Seen and Heard

Seen in November: This month brings numerous distractions, not least of them LDI and Thanksgiving, but the New York theatre season marches on. Receiving a charming revival at the St. James Theatre is the 1947 Burton Lane-Yip Harburg musical Finian's Rainbow, an Encores! transfer of a production best known for a handful of standards (including "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?," "Old Devil Moon," and "Look to the Rainbow") and an unwieldy Francis Ford Coppola film adaptation that appeared twenty years later. Even with an overhaul, Harburg and Fred Saidy's original book is a curiosity, a strange mix of Gaelic whimsy and a progressive vision for the Deep South as a leprechaun (Christopher Fitzgerald) works a little magic in the backwards state of "Missitucky." By the second act, the pretenses are largely dropped and the show becomes a kind of revue (albeit one with witch-burning and white-to-black transformations), but goodwill carries the evening. That, and any number of showstoppers, choreographed and directed by Warren Carlyle&mdashJim Norton as the dreamer Finian, leading the cast in the inventively costumed "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich," the strapping Cheyenne Jackson and a Maureen O'Hara-like Kate Baldwin dueting on "Old Devil Moon," Terri White delivering a powerhouse "Necessity," and Chuck Cooper as a formerly racist white senator finding a niche with a trio of gospel singers in "The Begat."

This being an Encores! show, the design is minimal. But it gives the hard-working John Lee Beatty a chance to work abstractly, and in green, giving the Rainbow Valley setting a homespun feel (including a patchy curtain and a suggestion of rolling fields). LD Ken Billington amply complements his work with fairy-tale type illumination, the better to highlight a series of fun Toni-Leslie James costumes, including the leprechaun Og's ever-shortening pants as he becomes more and more human. A musical is only as good as the clarity of its sound reproduction, and Scott Lehrer's audio, which sounded slightly dead to me at first, quickly recovered to be become an enveloping experience.

Tracy Letts, author of the biting Bug and the searing award-winner August: Osage County, tries a little tenderness with Superior Donuts, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company import now at the Music Box. Bad things happen, but there's a sweetness here that's not restricted to the doughnuts (you can buy some at the concession area at intermission). Michael McKean gives a beautifully modulated performance as Arthur, a Vietnam draft dodger whose life, centered around the dilapidated shop of the title, is flash-frozen; he seems to have been wearing costumer Ana Kuzmanic's faded, moth-eaten clothes for the 40 years he's been hawking sinkers. Into this changeless environment comes Franco (Jon Michael Hill), a black teenager who won't take no for an answer when Arthur refuses him a job. The fast-talking Franco (an acting gem by Hill) loosens things up with his rapid-fire insights, but also shakes loose bottled-up traumas and brings a criminal element into the picture, forcing the emotionally constipated Arthur to take a stand.

I never figured Letts to write a lightly amusing and touching show, but the best playwrights always leave us guessing. To be honest the play flirts with sitcom, with funny bickering cops, a funny old drunk, and a funny Russian entrepreneur who wants to buy the shop&mdashbut the laughs (and sentiment) are earned, and director Tina Landau's disciplined approach means they don't come on the cheap.

Complete verisimilitude is often the Chicago way, and so it is here.Superior Donuts is a fine James Schuette set, of the kind of place you walk past everyday but never go in; the designer has gone in, and nailed the functional but decrepit feel of it. Its homeliness, welcoming but somehow not at the same time, is underscored by Christopher Akerlind's raw-boned lighting, which in tandem with Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's sound design grounds the play in a harsh Second City winter. Superior Donuts makes for superior entertainment.

Off Broadway, the Classic Stage Company has taken Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, bookended it with the prologue and epilogue of Thomas Heywood's contemporaneous Iron Age, and packaged it as The Age of Iron. The intent was to show what Elizabethan audiences were into back then&mdashjust as we've gotten two killer meteor movies or a pair of films about Truman Capote in recent years, so too did theatergoers back then have an apparently inexhaustible appetite for plays about ancient Troy and its cast of lusting, warring characters. Me, I'll take Brad Pitt on the big screen over Shakespeare's doomed romance, which despite the title takes up just part of the near three-hour running time, and is otherwise patchy and long-winded.

Kudos, then, to director Brian Kulick for trying to whip it into shape. The success, though, is only partial. Mostly clad by Oana Botez-Ban in black tunics (except for Tina Benko's goddesy Helen), none of the cast makes much of an impression, and the comic relief Thersites of Steven Rattazzi makes the wrong one. Mark Wendland's scenic design, is, however, intriguing: A tensile structure mounted over a large sandbox gradually falls away as the conflict intensifies, and Brian H. Scott's lighting finds interesting patterns and shadowplay in the sandy stage. Christian Fredrickson has supplied a varied score and sound effects that, in tandem with fine fight direction by Adam Rihacek, give the show the feel of an intimate epic. All in all a valiant effort, The Age of Iron runs through Dec. 13.

Also a matter of taste is Wolves at the Window (and other tales of immorality), part of the annual Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters. Toby Young adapts and Thomas Hescott directs several macabre-tinged satirical stories by Saki, who commented on the mores of English life during the Edwardian era. While impressed with the effort that went into it&mdashthe theatre is wreathed in fog as you walk in, which sets the proper chilly ambiance even before you take your seat&mdashand the stiff-upper-lipped exertions of the four castmembers, who recall the quartet of The 39 Steps but at a slower tempo, there's a sameness to the pieces.

That said, there are some nice payoffs in the second act, and a fair share of arch laughs (the talking cat is amusing, and the whole bit about cereal advertising is inspired). And it is beautifully designed. Maureen Freedman's set is a scaffold and a few period props, and her slightly over-the-top costumes (there seemed to be many) capture the time and place with little fuss. Richard Howell's lighting quickly shifts moods, from ominous to more lighthearted. Best of all is immersive sound and music design by Tim Saward, including the insistent baying of unseen wolves that set up a punchline. Too bad the show, which runs through Dec. 6, left me hungry for more. —Robert Cashill

Equipment Vendors
Finian's Rainbow
Scenery and Automation: Hudson Scenic Studio
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: PRG Audio

Superior Donuts
Scenery Construction: Hudson Scenic Studio, Inc.
Lighting Equipment: Hudson Sound & Light
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates

The Age of Iron
Set Construction: John Creech Design
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: Five Ohms Productions

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