Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the May 22, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Revivals To the Rescue
Just as Hollywood produces sequels for security, Broadway
relies on revivals of past hits to lure a new generation to the theater.
With a scarcity of new plays caused by a shortage of risk-taking producers,
revivals are key players on Broadway and mainly responsible for keeping
the theaters open and the Tony voters hopping in recent weeks.
Revivals are also considered relatively well-known commodities, easy
to market, and less financially risky. Opera and ballet companies
and symphony orchestras are constantly wooing a new generation with
the classics of the repertoire.
Yet the theater, more than the others, has found that looking at classics
in a new light (including two from Arthur Miller) often helps to keep
up with changing tastes and attitudes. While some purists resent tampering
(whether reckless or tame) with a cherished original, there is no
denying that most classics have earned the right to be reinterpreted
and restaged to resonate for present-day audiences.
Into the Woods
Given Stephen Sondheim’s complex and ravishing score,
the revival of "Into the Woods" (first produced in 1987),
appears only slightly altered in its staging and design. James Lapine’s
intellectually challenging book (he also directs), about discontented
fairy-tale characters, has always been closer to "Let’s-be-pretentious"
than "Let’s Pretend."
Children under 12 may be confused by what happens to the storybook
characters they know from the Brothers Grimm. Following them on their
circuitous and disastrous misadventures is more of a psychoanalytical
journey. Adults will better understand the show’s theme: that when
you actually get what you wished for, suffering often follows.
Except for a charming scene-stealing dancing cow (new to this production)
and the beautiful Vanessa Williams as an atypical witch (she also
sings winningly the musical’s only new song "Our Little World"),
the cast scampers through the woods (dense with foliage by Douglas
W. Schmidt) with esprit to spare. But no one seems able to cast any
new or unforgettable spells on this haunting but problematic musical.
Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.
The Man Who Had All The Luck
In 1944 Arthur Miller didn’t have any luck with "The
Man Who Had All The Luck," his first Broadway play. It lasted
for four performances. But aren’t we glad he didn’t get discouraged?
Anyone interested in the history of modern theater and curious about
this early, yet assured and surprisingly mature early effort by one
of America’s greatest dramatic writers will want to see this revival
presented by the Roundabout Theater, under the direction of Scott
Ellis. While young fans will enjoy seeing film stars Chris O’Donnell
and Samantha Mathis (both excellent without setting the barn on fire),
the rest of us will attend to the philosophical and social issues
being raised by a young Miller (he was 29). A young Midwestern mechanic
(O’Donnell) finds it difficult living a life that affords him nothing
but lucky breaks. Look for signs of the yet to come "Death of
a Salesman." Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.
227 West 42nd Street, New York, 212-719-1300. Through June 30.
Noel Coward’s "Private Lives," dates back to
1930 (1931 on Broadway) with the playwright himself and Gertrude Lawrence
in the lead roles as Elyot and Amanda, the synthetic two-dimensional
twits. In recent years, we have seen Elizabeth Taylor and Richard
Burton (1983) in the roles, and in 1992 Joan Collins and Simon Jones.
Now Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, who previously lusted after each
other in 1987 in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," are starring
in the acclaimed London production (with gorgeous Gaudi inspired settings
by Tim Hately) of this perfect little jewel of a comedy. They careen
through Coward’s veritable avalanche of witty dialogue, naughty twists,
and wacky turns with a darker edge than we have seen before. And they
also plunge into the no-hold barred brawling and ensuing bedlam with
more than the required gusto.
But the plot remains no more than a few coincidences supported by
a few incidents. Coward’s bon mot sprinkled comedy provides
a safe haven for almost any actor worth his salt. As for the plot:
two honeymooning couples find they have connecting terraces at a posh
hotel on the coast of France, and the husband of one couple has been
previously married to the wife of the other. So much for that. Adam
Godley is humorously irate, as Victor, Emma Fielding is text-book
Coward as the quibbling Sibyl, and Alex Belcourt, is a hoot as the
condescending French maid. Howard Davies directs with a flair for
the ferocious. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.
New York, 212-307-4100.
Morning’s at Seven
John Osborn’s "Morning’s at Seven" lasted only
44 performances when it first appeared on Broadway in 1939. What did
they know? Its virtues, however, were successfully revitalized in
a 1980 revival. Now, the gentle, bittersweet play appears to be glowing
even more brightly with a superb cast performing in a lovely (another
breathtaking setting designed by John Lee Beatty) and lovingly directed
(by Daniel Sullivan) production. While it is difficult to describe
the fragile charms and eccentricities of these neighboring family
members who interact in the backyard of their abutting homes, the
echo of another time (this is pre-World War II, small town America)
In the play, four late middle-aged sisters, played by an out-spoken
Elizabeth Franz, a wistful Frances Sternhagen, a wise Piper Laurie,
and a tender Estelle Parsons, raise and resolve long suppressed issues.
Each is wonderful. If fewer issues are raised (even if caused by)
their husbands, played by a disdainful Buck Henry, a melancholy Christopher
Lloyd, and a guilt-ridden William Biff McGuire, it is the engagement
of Sternhagen and Lloyd’s dim-witted son (Stephen Tobolowsky) to a
sweet dingbat (Julie Hagerty) that sets off a chain of events that
will have you laughing and holding back tears. A joy from start to
finish. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.
Arthur Miller’s great drama of intolerance "The
Crucible" is being given an arresting production under the direction
of Richard Eyre. Set in 1692, during the Salem witch trials, the tale
of innocent people victimized by a jealous, lecherous girl and her
young followers suffused with devilish fantasies brilliantly comments
on the general evils of superstition and mass hysteria.
Heading a large and splendid cast are Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.
They, with the others, ignite the fire and brimstone plot that, although
it may abound in accusations, denials, threats, and confessions, will
keep you riveted from start to finish. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.
New York. To June 8.
The Elephant Man
Bernard Pomerance’s play "The Elephant Man"
was a huge hit in 1979. The play, about Joseph Merrick, a monstrously
disfigured but highly intelligent man, who, when rescued from being
a sideshow freak, becomes a celebrity in Victorian society, is told
through the memoirs of Frederick Treves, the doctor who put Merrick
in his care.
Although there are excellent performances, notably from Billy Crudup,
as Merrick, Kate Burton as the actress who finds him fascinating,
and Rupert Graves as Trevis, the play, under the clinical direction
of Sean Mathias, is somehow less shocking and less moving than it
was when it was first seen.
Then again, if you haven’t seen it or the film version, you may choose
to now. It remains a forceful reminder how human beings can triumph
over unspeakable hardships and physical torment. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.
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