During the stagehands’ strike, I confirmed what I’ve known all along — that there is plenty of great theater Off-Broadway. While there has been a lot of buzz surrounding Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” there’s another musical adapted more respectfully from the Mary Shelley novel playing Off-Broadway simply titled “Frankenstein.” Playwright-actor Charles Busch is knockout in haute couture drag in a hilarious spoof, “Die Mommy Die.” One of the most disarming musical shows in town is “Gone Missing,” in which various people deal with things they value that suddenly (you guessed it) have gone missing. Elizabeth Franz is giving one of the great performances of the season as “The Piano Teacher” and New Jersey playwright Bob Clyman’s “Secret Order,” about the shenanigans behind medical research, is terrific.
So even though the strike is over, consider an Off-Broadway show this holiday season — for a gift or for yourself.
Die Mommie Die!
Charles Busch may have finally achieved mainstream fame a few years ago as author of the long-running Broadway comedy “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” but it is as a performer in drag in such plays as “The Woman in Question” and “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” that Charles Busch earned a reputation as a first class drama queen. In this often hilarious valentine to the grisly films made in the 1970s by many over-the-hill movie stars, such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Tallulah Bankhead, Busch creates a wonderful composite of them as Angela Arden, a forever glamorous but washed up diva married to a washed up Hollywood producer.
Notwithstanding the way that Angela devises to kill (with a poisoned suppository) her husband, she has to contend with a devious daughter, who displays an unnatural affection for her father, and her incorrigible son, who displays an unnatural affection for her duplicitous bi-sexual lover, Busch sashays around her grandiose home spouting memorably reconstituted cliches. This is a treat for old movie buffs and camp followers. HHH
“Die Mommie Die!,” through Sunday February 17, New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street. $45 to $70. 212-239-6200.
Those two words “It’s alive,” as shouted by Victor Frankenstein, are assuredly recognized by the enormous fan base of Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus,” as well as by those who have thrilled to the more than 100 films adapted from that source. The novel, as well as the films and a significant number of stage adaptations, continues to thrill and frighten generations of adults and children eager and willing to surrender to its nightmarish charms. Here, in the new musical “Frankenstein,” we have a creature that is not only alive but speaks with a literate acumen and sings some heavy duty arias with a resounding brio. However, “It’s alive” is graciously allowed to be part of the sparse spoken recitative in the mainly sung-through pop-operatic score by Mark Baron (music) and Jeffrey Jackson (book & lyrics).
This is a commendably faithful adaptation (based on Shelley’s own final 1841 rewrite) by Gary P. Cohen. It contains virtually all of the novel’s key points. As smartly directed by Bill Fennelly, the story unfolds with clarity and, except for the occasional but obligatory crashes of thunder and bolts of blinding lighting, without a lot of gimmickry. Don’t expect to see a cluttered laboratory with countless bottles bubbling away or sparks of electrical currents shooting out from gadgets into the creature’s brain. You may be impressed, as I was, by the simplicity of the staging and how effective it is as much by implication as by its musically distilled narrative. HH
“Frankenstein,” through Saturday, December 9, 37 Arts, 450 West 37th Street. $41 to $69. 212-307-4100.
A talented group of six performers who call themselves the Civilians have created a marvelous little revue that revolves around the subject of personal loss — including inanimate objects, people, lovers, pets, and more illusive things such as the lost continent of Atlantis. Comprised of interviews with strange and not-so-strange people on the street, humorous monologues that provide deft insights into human nature, and some very lovely and melodic songs that reflect the musings and the reflections of everyday people, “Gone Missing” is ultimately more disarming than deep.
Loss remains the point and put into perspective most poignantly when a security guard at the World Trade Center speaks of his missing Palm Pilot, as the towers were falling. Young people are flocking to this show, which is based on actual interviews. ***
“Gone Missing,” through Sunday, January 6, Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street (7th Avenue South). $20 to $45. 212-239-6200.
The Piano Teacher
Elizabeth Franz (Tony winner for her performance as Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman”) is brilliant as the titular character, Mrs. K, who has lived reclusively since the death of her husband. It is in this quiet suburban town where she gave private lessons years ago to many young people that we learn that lives were irreparably changed. When she attempts to locate and talk to some of her former students, the result is the unraveling of a long repressed mystery and the exposing of a painful and shocking truth. Julia Cho’s play takes its time getting to its devastating denouement, but the reward is in seeing Franz’s meticulously developed performance in a play that commands our attention. HH
“The Piano Teacher,” through Saturday, December 22, Vineyard Theater, 108 Eest 15th Street. $55. 212-353-0303.
The political directives and bureaucratic machinations that drive medical research are covered incisively in this riveting play by New Jersey playwright Bob Clyman. Dr. William Shumway (Dan Colman), a young enthusiastic researcher at a university, is on the verge of a breakthrough in his study of cancer cells when he is taken under the wing of the director (Larry Pine) of New York’s major research center. He is talked into going to the center with the promise that the center will provide all the money and support he needs. A young, extremely bright college student (Jessi Campbell) with an agenda of her own is assigned to work with him. Things get twisty and unnerving for the researchers as another director (Kenneth Tigar) shows his antipathy and when the experiments appear to hit a snag and are not able to keep up with the publicity being generated. The play, under Charles Towers’ excellent direction, is empowered by a confluence of disappointments, deceptions, divided loyalties, and the jockeying for power. HHH
“Secret Order,” through Sunday, December 9, 59 E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. $50. 212-279-4200.