The Elephant Man

December 7, 2014: O.K. already, can we just go ahead and pull back that curtain? A current of electric impatience runs through the audience during the opening scenes of the sturdy revival of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, which opened on Sunday night at the Booth Theater. That’s because the only glimpse we’ve been allowed so far of the title character — and more important, of the man playing him — has been as a shadow behind a thin but view-obstructing curtain. There has been much discussion of the astonishing reality attached to this silhouette. A carnival barker type assures us that this exotic creature — who “exposes himself to crowds who gape and yawp” — looks like nobody else on the planet. Technically, the carny is describing the grotesquely deformed John Merrick, who makes his living as a sideshow attraction in Victorian England. But for much of the audience, the reference might as well be to the guy People magazine once crowned “the Sexiest Man Alive,” the movie star Bradley Cooper. Not to worry, dear theatergoers and film fans. Soon enough, Mr. Cooper is on full-frontal, clinical display, wearing nothing but a pair of period-appropriate underpants and a face as neutral as a death mask. Feast your eyes upon this image while you can, and perhaps be so good as to feel a little guilty for doing so.


BROADWAY REVIEW: The Illusionists

The Illusionists

December 4, 2014: Here’s a trick I’d like to see some world-class magician perform: Make the Marriott Marquis Theater, the monolithic hotel that houses it and the monstrous video screen that now wraps around its facade — turning an ugly building even uglier — disappear. And then keep waving that wand and bring back the five Broadway theaters that were demolished when this Times Square eyesore was built. Should this feat take place imminently, gone, too, would be The Illusionists, an overproduced and overblown magic show featuring seven talented tricksters drowning in a sea of cheese. Magic acts, it seems to me, are best served like a nice dry martini, straight up. (As was the case with the charming, frill-free show Nothing to Hide, which played Off Broadway last December.) That’s not the theory behind this bombast-riddled production directed and choreographed by Neil Dorward, which opened Thursday night. It seems to have been designed along the lines of television contest shows like The Voice and America’s Got Talent, with all sorts of trumped-up glitz attempting to feed the excitement. We get continuous blasts of thunderous, supposedly suspense-enhancing music played onstage by a band. In addition to the magicians themselves, a chorus of assistants slinks around in gothic attire attempting to look sexy, or menacing, or something. There are laser beams, digital video screens and more. All this serves not to enhance the brilliance of the feats being performed but to distract from it. In fact, all the fancy stagecraft surrounding the acts makes the tricks themselves seem less impressive. A giant screen that hangs above the stage, offering us a close-up view of the sleight of hand, tends to grab your attention. Everyone knows that watching a magic act on television instead of live robs it of much of its allure. The simpler feats performed in “The Illusionists” are the most impressive.


BROADWAY REVIEW: A Delicate Balance

A Delicate Balance

November 20, 2014: Hope arrives in the form of dread toward the end of the first act of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, which opened on Thursday night in a revival at the Golden Theater. Up to that point in this production, directed by Pam MacKinnon, it’s been hard to detect much feeling of any kind within the carefully color-coordinated, dust-free, energy-free environs that have been installed onstage. To be sure, the three talented and celebrated people we have been watching up there thus far — Glenn Close, John Lithgow and Lindsay Duncan — have been delivering their characters’ zingers and stingers with crispness, clarity and, when one feels an important theme coming on, heavy italics. Yet they have the distant, flattened dimensions of specimens under glass. You feel that if you left them for a while, when you returned, they’d still be more or less frozen as they were before. But then — oh, sweet deliverance — here come good old, miserable, intrusive Harry and Edna to shake things up. They’re the best friends of Tobias and Agnes (Mr. Lithgow and Ms. Close), the owners of the tasteful mausoleum for the living (i.e., lovely suburban home) that is the setting for Mr. Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of 1966.



Side Show

November 17, 2014: Being a freak is virtually the new normal, so the timing couldn’t be better for the thrilling Broadway revival of Side Show that blazed open Monday night at the St. James Theater. The musical by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger, about conjoined twins searching for love and fame, or maybe just a half-measure of happiness, seems eerily appropriate for an era in which oddballs, outliers and anybody with a desperate need for the spotlight — and a way with a webcam — can achieve celebrity of some kind. But Side Show, based on the lives of the real-life twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who became vaudeville stars in the 1930s, invites us to do much more than come look at the freaks, as the electrifying opening number beckons. This beautiful and wrenching musical, lovingly directed by Bill Condon, asks us to step inside their skins and feel what it’s like to be celebrated one moment, rejected the next, and to have the strange consolation of a companion who shares it all: the pain, the joy, the hope, the frustration. Who cannot relate to the yearning expressed so eagerly by Violet, to be “like everyone else” and live a life of humble contentment? But who could fail to understand the fervent desire of Daisy to be a big, blazing somebody, standing out from the faceless crowd? In tapping into these contradictory ambitions, the musical burrows deep into your spirit. As portrayed with layered complexity — and pin-you-to-your-seat vocal chops — by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett, the Hilton twins embody an essential truth about the human condition: On some level we are forever divided in our desires and, life being what it is, thwarted in at least some of them.



The River

November 16, 2014: Hugh Jackman isn’t giving anything away these days. And reticence, it turns out, becomes him. Who knew? In Jez Butterworth’s The River, the poetic tease of a drama that opened Sunday night at the Circle in the Square Theater, Mr. Jackman conveys an impression of mightily self-contained silence, even when he’s talking like Wordsworth on a bender. And in banking his fires so compellingly, he ascends with assurance to a new level as a stage actor. I make no comparable claims for Mr. Butterworth’s short and elliptical play, previously staged in London at the Royal Court Theater and his first since the mighty “Jerusalem” K.O.’d New York in 2011. That heaving portrait of a belief-starved Britain was an audacious symphony of words, ideas and characters you hated to love. The River is conducted in a more minor key, and is also a more minor effort. Like “Jerusalem,” this cryptic tale of a man and a woman (or women — maybe) magnifies the seemingly ordinary to mythic proportions, while honorably refusing to stoop to easy explanations. The director Ian Rickson, who brought such clarity and vitality to “Jerusalem,” lends the same care and polish to the far more shadowy River. This artfully staged production, set in a rural fishing cabin that is one man’s insular kingdom, is guaranteed to hold your attention. But you’re likely to leave it feeling hungry, and not just because it aims to mystify. Be grateful, then, that any pangs of emptiness are counterbalanced by the intriguing heft of Mr. Jackman’s strangely radiant opacity.



The Real Thing

October 30, 2014: Do not be misled by the title. Authenticity is conspicuous only by its absence in the tinny revival of The Real Thing, which opened on Thursday night at the American Airlines Theater. Evidence of real feelings, real chemistry and real life in general is dishearteningly scarce in this interpretation of Tom Stoppard’s 1982 comedy about one all-too-witty writer’s emotional block. Despite a talented big-name cast, including the movie stars Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal in their Broadway debuts, this Roundabout Theater Company production is one of those unfortunate revivals that make you wonder if the play in question is worth revisiting. How can this be? The Real Thing is generally regarded as the Stoppard work that pretty much anybody can warm to, even folks usually put off by the cerebral games this dramatist is wont to play. It is not about head-scratching, highfalutin’ figures like the brilliant but ambivalent Russian revolutionaries of his The Coast of Utopia, or the brilliant but ambivalent philosopher of Jumpers, or the brilliant but ambivalent Cambridge don and poet (A. E. Housman) of The Invention of Love.



The Last ship

October 26, 2014: Hard times, blighted lives and the bleak humor that occasionally lifts the fog: The universe of The Last Ship, the new musical with a score by Sting about a shipbuilding town in decline, lies at some distance from its peppier neighbors on Broadway, where megaphoned uplift and easy escapism tend to thrive. For that reason alone, it’s hard not to root for this ambitious, earnest musical, which opened on Sunday night at the Neil Simon Theater. Rich in atmosphere — I half expected to see sea gulls reeling in the rafters — and buoyed by a seductive score that ranks among the best composed by a rock or pop figure for Broadway, the musical explores with grit and compassion the lives of the town’s disenfranchised citizens, left behind as the industry that gave them their livelihood set sail for foreign lands. But along with its accomplishments, which include a host of vital performances from its ample cast under the direction of Joe Mantello, The Last Ship also has its share of nagging flaws. The book, by John Logan (Red) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), and inspired in part by Sting’s own upbringing in the northeast England town Wallsend, where the show is set, is unfocused and diffuse. It’s hamstrung by a division between a David versus Goliath story — of the little folk fighting against the faceless forces of the global economy — and a romantic love triangle.




October 23, 2014: “Bon appétit!” The festive phrase announcing the start of a meal sounds more like a bell signaling another round in a prizefight when it is chirped by Gretchen Mol, playing a hostess whose dinner party has become a verbal jousting tournament in Ayad Akhtar’s terrific, turbulent drama Disgraced. By this point in the play, which opened at the Lyceum Theater on Thursday night, the nerves of everyone settling down to eat have been scraped raw. It’s hard to concentrate on your fennel and anchovy salad when the conversation over cocktails has descended into a fierce debate about the rise of Islamic terrorism and the basic tenets or the meaning of the Quran. Mr. Akhtar’s play, which was first seen in New York in 2012 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, has come roaring back to life on Broadway in a first-rate production directed by Kimberly Senior that features an almost entirely new cast. In the years since it was first produced here, the play’s exploration of the conflicts between modern culture and Islamic faith, as embodied by the complicated man at its center — a Pakistani-born, thoroughly assimilated New Yorker — have become ever more pertinent. The rise of the so-called Islamic State, and the news that radicalized Muslims from Europe and the United States have joined the conflict raging in Syria and Iraq, brings an even keener edge to Mr. Akhtar’s engrossing drama. At first blush, Amir (Hari Dhillon) seems to be in admirable possession of an American-dream life. He’s a lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions, which explains the immaculate apartment with a terrace to make any New Yorker salivate. His wife, Emily (Ms. Mol), is a painter on track to be included in a new show at the Whitney. Emily has begun a portrait of Amir inspired by a Velazquez painting of his Moorish assistant. An incident with a waiter at a restaurant the night before brought Amir’s ethnic heritage to the fore, and Emily has become intrigued by the gap “between what he was assuming about you, and what you really are”: words that will prove eerily prophetic as the drama unfolds.



On The Town

October 16, 2014: And now, a show about sex that you can take the whole family to: the kids, the grandparents, even your sister the nun. That idea may sound kind of creepy, or (worse) dreary. But I assure you that the jubilant revival of On the Town, which opened Thursday night at the Lyric Theater, is anything but. On the contrary, this merry mating dance of a musical feels as fresh as first sunlight as it considers the urgent quest of three sailors to find girls and get, uh, lucky before their 24-hour shore leave is over. If there’s a leer hovering over On the Town, a seemingly limp 1944 artifact coaxed into pulsing new life by the director John Rando and the choreographer Joshua Bergasse, it’s the leer of an angel. The best-known song from this show — which has music by Leonard Bernstein, with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green — describes its setting as “a helluva town.” But the town in question — “New York, New York,” if you didn’t know — feels closer to heaven here.



It's Only A Play

October 9, 2014: Big names drop like hailstones in Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, the kind that look like diamonds from a distance and then melt away before you know it. As a star-struck young man observes at the beginning of this deliriously dishy revival, which opened Thursday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater (and is about a tense opening night of a play at the Ethel Barrymore Theater), “This place is crawling with famous people.” He’s referring to a noisy party that’s happening downstairs. But he might as well be talking about the comedy in which he appears, which is directed with gusto by Jack O’Brien. One of the reasons that It’s Only a Play is already a gold-mining hit is its unblushing willingness to play the fame card as an ace that can’t be beaten. As any of the pseudo-cynical, theater-obsessed characters in this work from the 1980s — which has been strategically rewritten by Mr. McNally — might point out, “That’s Broadway today, baby.” The list of celebrities starts with the show’s cast members, whose biographies glitter with Tonys, Emmys, a box-office-bonanza film franchise and an Oscar. They include Broadway’s most popular bromancers, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, along with Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally (of Will and Grace), Rupert Grint (of the Harry Potter movies) and F. Murray Abraham. Then there are the many, many other well-known names that pepper the dialogue to keep it from tasting bland.