Before you say one word about Broadway only being about revivals, check out these new/never seen before arrivals. Broadway will have welcomed 12 shows between the first day of spring and the official end of the Broadway season (June 1). Of the 12, seven are new.
Without name recognition, new plays and musicals generally have an uphill battle to find their audiences. And unless the playwright is established or the show boasts a star of two, it takes the most committed producers to back it. How great is it that “Next to Normal,” an extraordinary new musical drama about a family dealing with the mother’s bi-polar disorder has just won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama? Making the move last season from Off Broadway to Broadway “Next to Normal” boasts no stars and didn’t originate from either a TV series or a familiar movie. Even more astonishing is that it has returned its investment and going into its second season an unqualified hit. Here then are four that I’ve seen so far and consider worthy of your attention and time.
Leave it to David Mamet, one the playwrights we admire for dramatizing some of the more incendiary social and political issues. The American legal system comes under his scrutiny and charged with the expected crisp, terse, and unsentimental style he is noted. “Race” takes place within a law office where a white, smug, and somewhat smarmy business man (Richard Thomas) is seeking counsel after being accused of rape by an African-American woman with whom he presumably has been having an affair. Law partners James Spader, who is white and David Alan Grier, who is black, find themselves unwittingly forced to deal with a case that could put them in an uncomfortably comprising position: one that turns on the delicate and volatile relationship that exists between the races.
The case becomes complicated when their new African-American assistant (played by the stunning looking Kerry Washington) complicates matters when she brings not only her own investigatory prowess into the case but her own personal agenda. But what is subtly brought into the glare of Mamet’s light are politically correct hiring practices, politically incorrect sexual game-playing, and the inevitable surfacing of unspoken distrust within a multi-racial law office. “Race,” under Mamet’s own direction, is as entertaining as it is fiercely uncompromising about the apparently insurmountable distance between the races. ***
“Race,” Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street. $121.50. 212-239-6200.
‘A Behanding in Spokane’
Bizarre, macabre, ghoulish, and wacky are words that often define the plays by Martin McDonagh (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”). They also seem to be uncannily apt when talking about the stranger than strange roles played by the seriously anti-heroic Christopher Walken. What a team they make in the weirdo comedy “A Behanding in Spokane,” in which a perversely desperate and gloomy middle-aged man (Walken) seems hell-bent on finding his missing hand. Distanced for the time being from the Irish culture he has written so horrifically about, McDonagh is evidently captivated by the inferred and interred grotesqueries within American subculture.
Be prepared to laugh heartily at the absurdist antics in this decidedly gruesome play. Also be prepared to laugh at the profanity, the likes and preponderance of which could conceivably make Mamet cringe and/or blush. Under the abetting directing of John Crowley, the play is set in a dreary Arizona hotel room where a pair of lowlife smarts-challenged drug dealers (as played with brainless aplomb by Sam Rockwell and Zoe Kazan) have planned to con the apparently demented and exceeding racist drifter out of a tidy sum of money by producing what they claim to be the hand he lost 47 years ago at the hands of some sadistic “hillbillies” back in Tacoma, Washington. (huh?)
A series of ghastly surprises at every turn include sadistic torture, chained imprisonment, arson, and other unsavory acts of cruelty. Can the situation get worse when the hotel’s morbid bellhop (Anthony Mackie) shows up? You bet. I can’t tell you if this play is about the loss of the American dream or a dream about the loss of sanity. But go and be surprised at how hard you can laugh, or maybe just die laughing. ***
“A Behanding in Spokane,” Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, 236 West 45th Street. $61.50 to $116.50. 212-239-6200.
It should be no revelation that incompatibility is an issue that concerns only straight couples in long term commitments. In Geoffrey Nauffts’ play, a gay couple is conflicted by one’s religious faith and the other one’s complete lack and even disdain of it. There is wit, humor, and intelligent dialogue guiding an otherwise poignant story of a relationship that begins in a hospital waiting room following a tragic accident. A hit during its Off Broadway run, “Next Fall” has taken calculated risk coming to Broadway without stars and dealing with a subject that isn’t exactly tourist bait.
Aside from their professed mutual attraction, it is the sometimes genial sometimes confrontational debates that often fuel their relationship. The major obstacle, as Adam (Patrick Breen) sees it, to their relationship is Luke’s (Patrick Heusinger) inability to disclose their relationship to Butch, his fundamentalist father (Cotter Smith). The presence at the hospital of Butch’s second wife, plus Adam’s mother and a childhood friend add to their often strained but more often extremely funny exchanges. Flashbacks that reveal the growing depth of Adam and Luke’s relationship but also the deception that Luke is not able to reconcile are at the core of this beautifully acted, smartly written, heart-tugging play directed by Sheryl Kaller. ***
“Next Fall,” Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street. $116.50 – $81.50. 212-239-6200.
It’s talky, pretentious, highly intellectual, and uncompromisingly arty. What a recommendation! Nevertheless “Red” presents a realistic look into the life and vision of the renowned abstract expressionist Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina). He is shown at work in his studio where he has been commissioned to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram building on Park Avenue. Anxious and needy for the commission that awaits him upon completion, he has hired an apprentice, Ken (Eddie Redmayne), a young artist who soon works up the courage to challenge his mentor’s approach to art.
John Logan’s play has come to Broadway following its success at London’s Donmar Warehouse. With the original cast intact and again under the direction of Michael Grandage, “Red” offers us an opportunity to see what makes the pompous, erudite, impatient, testy, incorrigibly condescending but also undeniably brilliant Rothko tick. Rothko is so unpleasant and self-possessed that it’s a wonder that the playwright wasn’t prompted to poke more fun at him. But who needs fun when we are being captured by the mind of a genius while also becoming captivated by the life-sized reproductions of Rothko’s paintings: immense canvases of black and red that loom with the intensity of characters.
The play progresses over a two year period (1958- 1959) and takes into account, through Rothko’s often maddening musings, his childhood, early life and career. The play may prove a challenge to some but mostly a revelation to others. ***
“Red,” Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street. $25.00 to $116.50. 212-239-6200.