Seen and Heard: November 17

Seen on Broadway: Two productions this week feature puppet fish, but you’ll have to work a little harder to see them in The Pee-Wee Herman Show. Surrounding them is scenic designer David Korins’ flawless simulation of the set of the hit Saturday morning TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which has been in mothballs for 20 years. Fans will be delighted to know that Chairy, Conky the Robot, and Magic Screen are back in action at the Stephen Sondheim, and that the host and his alter ego, Paul Reubens, is remarkably well-preserved given the passage of time. If I had to compare it to a Sondheim show I’d say Follies, with its convergence of past and present, but Pee-wee is not one for looking back.

Directed by Alex Timbers, of the slashing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the 90-minute show picks up as if Pee-wee had never left off, with our star yearning to fly as his appealingly low-tech friends (restored to life by puppeteer Basil Twist) fear displacement by his new computer. Slightly risqué references to gay marriage and so on will fly like Pterry the pterodactyl over the heads of younger viewers brought to the theater by their parents, and anyone who wanders in unprepared will be mystified by the live Pee-wee love-in. That said even staunch fans may grow a tad impatient with this nostalgic but unambitious show, which didn’t need two breaks for old-school short film presentations like on The Mickey Mouse Club. Still, if you’ve ever said “I know you are but what am I?” in imitation of Pee-wee, this one’s for you.

Credit to Korins and company for not dipping the TV design in wax and giving it a museum staging—lighting (Jeff Croiter), sound (M.L. Dogg), and projections (Jake Pinholster) have a bustling vitality to them, and with the set providing ample candied colors the rest sensibly stands down. It has the same modesty as its star, who gets a rock star greeting when he comes out in costume designer Ann Closs-Farley’s replica bowtie. The Pee-wee Herman Show runs through Januar. 2.

The biggest problem with the screen-to-stage musicalization of Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is that its esteemed director, Bartlett Sher (of The Light in the Piazza and the legendary South Pacific revival), doesn’t have enough showbiz in his soul to pull it off. Perhaps better suited to musicals of later, drier Almodovars like Talk to Her (this is not a recommendation) Sher never quite gets an eye-popping array of Broadway boldface names to gel onstage at the Belasco, a theatre that has incidentally been pulled from the verge of a nervous breakdown by a stellar renovation.

No help either is a show-slowing book by Jeffrey Lane and score by David Yazbek, who wrote peppier tunes for the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Full Monty adaptations. That all said there are moments of entertaining semi-slapstick to be had in the company of Sherie Rene Scott (as Pepa, the romantically wronged lead), Brian Stokes Mitchell (as Ivan, the source of the hurt), Patti LuPone (as Ivan’s crazy wife Lucia), Laura Benanti (stealing the show as Candela, Pepa’s ditsy friend), one-time American Idol contestant Justin Guarini (as Carlos, Ivan and Lucia’s straight-laced son), and Danny Burstein (as Pepa’s knight errant taxi driver), among others. The show put me in mind of star-soaked 60s comedies like What’s New Pussycat—frantic, lightly amusing, overstuffed.

With turntables and aerial effects and everything but a puppet fish at their disposal the design team clearly worked overtime to fashion a gazpacho-like collage of 1987 Madrid. Complementing Michael Yeargan’s attractive sets, which fly in and out, and Brian MacDevitt’s inspired lighting, which holds everything together, are some nifty projections by Sven Ortel—a replication of the movie’s car chase is a fender-bending highlight. Costume designer Catherine Zuber and wigmaker Charles LaPointe make sure the women go out in humorous high style, in outfits that trigger applause. Special mention must be made of Scott Lehrer; half the songs it seems are sung in phone booths and other sonically unappealing environments (you couldn’t update the show to our present wired world) but not a lyric or a note is missed by his sound design. If only more were worth hearing.

A fast flop in 1991, David Hirson’s La Bete is best remembered for Richard Hudson’s forced perspective set, which earned him a Tony nomination. For this Matthew Warchus-directed revival Mark Thompson’s marvelous book-lined towers, which open up for glimpses at other environments, contain an awesome Mark Rylance performance. Just as my sides, split from laughing at his Tony-winning triumph in Boeing-Boeing, finally recovered he pulled them apart again as the outrageous actor-playwright Valere. Handling Hirson’s rhyming couplets with ease is just the beginning of a tour-de-force that takes in every bodily function as Valere, a favorite of the princess (Joanna Lumley in a formidable Broadway debut), takes on the propriety of the French court in mid-17th century France. Representing values with a perfect poker face is acting troupe leader Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), who resents Valere’s intrusion. However one feels about the outcome of their showdown, which pits the beauties of art against the evils of commercial influence, or the uneven play itself, there’s no denying that this revival is a gift from the acting gods.

So, too, is a treat for the eye, with Thompson’s delightful costumes (a buccaneering number for Rylance and an elaborate garb for Lumley, with a little doll hung off it, and all slightly dirty and worn), Hugh Vanstone’s incisive lighting, and Simon Baker’s sound design all co-conspirators in Valere’s assault on the theatre. La Bete runs at the Music Box through January 9.

Though sprinkled with his four-letter words, David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre is a gentler appreciation of the boards, as experienced by the veteran Robert (Patrick Stewart) and a newcomer to the trade, John (T.R. Knight) as they toil through a variety of plays. Together they cope with various onstage disasters that bring them together but also expose their different approaches to life and art. It’s a minor if pleasant part of the Mamet canon, first performed Off Broadway in 1977 and here making its Broadway debut in revised form (Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick starred in a 1993 TV version.)

The Gerald Schoenfeld is however expansive for such an intimate piece. To disguise this director Neil Pepe, an old Mamet hand, has given it a fast pace and multiple scene changes, all done in front of the audience by stagehands who become amusingly involved in the shows-within-the-show activity. Beyond his dressing room set on each end of the stage Santo Loquasto has come up with some inventive setpieces for the center—the boat that the two actors operate in a survival-at-sea yarn is charming stagecraft—and Laura Bauer’s from-the-trunk costumes, Kenneth Posner’s discreet illumination, and Obadiah Eaves’ music and sound design are fun for quick changes. It’s not really enough to fill the stage; on the other hand this bauble of a show doesn’t require bells and whistles to work. A Life in the Theatre runs through November 28.

Seen Off Broadway: “Nun” of Charles Busch’s recent plays have been as much fun as The Divine Sister, which finds him back in the habit of strip-mining laughs from venerable movie genres. This time it’s religious-themed films, ranging from The Song of Bernadette to The Da Vinci Code, with detours into film noir and newspaper pictures like His Girl Friday. Set in the Doubt era of the 60s, the freewheeling farce headlines Busch as the iron-willed mother superior of Pittsburgh’s embattled St. Veronica’s, where everyone has a secret or two. We’d probably need a new server for me to explain the particulars of the plot, so comically convoluted as it is; suffice it to say this is Busch in his element, matched by an enthusiastic cast of farceurs.

Filling the cramped Soho Playhouse is no sweat for the playwright and actor, aided as usual by director Carl Andress. On the design end all the contributors are from camp heaven, including scenic and graphic designer Brian T. Whitehill, who gives the stage an aura of threadbare religiosity; Fabio Toblini, with his mocking costumes; Katherine Carr for her matchless wigs; and Kirk Bookman and Jill BC DuBoff for lighting and sound design that match the good cheer of the period tunes that play before and after the performance. The Divine Sister is sinfully entertaining.

The other puppet fish? It’s witness to another incredible star turn, this time by Michael Shannon, in Mistakes Were Made, at the Barrow Street Theatre. He manhandles new life into the worn-down showbiz saga as Felix, a bedraggled theatrical producer who over the course of 90 minutes works the phones with aplomb trying to keep a Broadway-bound epic about the French Revolution on track, as the playwright, the playwright’s agent, the potential star, and other interested parties throw up roadblocks. (The star, for example, wants to play “the kid” in the production, never mind that there is no kid in the production and that the part only exists in Felix’s calculating mind.) Craig Wright’s script throws another monkey wrench into Felix’s dream when he tries to finagle the show’s dodgy, and perhaps dangerous, overseas investors. The rather obese fish (the puppeteer is Sam Deutsch) laps up food deposited by Felix, over the protestations of little-seen but long-suffering secretary Esther (Mierka Girten). The day will not end well for one of them.

Clearly relishing the chance to play a less shadowy and deliberative part than usual (as in the Barrow Street hit Bug, also directed by Dexter Bullard) Shannon literally tears up the stage, laying waste to Tom Burch’s unkempt office set, the refuge of someone on his last legs. (Note the photo of Larry Hagman on the wall, there I think because Shannon resembles him in this part.) Costumes (Tif Bullard), lighting (Keith Parham), and sound (Joseph Fosco) add to the seedy integrity of the story, as Felix tries to stay above the fray while simultaneously igniting it. Mistakes are indeed made, but none by an actor romping through the thickets of the New York theatre scene.

Equipment Vendors

The Pee-wee Herman Show

Scenery Construction: Daedalus Design & Production
Lighting and Audio Equipment: PRG
Projection Equipment: Scharff Weisberg Inc.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Scenery Fabrication: PRG Scenic Technologies
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates
Projection Equipment: Scharff Weisberg Inc.

La Bete

Scenery and Scenic Effects: Show Motion Inc.
Lighting Equipment: Lights Up
Sound Equipment: Sound Associates

A Life in the Theatre

Scenery Construction: Hudson Scenic Studios, Inc.
Lighting Equipment: Hudson Lighting & Sound
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates

Mistakes Were Made

Set Construction: Daedalus Design & Production
Lighting Equipment: Hayden Production Services
Audio Equipment: Five OHM Productions

The Divine Sister

Scenery: Daddy-O and Avancy Inc.
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Ins and Outs

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