Seen and Heard

Seen as the Broadway Season Ended: The most production-heavy season since 1984 ended with a few new shows, including the musicals 9 to 5 and the revised Off Broadway transfer of Next to Normal, and a bunch of revivals. Let’s close 2008-2009 with a ramble through those, from A to Z (well, W).

Samson Raphaelson’s Accent on Youth hasn’t been seen on the boards since its one and only Broadway production closed in 1935, and its Manhattan Theatre Club revival at the Friedman is a charming approximation of what the original experience must have been like. This is the type of comedy that would never get off the ground today, as it’s all about a certain style and sophistication, with little regard to psychology or credibility. What it absolutely requires is a knockout John Lee Beatty set, which it gets. The story of an aging, oblivious playwright (David Hyde Pierce), whose work-in-progress about a May-September romance mirrors the infatuation his devoted secretary (Mary Catherine Garrison) has for him, takes place in the scribe’s Manhattan duplex, and even in a down market it would fetch a high price if it were to go on sale once the show closes.

Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, Jane Greenwood’s costumes, and the original music and sound design of Obadiah Eaves all have a touch of class about them. Daniel Sullivan’s direction might have a touch defter, but this is largely a matter of setting loose old pros like Byron Jennings (as a ham actor) and Charles Kimbrough (as Pierce’s manservant) on material from a bygone era to make the most of it. I liked the remnants of must that cling to the production—they remind you that you’re looking at something antique, that’s unlikely to come around again in your lifetime.

A classic that haunts the Main Stem every so often is Noel Coward’s 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit. Last seen on Broadway in 1987, where it gave Geraldine Page her final role, it’s back in a topping new production directed by Michael Blakemore. Contentedly married to his stuffy second wife (Jayne Atkinson), a novelist (Rupert Everett) is disconcerted by the spectral reappearance of wife No. 1 (Christine Ebersole), who is as ethereal in death as in life and a far more exciting companion. Coward’s play mixes high wit and low farce with an acid commentary on marital bliss that is basically tamper-proof, and Blakemore and company have done a good job accentuating its virtues. Chief among these is a Madame Arcati played to screwball perfection by Angela Lansbury; a rising tide lifts all boats, and I suspect dressing her in ragtag spirit medium/gypsy clothes won Martin Pakledinaz Tony and Drama Desk nominations this season.

Peter J. Davison’s quintessential living room, Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design, and the hard-working MacDevitt’s lighting all come alive in the séance sequences, Davison’s contribution quite literally with the introduction of Craig Grigg’s special effects furniture in the last scene. Blithe Spirit is at the Shubert.

Not a barrel of laughs is Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, which caused a scandal in 1924 but hasn’t been desired on Broadway since 1952. Director Robert Falls, who staged it at the Goodman in Chicago last winter, has done his best to whip up talking points this time around: co-stars Pablo Schreiber, as landowner Brian Dennehy’s hated son, and Carla Gugino, as Dennehy’s disruptively spirited and attractive new bride, are naked for some of the show, a Bob Dylan song is played in full to underscore their newfound passion, and the supporting characters act like refugees from a backwoods horror movie. All these modern touches, however, make the myth-derived, 1850-set story seem even more remote, and the production is more a curiosity than anything.

It is however an arrestingly staged oddity, with a (fake) pig gutted and roasted on Walt Spangler’s gasp-inducing set, a Drama Desk nominee chockablock with boulders, some suspended in mid-air behind a scrim on the back wall. Also hanging from the rafters is the wooden farmhouse itself, which is laboriously lowered and raised on thick ropes, and sways ominously when the actors perform scenes when it’s above ground level. There are no elms, but in concert with Spangler the Chicago-based design team—costume designer Ana Kuzmanic, lighting designer Michael Philippi, and sound designer Richard Woodbury, who also composed a score—have placed an original vision atop O’Neill’s at the St. James. The show is scheduled to run through July 5.

The revival of August Wilson’s 1988 play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, at the Belasco, is markedly different than productions of the playwright’s work done in his lifetime. The Caucasian Bartlett Sher directed, a decision that kicked up a fuss when African-Americans had previously directed his plays. Moreover, Sher has used his blue-ribbon design team to perform something of a demolition job on Wilson’s typically naturalistic productions. The Pittsburgh boarding house in which the 1911-set play takes place has been stripped down and abstracted, with pieces that fly in and out and highly charged lighting and sound design (including a Taj Mahal score) to accompany the story of one man’s haltingly redemptive quest after a period of imprisonment.

It’s beautifully rendered…but after the musicals The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific, and the play Awake and Sing in the same space, perhaps a little studied and unsurprising at this point. More might yield more. Set designer Michael Yeargan, MacDevitt, and sound designers Scott Lehrer and Leon Rothenberg are all up for Tonys this year; Catherine Zuber, making the most of a more minimalist Wilson, designed the costumes. The show is scheduled to run through June 14.

Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart dates back to 1800. Thanks to a solid adaptation by Peter Oswald and smart direction by Mamma Mia!’s Phyllidia Lloyd, the lady isn’t showing her age. The show packs considerable tension and passion into its account of the struggle between the imprisoned Stuart (Janet McTeer) and the imperious Queen Elizabeth I (Harriet Walter), a war of words and gestures that in this fictionalized telling spills over into an actual decisive encounter at the top of the second act. And it’s a humdinger, spellbindingly acted and staged in a lengthy rainstorm put together by Showman Fabricators and Water Sculptures UK. All in all, that sequence may be the most memorable from a season with many memorable moments of great stagecraft.

Anthony Ward devised the simple black-walled set and the intriguing, Tony-nominated costumes—the women are dressed in period garb but the male functionaries are in business suits, which reflects their basic behind-the-scenes anonymity in the scheme of things (though the parts are vividly acted) and gives the show a subtle updating. Hugh Vanstone’s incisive, Tony- and Drama Desk-nominated lighting and Paul Arditti’s gripping, Tony-nominated sound design help lift the West End import Mary Stuart out of the history books and into exciting theatrical life. It plays through Aug. 16 at the Broadhurst.

This show-packed season saw 43 openings, or 45, if you count all three parts of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests as individual plays. I have to, alas, having only seen one of them, “Round and Round the Garden.” But this was enough to give me the funny-melancholy flavor of the trilogy, a set of feeble trysts during a summer weekend in a Victorian house in England, centered on the fecklessly seductive assistant librarian Norman (Stephen Mangan) and his equally dissatisfied wife Ruth (Amelia Bullmore). Imported from the Old Vic, the cast is superlative under Matthew Warchus’ direction, and based on what they got up to in the garden I can only imagine what transpired in the sitting room and across the dining table, the settings of the other two plays.

This is the first in-the-round staging (at Circle in the Square) that I’ve seen in some time. I was seated right in front, which was not good for my legs—I had to keep retracting them, so the actors wouldn’t stumble over me as they raced in and out for the next complication—but a nice way to inspect the highly detailed diorama of suburban Britain that Tony- and Drama Desk-nominated set designer Rob Howell has put together for the production. This raises to ceiling height as the show begins, revealing the unkempt garden set, with chairs and garden hoses for the performers to get entangled in as they enact their various messy passions. Howell also designed the character-defining clothes, which received a Drama Desk nomination; the lighting, which helps sort out who’s doing what to whom, is by David Howe. Simon Baker (for Autograph) supplied the sound, which includes an underscore by Gary Yershon. The Norman Conquests, which can be enjoyed in full on Saturdays and some Sundays, runs through July 26.

The Philanthropist, a Roundabout production at the American Airlines, needed a far stronger production to merit any sort of revival. It’s hard to say what Christopher Hampton, who went onto Les Liaisons Dangereuses, was driving at when he wrote the show in 1969, except maybe to tweak the good intentions of head-in-the-sand U.K. academics as the world went mad around them. It’s not clear at all what the production, a muddled twist on The Misanthrope, is meant to say to us today. David Grindley directed what is said to have been a creditable version of the show in England, but something got lost in the trip across the pond. Matthew Broderick’s depthless performance as a professor whose non-committal nice-guyism drives everyone to distraction shoulders some of the blame; there’s nothing for anyone else onstage to work with.

That goes for Tim Shortall’s “conceptual” set, a semi-naturalistic environment dominated by ceiling-scraping bookcases. Atop these is strung an LED striplight with the letters of the alphabet, which at the beginning of each scene spell out one of the seven deadly sins. Apparently these correspond to an individual character in the play, but the mostly drab performances, save for Jonathan Cake’s 70s lounge lizard, fail to bring the idea to life. LD Rick Fisher, sound designer Gregory Clarke, and costume designer Tobin Ost all have better assignments ahead. The show runs through June 25.

Did Santo Loquasto and Walt Spangler find their boulders in the same quarry? Loquasto’s set for Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Roundabout’s Studio 54 is another impressive rock-strewn wreck, though the boulders are used minimalistically, if such a thing is possible with large stones. They provide a backdrop for Beckett’s forlorn tree, and I assume it was director Anthony Page’s intent to give us something more to look at—as if we needed anything to enjoy besides the restrained Estragon of Nathan Lane, the expressive Vladimir of Bill Irwin, the fearsome Pozzo of John Goodman, and the zombie-like Lucky of John Glover. The quartet is in perfect pitch, and this Broadway Beckett strikes a winning balance between clowning and profundity.

Jane Greenwood is once again a Tony nominee, this time for a set of appropriately hobo-haggard clothes. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design further sustain the barren atmosphere, which the play and actors fill in most satisfyingly. Waiting for Godot runs through July 12.

Equipment Vendors

Accent on Youth
Scenery Fabrication, Paint, and Automation: Global Scenic Services
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound

Blithe Spirit
Scenery Construction: Showman Fabricators
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates

Desire Under the Elms
Scenery Construction: Hudson Scenic
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Scenery Construction: PRG Scenic Technologies
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates

Mary Stuart
Scenery: Souvenir Scenic Studios Ltd. and Showman Fabricators
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound

The Norman Conquests
Set Construction: Souvenir Scenic Studios, Ltd.
U.S. Scenic: Showmotion
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio and Video Equipment: Sound Associates

The Philanthropist
Scenery Construction: Souvenir Scenic Services, Ltd.
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates

Waiting for Godot
Scenery Fabrication: Showman Fabricators and Global Scenic Services
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: PRG Audio

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