Stories by Lithgow: Less Acting, Please

Autobiographical one-man shows are not my favorite genre, but I had hopes for John Lithgow’s Stories by Heart. This two-act show — which Lithgow has been touring around the country and just brought to Broadway — is partly autobiographical (engaging reminiscences of growing up with his storytelling father), but mostly a showcase for Lithgow to perform two of his favorite stories from childhood. And since one of them, Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” is also a favorite of mine, I looked forward to seeing it brought to life on stage.

Not a great idea.  Like many of Lardner’s best comic stories, “Haircut” is a monologue: the one-sided conversation of a small-town barber, rambling on about local doings to a customer from out of town.  Lithgow certainly performs the role well: immersing himself in the character, mimicking his Midwest accent and giggling tics, busily miming all the snipping and shaving that go on while he talks. But the story doesn’t have the impact is does on the page — and I think it’s because Lithgow’s acting, as proficient as it is, actually works against the satire. Lardner typically wrote in the voice of his main character, but always with an ironic distance. The reader grasps what the foolish or naive narrator does not —a sheltered girl, for example, who falls for a big-city sharpie who turns out to be a gigolo in “Some Like Them Cold,”  or, in “Haircut,” a small-town gossip who can’t see the cruelty in the local hijinks he is describing..  It’s important for us to hear, not just the barber’s voice, but also Lardner’s, commenting silently from a cool distance.  In “Haircut” Lardner manages the tone brilliantly to create a sharp satire of small-town values; Lithgow gives us a slice of local color.

In the second act, Lithgow turns to a more straightforward comic story, P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” about a Londoner’s country outing with his dotty uncle. Lithgow gives another bravura performance — portraying a half-dozen characters, with accents and gestures all perfectly rendered. But the story, once again, gets lost amid the busyness onstage; I frankly had trouble following it. Which means, I suppose, that good acting is not always good storytelling.

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10 Best Theater of 2017

Not an easy year for me to make my selections; few outstanding shows, though several pretty good ones. Enough, at least, for me to participate in the inevitable year-end pastime:

1. Come From Away  The grass-roots success of the Broadway year. A couple of theater unknowns from Canada (Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a husband-wife team who wrote the book, music and lyrics) came up with this charming, heartfelt and deftly staged musical about the town in Newfoundland that hosted all the stranded planes on 9/11. Much better, to my mind, than the other small-town-invaded-by-outsiders musical from this year (see No. 10 below),

2. Groundhog Day. I saw it twice, loved it twice, and actually voted to give it the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best musical. (No one else agreed.) Based on the Bill Murray movie about a weatherman forced to live the same day over and over again, this Brit-born musical captured all of the film’s humor, seriousness and narrative complexity — an ambitious show that set a high bar and cleared it. Yet it closed early, and obviously failed to connect with audiences. Maybe a little too ambitious.

3. On the Shore of the Wide World  British playwright Simon Stephens can be brilliant (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) or prosaic (Heisenberg). He was on top of his game in this astringent, quietly gripping look at a family in the north of England who have trouble communicating across the generations — and within them.

4. Marvin’s Room.  Scott McPherson’s 1990 play about a family coping with illness could have been a routine disease-of-the-week drama. But last summer’s Broadway revival, directed by Anne Kaufman for the Roundabout Theater Company, made a good case for this layered, clear-eyed family drama as an underappreciated gem.

5. Miss Saigon. Who’s going to rave about a revival of a big Broadway musical from the now-discredited Brit-pop era that the critics didn’t much like the first time around? Me! Schonberg and Boublil’s Vietnam-era reworking of Madame Butterfly is perhaps the closest the Broadway musical has ever come to grand opera, and last spring’s revival was nearly as exciting as the original. Only the famous helicopter landing fell a little flat.

6. Mary Jane.  A beleaguered single mother has to deal with various caregivers, doctors and well-meaning friends as she copes with a severely disabled two-year-old. Amy Herzog (4000 Miles) plunges us into her predicament with both dry-eyed detachment and enormous empathy.

7. The Wolves.  Sarah DeLappe’s off-Broadway play about a girls’ soccer team (still running at Lincoln Center) gets a big lift from the inventive, kinetic direction of Lila Neugebauer, who turns the girls’ stretching routines into synchronized performance art, and their meandering dialogue into a Robert Altman movie for the teen set.

8. Once on This Island.  The new Broadway revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s musical folk tale, set in the French Antilles, pushes its Caribbean magic realism a little hard. But it’s still a lovely, flavorful production of a very good show.

9. Evening at the Talk House—Wallace Shawn’s play, about a nostalgic reunion of old theater colleagues, starts out as a New Yorker casual and winds up as a dystopian nightmare. This quietly alarming black comedy had a brief off-Broadway run last winter, but was largely, strangely ignored.

10. The Band’s Visit. No one is ignoring Broadway’s latest hit musical, which got the kind of rave reviews that My Fair Lady might have envied. Based on a 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian band stranded in the wrong Israeli town, it’s a modest, sweet little show — overpraised, to be sure, but just good enough to make my list.

The Stars Don’t Align for “Meteor Shower”

Stars draw the crowds on Broadway these days, but seldom has shrewd casting created such an instant must-see as Steve Martin’s new comedy Meteor Shower. The big attraction is a pair of acclaimed TV comedians making their Broadway debuts: Keegan-Michael Key, co-creator of the superb sketch-comedy series Key and Peele, and Amy Schumer, who has shown her acting chops not only on her show Inside Amy Schumer but in her sharp feature-film debut, Trainwreck. Great to see both of them on stage. Too bad it isn’t under better circumstances.

Martin’s play (which has been staged previously outside New York) is a slim, shaky piece.  A married couple (Schumer and Jeremy Shamos) addicted to new-age marital counseling invite some new friends (Key and Laura Benanti) to their house for a dinner party to watch the eponymous stellar event. But an evening of astronomy and small talk quickly turns into a battle with the bullish newcomers, who seem bent on upending the marriage of their fragile hosts. A decent, if familiar, premise — but any realistic satire of the needs and neuroses of modern marriage quickly goes off the rails into outlandish farce. (Husband blurts out a confession to the guests: his wife once cannibalized her best friend on a camping trip.) And then things really get weird.

My guess is that Martin had in mind an absurdist mixture of Albee and Ionesco, with a dash of Pinteresque menace.  But veteran comedy director Jerry Zaks can’t see beyond the broadest laughs. And he forces his stars to do the same. Key bounds onto the stage as the pompous interloper with such a shrill voice and machine-gun delivery that he might be playing the foppish villain in a Restoration comedy. Schumer is a little more grounded, but she can never really locate her character, and compensates with sitcom mugging and too many piercing screams.

As for the meteor shower, it provides the occasion for one silly, cartoonish sight gag, but otherwise is pretty much a fizzle. Like the play.

“The Band’s Visit”: Is “Nice” Enough?

I don’t want to say anything bad or disrespectful about The Band’s Visit, the new musical that has just opened on Broadway after an acclaimed off-Broadway run last winter. Adapted from a little 2007 film about an Egyptian police band that winds up, by mistake, stranded in a forlorn little Israeli town,  the show is nice. The people in it are all nice. The actors (especially Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub) do a nice job, as does director David Cromer. David Yazbek’s score is maybe a little better than nice — warm, tuneful, with an authentic middle Eastern flavor. I’m just not sure that’s enough to justify all the raves — including a Best Musical of the Year award from my colleagues in the New York Drama Critics Circle.

Understated to a fault, it’s musical made up of vignettes — surprisingly similar to Come From Away, last season’s Tony-nominated musical about another small town invaded unexpectedly by foreigners. But that show had 9/11 to give it some oomph. In The Band’s Visit we get a long night’s journey into … well, not very much. The Egyptians have various encounters with the hospitable but bored townspeople, all of whom seem afflicted with some form of loneliness, romantic longing or spiritual disaffection. A married couple with a baby have grown apart. A young man stands by a pay phone waiting for his girlfriend to call. A cafe owner puts on her best dress and escorts the band’s leader for an evening of sightseeing and talk — reaching out for connection, then pulling back.

This just doesn’t strike me great material for a musical. I haven’t seen the Israeli film on which it is based, but I can guess that it has more anecdotal filigree, and the kind of quirky, laid-back charm that emerges more naturally on film than on a big Broadway stage. I wouldn’t steer anyone away from The Band’s Visit, which has touching moments and has been produced with much care and compassion. But keep your expectations in check.

 

Greed Is Not So Good (on Broadway)

Can a theater be the reason a play doesn’t work?  I’m starting to think that about the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center. With its cavernous space, thrust stage and semi-circular, steeply raked seats, the place is fine for big musicals (The King and I, South Pacific), but tends to overwhelm smaller, more intricate plays. I had pretty much the same reaction to Junk, Ayad Akhtar’s new play about Wall Street shenanigans in the 1980s, as I did to the Beaumont’s last offering — Oslo,  J.T. Rogers’ play last spring about the Middle East peace talks that led to the Oslo accords. Both take fairly dry historical subject matter and, in order to fashion a compelling drama, hype it to the rafters. Issues and motivations are oversimplified, people turned into caricatures, small confrontations blown up into nuclear explosions. And everybody yells.

Junk, to be sure, has its own problems.  Akhtar (author of the critically acclaimed — by other critics — Disgraced) reaches back two or three scandals into Wall Street’s past, to tell the story of a Michael Milken-like figure using junk bonds to engineer a hostile corporate takeover, and the material seems a bit stale and familiar. The frequent expository dialogue (explaining, say, what a “poison pill” is) smacks of a business-school lecture. Nearly every character is some version of a cliche: the arrogant, cynical Wall Street whiz (Steven Pasquale), the earnest CEO trying to save his family company from corporate raiders, the schlubby investor who wants to back out of a shady deal (with a nod to Glengarry Glen Ross), even the now-overused device of having the play told in flashback through the eyes of a reporter pursuing the story.

Akhtar is a good craftsman, who knows how to put together a play; the action moves along briskly, and the issues are laid out clearly enough for most audience members to grasp, if not totally understand. But he bites off too much. The play has nearly two dozen characters, and seems more intent on leveling a broad-brush indictment of American greed — we’re all guilty! — than helping us understand the human roots of that greed. Moment to moment, Junk (directed by Doug Hughes, with an abstract set of flourescent-lit boxes, where actors often speak directly to the audience) doesn’t have the in-the-weeds authenticity of a film like Margin Call or even Wolf of Wall Street. It may be unfair to expect that kind of filmic naturalism from a stage piece. But especially not on the Vivian Beaumont stage.

“M. Butterfly,” Earthbound

My reaction to the new Broadway revival of M. Butterfly, I’m afraid to say, is a giant shrug. When David Henry Hwang’s play made its Broadway debut in 1988, it was a startling, even daring, effort to make sense of the strange but true story of a French diplomat in China who had a years-long affair with a Chinese opera singer — who turns out to be, not only a communist spy, but a man. Today, in the age of Orange Is the New Black and debates over transgender rights, the shock has largely worn off, and the play comes across as a rather heavy-handed effort to turn a tabloid docudrama into a larger statement on gender confusion, East-West stereotypes, Chinese subjugation of women, the War in Vietnam  — well, you name it, Hwang pretty much throws everything into the pot. Despite (or maybe because of) some rewriting he has done for this revival, the quirky personal story just isn’t able to carry the weight of its social-cultural-historical baggage.

Julie Taymor’s new production is handsome and well-staged, though (except for a couple of dance interludes, choreographed by Ma Cong) without much evidence of her inventive visual style. In my hazy memory of the original production, John Lithgow seemed a much more vulnerable, sexually insecure and believable protagonist than the macho, matinee-idol handsome Clive Owen here. But Jin Ha, in the role originated by B.D. Wong, is sympathetic and reasonably convincing as the gender-bending object of his affection. Still, as post-Vietnam-era reworkings of the Madame Butterfly story go — call me crass, but I prefer Miss Saigon.

“Time and the Conways”: Give It Time

About 20 minutes into Time and the Conways, J.B. Priestley’a 1937 play now being revived by the Roundabout Theater Company, I was feeling the way I imagine John Osborne and the “angry young men” of British drama must have felt in the 1950s: Enough of these well-mannered, well-made plays about the rarefied concerns of the British upper classes! In this case, we’re presented with the Conway family (a widowed mother and her six grown children — four daughters and two sons), a birthday party taking place offstage and a lot of flouncing around and nattering about the charahdes game in progress. But Priestley, unsurprisingly, has more up his sleeve. The opening scene takes place in 1919, amid the euphoria that followed the end of World War I. In the next scene, we are thrust forward 19 years, to see how everything has come crashing down —family money squandered, marriages turned sour, hopes and dreams dashed.

That much is fairly predictable. What lifts Time and the Conways into something special is Priestley’s novel idea to return us, in the third act, back to 1919, where we re-view the characters, in their benighted optimism, from the new vantage point of what happened after. This gives the play a poignance — with a metaphysical spin — that I wasn’t expecting. And though the characters’ disillusionment has a touch of cliché —golden-boy war hero turned alcoholic no-account, idealistic writer who sells out for lowbrow magazine work — Priestley presents them with empathy, gravity and unflinching honesty. The new Broadway production, with Rebecca Taichman (Indecent) directing a solid cast headed by Elizabeth McGovern, is one of the better ones I’ve seen at the sometimes plodding Roundabout, and this revival is definitely worth a visit.