Corrections or additions?

Simon Saltzman

These reviews were published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 7, 1999. All rights reserved.

Even a full-time theater critic has a difficult time

keeping pace with the fast flow of Off-Broadway shows. Particularly

frustrating is the limited runs of so many extraordinary shows, many

of which have no more than a two or three-week lifespan. There is

also a growing number of Off-Broadway subscription companies that

offer four or more plays a season, offering few plays the opportunity

to break out of a limited run.

Each season it becomes more evident that Off-Broadway is the principal

nurturing and proving ground for much that we deem as the best theater.

There is no question that Off-Broadway is where you find the plays

written by the most adventurous writers. With all due respect to Broadway’s

attention-grabbing musicals and plays, there is currently an enviable

collection of serious, exiting, and entertaining plays Off-Broadway.

Perhaps in a better, more receptive world, the marquees of Broadway

theaters would be ablaze heralding the provocative new play by Harold

Pinter ("Ashes to Ashes"), the double-your-pleasure comedy

by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel ("The Mineola Twins"),

and the hilarious farce by Paul Rudnick ("The Most Fabulous Story

Ever Told"). But Broadway’s loss is Off-Broadway’s gain. It may

also be your gain if you take advantage of the discounted tickets

being offered to many Off-Broadway shows, now through April 30.

Before you spend your money, call 800-610-0713 or check out "Passport

to Off-Broadway" at www.newyork.sidewalk.com/offbroadway.

There you can see the list of plays, view season schedules, links

to websites, and special promotions, including restaurants. Discount

coupons are made available for up to 200 shows with savings up to

50 percent. Discounts vary from show to show, but the actual price

is indicated in the listing. Below are a few new and worthwhile shows

that are on extended runs.

`Ashes to Ashes’

To pronounce any play by Harold Pinter enigmatic, perplexing,

and disturbing is redundant. In "Ashes to Ashes," those obligatory

adjectives seem to be more superficially exercised and politically

generated than usual by the author of such mysterious and illusive

dramas as "The Birthday Party," "The Homecoming,"

and "Old Times." This may be partly due to the expectedly

terse, but exemplary, style that Pinter uses to tell the story.

For all of 40 minutes — hardly enough time to properly sink one’s

teeth into the discomforting, and of course perplexing, situation

— we listen and hope to understand what’s going on. We are attentive

to the deftly articulated inquiries of Devlin (David Strathairn) a

patient, seemingly rational husband, and then to the indirect, deeply

troubled, elliptical responses of Rebecca (Lindsay Duncan), his wife.

Although he has the less interesting role, Strathairn is academically

precise as the stolid English university professor who, with painstaking

analytical detachment, leads Rebecca to talk dispassionately about

the deeply disturbing things that haunt her.

Your eyes will probably not move far from the chilling look of despair

on Lindsay’s face, who as the otherwise sheltered country wife, retreats

and emerges from a nightmarish world. She hesitantly relates the intimacies

of a former sexual affair she may or may not have had with a sadist,

and describes in detail a series of holocaust-recalled atrocities

that seem to be indelibly rooted in her consciousness.

Although it is made clear that Rebecca is too young to have been part

of the holocaust, she makes us consider how some people who, even

though they have always been sheltered and protected, are inscrutably

connected to the suffering of others and forever traumatized by unspeakable

acts of cruelty. There is even pronounced drama in the steep rake

of designer Tony Walton’s handsome living room setting with a view

of the garden. Karel Reisz’s meticulous unhurried direction for the

Roundabout Theater Company keeps the faith for Pinter, his long-time

friend. A Pinter expert leads a post-performance discussion with the

cast about Pinter and the play. HH

Ashes to Ashes, Roundabout at the Gramercy, 127 East 23.

Ticketmaster. To May 9.

`The Mineola Twins’

Written years before author Paula Vogel won acclaim

for her insightful play about pedophilia, "How I Learned to Drive,"

the delightful "The Mineola Twins" has earned its New York

showcase. Unlike the former play, "The Mineola Twins" is a

less structured and definitely more comical consideration of the social

ills that transverse the great political and cultural divide in America.

Giving partisans of the left and right both equal time and equal what

for, is an estimable goal, and Vogel’s use of feuding and rivaling

twins as co-protagonists over the decades is one of the comedy’s cleverest

conceits.

Even cleverer is the casting of the wonderful Swoozie Kurtz as both

of the sisters, each of whom chooses opposing paths to fulfillment.

Kurtz, in what may be the most dazzling performance(s) of her career,

sets a new standard for quick changes of wigs and costumes (a laugh-getting

parade of modish Americana designed by Jess Goldstein) and instant

personality changes from good girl to bad girl. From wholesome teenage

bobbysoxer to town slut, from apple pie maker to drug taker, from

pro-choice activist to right-to-lifer, Kurtz swings the pendulum with

a mixture of hilarity and poignancy.

Beginning in the 1950s, and following the lives of the conservative

Myrna and the rebellious Myra through four decades of vacillating

values and changing mores, "The Mineola Twins" is happily

experienced more for its madcap style than its moralizing lessons.

Although the comedy plays like a revue of vaudeville skits and shtick,

Joe Mantello’s excellent direction makes it all seem as patently cohesive

as it is blatantly cartoonish. There is a witty Sunday funny pages

look to designer Robert Brill and Scott Pask’s settings. A fine supporting

cast is also called upon to double up and also switch genders. This

only quadruples our pleasure. HHH

The Mineola Twins, Roundabout, 1530 Broadway at 45 Street.

To May 30. 212-719-1300.

`Most Fabulous Story’

There are a few playwrights who are so funny that it

takes a while to realize that it is their ability to keep us laughing

that makes us continue to listen. That we may learn something in the

bargain is a bonus. Such a writer is Paul Rudnick ("Jeffrey"),

whose flair for the perverse, outrageous, and the most politically

incorrect humor is applauded with "The Most Fabulous Story Ever

Told."

Once you decide that the Old Testament, starting with the events in

the Garden of Eden, is fair game for deconstruction, then be prepared

for the Sunday school lesson of your life. After we grant Rudnick

his radical theory on the creation of the world, as it is stirringly

invoked by an authoritative and omnipotent stage manager, we are fully

prepared for the full frontal assault of flesh, fantasy, and fabulous

farce. There could be no better director for Rudnick’s theology course

than long-time collaborator Christopher Ashley.

The comedy’s compassionate philosophical twists and turns quickly

appease what appears as blasphemy. This is not a comedy for purists;

but for those who can suspend their hang-ups and prejudices, there

is a laugh a minute watching the first stirrings of life, the investigation

of sexual impulses, and the awkward declarations of love. All this

evolves as Adam discovers Steve in one part of the garden while unbeknownst

to them Jane has already met Mabel on the other side. There’s a lot

of bitching and baiting when the two couples eventually run into each

other. As much as they enjoy their same-sex coupling — that is,

until the inevitable happens and Jane gets pregnant — there is

at stake all that humorously disconcerting discoursing on the will

and nature of God and what is right and natural.

Centuries later in New York City, but not before a couple of side-splitting

side trips aboard Noah’s Ark and to ancient Egyptian where Adam asks

the Pharaoh, "If you’re really God, why are you wearing so much

eye makeup?" Adam and Steve, Jane and Mabel are still confounded

by their eternally frustrating and interlocking relationships, and

yet another birth.

Much of the play’s joy comes from a supporting cast that play a multitude

of amusing oddball friends and acquaintances through the ages. They

bounce in and out of the play, which ends spectacularly at a Christmas

Eve house party, and provide solid laughs, cries, and food for thought.

Rudnick’s seemingly endless stream of bon mots assures us that his

lovable characters will never bore us, even as they continue to ask

each other the most profound questions about God and faith. This as

they attempt to find ways to deal with the challenges of their daily

life. Although there have been cast changes since I first saw the

play at the New York Theater Workshop, let’s assume the play and the

players have kept the faith. HHH

The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, Minetta Lane Theater,

Ticketmaster.


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