. What happened? To be sure, its satire of TV sleaze-mongering — cross-dressing husbands, pole-dancing wives, a guy with a diaper fetish — is as foul-mouthed and scatalogical as any musical in history. (Sample lyric: “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fucking fucking fuck?”). But hasn’t The Book of Mormon, a huge Broadway hit a few years later, proven that puritans no longer have much clout on the Great White Way?

Now, nearly 15 years later, a New York production of Jerry Springer has finally arrived off-Broadway. I still think the show is a whole lot of fun — but not quite as pungent, or as relevant, as it once was. The reality TV world is much different today. The game now is not to coax trailer-park losers into acting like freaks on national TV, but to put good-looking celebrity-wannabes (or celebrity-used-to-be’s) into “ordinary” situations —  sharing living quarters, or picking a girlfriend, or executing a business plan to please a self-absorbed billionaire — and hyping it into high melodrama.  Jerry Springer’s show (I was surprised to discover) is actually still on the air. But satirizing it now, in Trump’s America, seems an exercise in nostalgia.

That said, John Rando’s production for the New Group is sharp, and Richard Thomas’s faux-operatic score (with its catchy “This Is My Jerry Springer Moment” refrain) is beautifully sung by a cast displaying more body fat than you’ll normally see in an entire theater season. Broadway vet Terrence Mann is spot-on as Springer, and a new song has been added for him (in the original, Springer’s was the only non-singing part). Other changes have been made since London, and though I can’t pinpoint them exactly, the first act, with its mounting parade of outrageous guests airing their dirty laundry, now seems overly hysterical, while the second act (the weaker half, in which Jerry goes to hell and bargains with the devil) is a bit improved. But I’m afraid Jerry Springer’s moment may have passed.