Seen and Heard 10/13

Seen on Broadway: The British aren’t just coming, they’re here, either with West End transfers or material in American hands. George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession is the vehicle Cherry Jones chose to return to the New York stage with after the two final seasons of TV’s 24. Alas it’s broken down on her. Not so much the play, which has lost its power to scandalize since 1893—Mrs. Warren is a successful “lady of the evening” and madam, confronting the daughter educated and made respectable by her earnings—but still surprises in 2010 with a clear-eyed, barbed, and progressive look at prostitution and a woman’s lot in life, then and now.

The problem is that Jones, as good as she is, has always had trouble with parts calling for accents, and her low-born high-brow one here is a distraction. Nor does she seem all that comfortable in Catherine Zuber’s flamboyant clothes, a sharp contrast to the prim Victorian costumes elsewhere. (Her big Tom Watson wig is fun, though.) Faring better is English actress Sally Hawkins, best known for the Mike Leigh film Happy-Go-Lucky, as daughter Vivie, who is forced to make difficult choices when her mother’s secrets are exposed. But the mismatch favors neither performer, who descend into shrillness in their final scene (pictured). In short not the reunion one wished for Jones and her Doubt director Doug Hughes.

The problems extend to Scott Pask’s ungainly design. Rejecting the minimalist aesthetic of Doubt this Roundabout Theatre Company production has four scenes changes, two per act, that bring cottages, churchyards, and office spaces onstage in an effort to fill the landing-strip stage at the American Airlines. While impressive to look at, the effect tends to overwhelm already struggling actors. David Van Tieghem’s score is rather coy, however his sound design, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting, are solidly workmanlike. If only that could be said of the rest of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which runs through Nov. 21.

Not the usual screen-to-stage adaptation, Brief Encounter foregrounds Noel Coward’s story of the trapped-by-convention lovers Alec (Tristan Sturrock) and Laura (Hannah Yelland), the protagonists of his 1936 play Still Life and its classic 1945 film version, directed by David Lean. In the background: Additional, more frolicsome couples, performances of Coward songs by some of them and an excellent onstage band for a music hall ambiance, mythological undercurrents, and just plain old currents, as the projection screens fill with water.

Needless to say this Brief Encounter isn’t really that Brief Encounter, but the show, adapted and directed by Emma Rice, was a hit in London and at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last season before its Roundabout go-round at Studio 54. I found this Kneehigh Theatre production more curious than enthralling, though the stagecraft is enchanting. Direct links to 1945 are provided by Neil Murray, whose costumes could have come straight from the movie and whose bridged-in sets replicate its look with some fidelity. More fantastic are Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll’s projections, with screens cleverly arranged to allow the actors to seemingly pop in and out of them, as in the train sequences (pictured). As much of the show takes place in or near a train station Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and Simon Baker’s sound design chug along those lines, veering off from the path for the other environments the hard-working play encompasses. When the show concludes, the band parks itself in front of the concession stand to crank out “Don’t Stop Believin’” and other more contemporary standards. Like I said, curious, yet mostly a success on its own terms. Brief Encounter runs through Dec. 5.

Every season brings a show about the nature and purpose of art. Two seasons ago it was the flop Impressionism; last season the Tony-winning Red. The National Theatre import The Pitmen Painters, from Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall, is based on a slice of history from the 1930s, where a group of miners enrolled in an art appreciation class started instead to paint their own pictures and became the uneasy darlings of the upper-crust art world. Directed by Max Roberts, the production retains its eight-member ensemble cast, and is at its best in the first act, when it’s more of a group show, with the men squabbling and bantering—and finding a new purpose for themselves. The second act is more diffuse, as success and patronage change everything. But the core message, of art’s transformative effect on not-so-ordinary “ordinary” lives, is effectively communicated.

Gary McCann’s design for the show, set largely in the YMCA hall where the classes are held, is appropriately workaday and utilitarian, as are his costumes and Martin Hodgson’s sound design. The color is primarily provided by the paintings themselves, which are projected on three small screens, and Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting makes for seamless transitions. A Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel Friedman, The Pitmen Painters runs through Dec. 12.

Seen Off Broadway: The prolific Sarah Ruhl doesn’t seem to have exerted herself too much on the Classic Stage Company stage production of Orlando, from the Virginia Woolf novel. The show lifts whole passages from its source, a very loosely autobiographical fantasy of a young striver who chooses not to grow old, then becomes a woman during his various colorful adventures. It also owes something to Sally Potter’s cult 1992 film version, including the casting of Francesca Faridany, a ringer for the movie’s Tilda Swinton, in the lead.

Rebecca Taichman has directed the show as energetically as possible, though too much of it veers close to recitation—unusually so, given that CSC often goes too far in the other, spontaneous direction with its takes on classic texts, and Orlando has a madcap quality built into it. Even David Greenspan, costumed to the nines by Anita Yavich as Queen Elizabeth I, is neutered by the hands-off approach. Yavich is the only designer freed by the material; Allen Moyer’s grassy set, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, and Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery’s music and sound design are well-executed but constrained. CSC chose the wrong show to exercise discipline on. Orlando runs through Oct. 17.

Equipment Vendors

Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Scenery Fabrication: Scenic Technologies, Showman Fabricators, Inc., Great Lakes Scenic Studios
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates

Brief Encounter
Set Construction: Visual Scene
Bridge Structure Construction: Weld-Fab Engineering
Additional Scenic Elements: Global Scenic Services
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio and Video Equipment: Sound Associates

The Pitmen Painters
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound
Projection Equipment: Sound Associates

Set Construction: Center Line Studios
Lighting Equipment: Hayden Production Services
Audio Equipment: Five OHM Productions

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