Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 11,
1998. All rights reserved.
Simon Saltzman: Off-Broadway
Give or take the two or three obligatory snob hits
from Britain that invade our shores each spring, and the one or possibly
two home-grown straight plays that are usually seen in a struggle
for survival, Broadway remains primarily about musicals, new and revived.
It isn’t that there is anything particularly wrong with the sound
of music (or the show of the same name), it’s just that the sound
of pure unaccompanied talking can also be music to the ears.
Traditionally, adventurous theatergoers head Off-Broadway where they
can and want to experience the kinds of provocative and challenging
theater that hinges on the edge of popular sentiment and taste. Don’t
be amazed to discover that the hottest ticket Off-Broadway, "Shopping
and Fucking," also comes from Britain. Nevertheless Off-Broadway
this spring is virtually bursting at the seams with many fine and
entertaining plays, and the price is right. To be sure, there is something
for everyone in the shows listed below. Just be aware that tastes
vary and my own can even startle me at times.
There is no doubt that Mark Ravenhill made Londoners
take notice of his first play "Shopping and Fucking." Notwithstanding
the third word in the title that most newspapers choose not to print,
the play is hardly the jaw-dropping shocker it was purported to be.
Nevertheless, for those who want to have a rude awakening to a crass
sex and drugs-dominated "money market" world, you might find
this play, if not fulsome, then surprisingly forthright. Given the
pseudo-graphic display and expose of morally corrupted London youth,
Ravenhill’s characters are principally grungy metaphors to show how
the human body and spirit, when viewed and treated as commodities,
can be merchandised and demoralized by a profit-driven, commercially
oriented society. While I contend that the play’s pursuit of gross
unpleasantness (including vomiting) is often merely solicitous, and
that its proclivity for unromantic carnal behavior demonstrates the
playwright’s somewhat skewed vision of a degraded society, the play’s
message is not to be censored.
That the author’s uncompromisingly bold, cynically polarizing politicizing
is hardly disguised or obliterated is a credit to the play’s co-directors,
Gemma Bodinetz and Max Stafford-Clark. And with no pun intended, all
of the actors appear to put everything they have into their roles
as the usable and dispensable dregs and druggies. Mark (Philip Seymour
Hoffman), a former stockbroker cum sexual compulsive, now a recovering
heroin-addict, has taken in Robbie (Justin Theroux) and Lulu (Jennifer
Dundas Lowe), a pair of derelict urchins. Although Robbie has become
Mark’s sometime lover, he is also intimate with Lulu. The unholy menage-a-trios
is further degraded when Mark brings home Gary (Torquil Campbell),
a 14-year-old hustler. What can be better understood than explained
is the web of dependency that binds Lulu to Brian (Matthew Sussman),
a slimy sadistic drug-dealing wheeler-dealer. Well, nobody promised
4 Street, 212-460-5475. $35. To March 29.
If there is nothing more to be said about or learned
from the sensational 1924 Chicago murders and trial of Nathan Leopold
and Richard Loeb, then playwright John Logan’s "Never the Sinner"
recapitulates many of the events that surrounded the lurid case with
clarity and skill.
Going into the minds and the mindset of thrill-killers Leopold (Jason
Bowcutt) and Loeb (Michael Solomon) is not an easy task, but Logan
does a good job of fragmenting their neurotic relationship through
a series of short, arresting scenes. Moving back and forth in time,
the play carefully constructs the time and the place (the song "After
You’ve Gone" is hauntingly used as a motif) as well as the temperaments
of these Nietszche-obsessed youths. It is for defense attorney Clarence
Darrow (Robert Hogan), with his clever, unsophisticated manner, to
be the humanitarian advocate here. Not to be underestimated are the
stubbornly convincing arguments of the prosecutor (Glenn Pannell).
As compelling as is the reconstruction of this "perfect crime,"
the arrest, defense, and trial of the accused, and the crime’s aftermath,
the play, under the direction of Ethan McSweeney, is so meticulously
staged as to come across as stolid and unmoving. Nevertheless, the
key performances by Bowcutt and Solomon are demonically real, and
the events — really demonic. HH
A treat is in store for ardent Shakespeare devotees
who clamor for the history plays. The rarely staged "Richard II"
is talky, lacks romance, and is virtually humorless. Yet the convoluted
intrigue that widens the schism between the house of York and Lancaster
can be riveting. "The Tragedy of Richard III," the final play
in Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses tetrology that ends the 63-year
family feud, can be relentless in its machinations. The rotating productions
of the two plays, presented by the Theatre for a New Audience, are,
when seen together, riveting and relentless. Under Ron Daniels’ direction,
"Richard II" is sedate and stylishly Edwardian in tone and
texture; "Richard III" is more spastic and wild, a mix of
retro flair amid regal formalities.
This is quite an event for those of us who would like to see the two
Richards performed not only in repertory, but also with one company
of artists interpreting both these historical tragedies.
Although he is a devil incarnate, Richard III is also a king who manages
to manipulate a solid three hours of unrelieved murder and mayhem.
He could not be more sinisterly served than he is by Christopher McCann,
who uses some of that quality to more subtle advantage as the crafty
Bolinbroke in "Richard II." To McCann’s credit, he is not
hesitant to make his Richard a heinous, saliva-drooling, leather-fixated
seducer. Using a strap on his twisted leg like a harness, McCann engineers
some clowning as he rears up and gallops his perverse course across
the stage. That is when he isn’t extracting from the bowels of this
loathsome King yet another corroborating facet by which we may ponder
the true nature of this human tower of pure venom.
Equally tour-de-force is Steven Skybell’s impassioned acting of the
delusional and inept Richard II. This, in excellent contrast to his
less emotional, but no less duped Duke of Buckingham in "Richard
Set designer Neil Patel has created two complementary, yet completely
different atmospheres in the playhouse. A large circular window on
the rear dark wood wall is brilliantly lit stained glass, thus symbolizing
the high-minded esthetics of Richard II. For Richard III it becomes
a more abstracted and hellish vision of lights and shadows. Both are
opened and used on occasion for scenes in the Tower of London and
for other effective royal posturing.
212-279-4200. $37.50 for single tickets; $75 for both plays; $19 student
rush. To April 5.
Sustained applause and three cheers for playwright Tina
Howe whose disarming and beautifully written play "Pride’s Crossing"
is far and away the play to be most cherished in the entire Off-Broadway
season. Many bravas to actor’s actor Cherry Jones (Tony-winner for
"The Heiress") who brings a transcending illumination to the
play and to its central character. That is the fictional and fabulous
Mabel Tidings Bigelow, a stout-hearted New England blue-blood who
swam the channel in 1928, but couldn’t give in to her heart and marry
the great love of her life, a Jewish doctor. Howe has reached into
the real and subtle textures of the upper-crust she framed in "Painting
Churches," into the purely romantic dalliances of "Coastal
Disturbances," and into the off-the-wall hokum she fitted into
"One Shoe Off," and come up with the joyously conceived and
lovingly embraced "Pride’s Crossing."
Time means nothing and everything in this jauntily episodic memory
play in which the romantic, self-sufficient, and irresistible matriarch
Bigelow time travels back and forth from the age of 90 back to age
10 and points between, and to social and private events from the fantastically
enhanced to the more formally enshrined. The excellent supporting
cast appear to be having as much a romp playing multiple and cross-gender
roles as we are having just by watching them.
This exquisitely designed production, with sets by Ralph Funicello,
costumes by Robert Morgan and lighting by Kenneth Posner, is directed
with sublime care and tenderness by Jack O’Brien, who directed the
original production at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater. HHHH
150 West 65th Street, 212-239-6200. $50. To April 5.
Before you rush for tickets to any of the above, try
A.R.T. This is not the new play on Broadway, but the Alliance of Resident
Theaters/New York where discounts worth 10 to 50 percent on dozens
of Off-Broadway plays are yours for the asking. Simply ask for the
Passport to Off-Broadway coupon and play book. Write to A.R.T at 131
Varick Street, Room 904, New York, NY 10013; phone at 212-989-5257;
or fax 212-989-4880 for details. You can also request coupons through
the website at sidewalk.com.
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