Monday, April 10, 2006

Season highlights: Off Broadway 05-06

I title this piece a little conveniently. The Broadway season is clearly demarcated by the first show to open after the prior season's Tony nominations are announced, and the last show is the final one to open before the last day of the current season's Tony eligibility season--in this case, Disney's TARZAN, which premieres right under the wire on May 10, the very last day for Tony award eligibility. [The first show of 05-06 was the dimly recalled AFTER THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC, a typical nothing of a summer production.] Er, right--got that?

Off Broadway, however, it's a perpetual season, punctuated by the Drama Desk, Obie, Lucille Lortel, and maybe a few other awards shows. Stick around long enough (the hard part in a depressed market for so-called "downtown" theater) and maybe you'll be nominated for one. In any event, here are revamped versions of my Live Design reviews of a few shows that are still currently running.

[Oh, yes, a postscript to my Drama Desk luncheon post of some time ago. It turned out to be a very pleasant afternoon, with nice chat and shop talk from the announced stars and some dry-witted, hilarious kibbitzing from DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS star Jonathan Pryce, who showed up, too. He repeatedly broke up the crowd with stories about learning "interpretive" dance for MISS SAIGON and a fan's circumspect reaction to his Fagin in OLIVER!: "Good...almost, not quite there, as good as Ron Moody." It was also my first meal at Sardi's, which had gone downhill over time but seems to be on an upswing, and has those unbeatable caricatures of theater folk on its storied walls.]


Drunken excess, British-style, is the subject of ABIGAIL'S PARTY, a 1977 play by Mike Leigh that is making its very belated New York debut at the Acorn Theater, after a number of successful productions elsewhere. It's easy to see what keeps audiences coming back for more--it's wickedly, deliciously funny, in some respects a foreign-born cousin to HURLYBURLY, which The New Group and director Scott Elliott put on last season. The new production hits another bulls-eye, right in the solar plexus of propriety, with a climax guaranteed to leave you reeling. The unseen Abigail, a teenager, is having a party, and the grownups are stuck at a soiree thrown by gin-swilling Bev (a spectacular Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose way with a bottle is matched only by her addiction to the era's garish pop culture artifacts--Derek McLane's set, brimming with lava lamps, is like someone's nightmare of consumer trends 30 years ago. Bev's husband, Laurence (Max Baker, in a marvelous spleen-venting performance), throws fits of disapproval at her uncouth behavior, which peaks with the attempted seduction of a monosyllabic neighbor, Tony (Darren Goldstein), right under the nose of his giggly, air-headed wife, Angela (Elizabeth Jasicki). Helplessly looking on, trying to keep the proverbial stiff upper lip, is Abigail's sad-faced mother, Susan (a classic deadpan performance by Lisa Emery), who maintains as much control as possible as Bev’s incessant vulgarity cascades her way.

I can see why Leigh, whose recent films (like VERA DRAKE) are more somberly humanistic, left the likes of Bev behind in his studies of middle-class attitudes and behavior, but it was a thrill to get acquainted with her. Leigh's funnier movies, and later plays that I've seen, aren't anything like this, and Elliott, the cast, and the designers really let it all hang out. Eric Becker's feather-dripping costume for Bev, contrasted particularly with Susan's more sensibly conservative style, is as tacky as can be without going over the top. The lighting design, by Jason Lyons, has a morning-after quality soiled further by constant cigarette smoke, while sound designer Ken Travis (repeating a touch from HURLYBURLY) cranks up the volume on the punk rock emanating from Abigail's party; Jose Feliciano is more Bev's speed. I don't know who gets credit for Bev's pineapple-and-cheese treats, skewered on toothpicks, but they looked perfectly awful. "Perfectly awful"--that about sums up ABIGAIL'S PARTY, except that the production of this corrosively comic play is just plain perfect.


If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. But what happens when you do succeed--should you just keep working the same vein, or tackle new horizons? Following the triumph of DOUBT, playwright John Patrick Shanley announced a trilogy of plays, all based on some facet of his life experience, and all having a one-word title beginning with the letter "D." The third play is as yet an unknown quantity, but the second, DEFIANCE, has landed at the Manhattan Theatre Club with a dull thud, enough to suggest that the closer should be titled DESIST and left unproduced till he figures out what he might want to say. It's not a terrible play by any means; stiffly acted, perhaps, but there are some good ideas, just too many of them to fit in Shanley's elected 90-minute time frame. DOUBT was a perfect miniature; DEFIANCE heaps themes onto its plate, disappoints by taking tiny bites, then walks away from the table abruptly with a weakly contrived ending.

Set in spring 1971 at Camp Lejeune, N.C., DEFIANCE centers on Lt. Colonel Littlefield (Stephen Lang), whose do-gooding is compromised by his lust for glory—and, as we see in his somewhat Clinton-esque figure, other lusts as well. While the new play ups the number of characters to six, as in its predecessor three others are of major consequence. They are Littlefield's elected executive officer, Captain Lee King (Chris Chalk), a disenchanted black man, who plays everything by the book but resents his superior's playing of the race card; the camp's new chaplain, White (Chris Bauer), whose genial attitude masks a zealous conservative streak; and Littlefield's politely discontented wife, Margaret (Margaret Colin), who irritates her husband by siding, morally, with the couple’s draft-dodging son. There's a lot going on here--in fact, some of the same timeless themes as DOUBT, aligned differently--but the detonation into drama doesn't happen until late in the story, and the threads are left hanging as the show sprints toward the finish line.

Doug Hughes again directs energetically, but maybe the wrong kind of energy; Lang and Chalk mostly shout and snarl, and the contradictions of the wife and the chaplain are unsatisfyingly scripted, giving the actors little foundation to build convincing characters upon. A pall hangs over the whole show, caused by the expectation that lightning would strike twice for the creative team, and the disappointment that set it when it failed to materialize.


Standards in depravity have gone up--or down, depending on how you look at it. In 1965, Joe Orton's ENTERTAINING MR. SLOAN lasted a total of 17 performances on Broadway before being run out of town by a lynch mob of appalled critics; 40 years later, after a couple of Off Broadway revivals and an obscure film version, it's back, with a marquee name in the cast and a typically polished Roundabout production, at the Laura Pels Theatre. Maybe too polished--set designer Allen Moyer has fit the show, snugly, into a box onstage, and early 60s tunes from the Beatles and other charter members of the British invasion play before and after curtain and during the intermission via John Gromada's Top of the Pops sound design. In his brief, meteoric career, Orton sought to blast through the kitchen-sink clich├ęs of his era, but the new production, played as lightly as possible by an expert cast, is an almost quaint period piece, no matter if LD Kenneth Posner has framed the stage with a template of rubbish. Note, though, the "almost"--while more kid-gloves than was necessary this time out, Orton's farce retains its sting. The play suggests that the best way for the haves and have-nots to get along is not by practicing peace, love, and understanding, but by pooling ruthless self-interests into a mutually exploitative little collective and to hell with polite society.

And, if Scott Ellis has directed the cast a bit too forcefully to find the laughs, it must be said that the four-member cast gets them. The arrival of the amoral, larcenous, and possibly homicidal Mr. Sloane (Chris Carmack, a bad boy on TV's THE O.C.) into crumbling lodgings outside of London triggers a chain reaction in the sleepy household—dotty middle-aged landlady Kath (Jan Maxwell) fancies him a substitute for the child she gave up for adoption 20 years ago, then just plain fancies him in a weirdly funny-disturbing incestuous scenario, while her father, Kemp (Richard Easton, reliable as always), standard-bearer for an empire-in-eclipse, suspects the worst. Kath's well-to-do brother, Ed (Alec Baldwin), is also startled; one gander at Mr. Sloane's buffed young chest (between this and THE PAJAMA GAME, Roundabout subscribers are getting an eyeful this season) reduces him to quivering lust, a sack of Jello in a suit immaculately tailored by Michael Krass. Seeming to me to ape the voice and mannerisms of Michael Redgrave, Baldwin is a riot, as he connives to get the lad out of the house and into black leather as his live-in chauffeur, but Kath (woozily and wittily played by Maxwell, in a frumpy Paul Huntley wig and dentures, and Krass’ faded housewear) mounts an offense, as Mr. Sloane ever more brazenly offends.

I'm not sure what Orton, who was murdered in 1967, would have made of the Beatles music and the well-scrubbed dirtiness of this staging. But an entertaining ENTERTAINING MR. SLOAN isn't the worst thing to have off Broadway.

[All photos courtesy Joan Marcus]

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