2012 Broadway Play reviews

We used to call them “those shows without songs,” but this year’s plays have plenty of songs and music. In fact, two plays took Tony nominations for Best Score, a category that is traditionally the exclusive domain of musicals.

Bit of a bumper crop this season, but there are always a few to avoid of course. Read on to see which ones I loved and which ones I couldn’t bring myself to see…

Golden Theater
8pm 5 April 2012

Smartly written by Theresa Rebeck (Smash), this slick one act play starts bristles with humour and energy, the pace barely flagging throughout its brisk 90 minutes.

Intense, sinewy Jeff Goldblum has taken over from Alan Rickman as Leonard, the intense author giving an expensive Seminar series to four young writers. The five lead characters are very well developed; recognizable without being stereotypes. Humour and overlapping dialogue are in abundance, with a distinct New York voice and flavour peppering proceedings.

Impressively produced, the staging features excellent sets and frequent costume changes.

Apart from maybe one sex partner twist too many, Seminar is modern and entertaining and will not doubt be welcomed to Australian stages shortly.

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Gore Vidal’s The Best Man
Schoenfeld Theater
2pm 11 April 2012

The starriest of casts imaginable gather for Vidal’s 1960 play, which proves as relevant as ever in this third Broadway outing.

At the Philadelphia Presidential Nomination Convention, presidential hopefuls Russell, a suitably blustery John Larroquette, and Cantwell, an extremely handsome Eric McCormack, compete for endorsement by ex-president Hockstader, the redoubtable James Earl Jones.

But what is a man without a good woman by his side? As Mrs Russell, Candice Bergen demonstrates her unflagging comic timing and Kerry Butler is all Southern charm as Mrs Cantwell. But honours for The Best Woman go to the unstoppable Angela Lansbury, whose peach pastel creation Mrs Sue-Ellen Gamadge dispenses invaluable advice on behalf of the women of America.

With its dated three act structure, The Best Man is a little slow to start but builds to a climactic showdown and an entirely satisfying conclusion.

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One Man, Two Guvnors
Music Box Theater
3pm Sunday 15 April 2012

James Corden and friends have arrived on Broadway in peak comic form in this nonstop laughfest.

With its inspired setting of 1963 Brighton, Richard Bean’s update of Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters is hysterical, with a large of the zany comedy due to Nicholas Hytner’s expert direction. Slapstick, physical comedy, tongue twisters, non sequiturs, audience interaction, running gags – name a comedy style and it’s sure to be in the mix, all performed to dizzying perfection by the original London cast.

Adding to the festive frivolity is live music by The Craze, who entertain pre-show, at interval and during scene changes, often supplemented by the cast on a range of increasingly wacky instruments.

Corden works so hard it’s a surprise he still has his role poly frame. Oliver Chris is a daft hoot as the pompous Stanley Stubbers. Suzie Toase is all peaches and cream perfection as lusty bookkeeper Dolly. Special mention to Tom Edden for performing almost life-threatening physical antics as poor Alfie.

Though it is unclear how One Man, Two Guvnors would go without this fantastic cast, in its present form it is basically a guaranteed great night out.

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Other Desert Cities
Booth Theater
2pm Wednesday 18 April 2012

A classy, entertaining drama with high production values and a first rate cast.

Jon Robin Baitz, creator of TV’s Brothers & Sisters, continues his interest in families, LA culture and the war on terror. Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach play Polly and Lyman Wyeth, a couple who have left their Hollywood careers behind to live in sunny Palm Springs. It’s Christmas 2004, and visiting children Brooke and Trip, Elizabeth Marvel and Matthew Risch, join their parents and Aunt Silda, Judith Light, for a holiday season that’s anything but merry.

Brooke, recovered from a breakdown, stirs the nest with news of her new book about the troubled life and tragic suicide of eldest brother Henry. Arguments and revelations follow, with the type of introspective verbosity of which only American families seem capable. A short epilogue gives closure without tying up the threads into too neat a bow.

Other Desert Cities is sure to be seen in stages in Australia in the not too distant future.

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Peter and the Starcatcher
Brooks Atkinson Theater
3pm Sunday 22 April 2012

Imagination takes flight in this energetic, highly creative Boys’ Own Peter Pan origin tale.

The tightly knit ensemble of 11 men and one girl work in perfect synchronicity to play a multitude of characters in this new play based on the Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s novel. Creaky sailing ships and desert islands are created from the simplest of props and equipment, with costumes just as original. A more hirsute chorus of mermaids has never been seen.

Volume is loud and exposition is fast and furious in act one before we settle into the somewhat gentler action of act two. Physical comedy, quirky accents and random pop culture references abound, with a good deal of the pleasure deriving from the sheer enjoyment of the cast.

Christian Boyle (Smash) is all mischievous glee as the dastardly Black Stache, bringing the house down with a virtuosic climactic sequence as good as any 11 o’clock number in a musical. Sole female Celia Keenan-Bolger shows unflagging energy and spirit as the adventurous Molly.

By the end of Peter and the Starcatcher we have learnt the background of Smee, Tinkerbell, Captain Hook’s missing hand, eternal boyhood and flying. And we are all the better for it.

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Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire
Broadhurst Theater
7pm Thursday 26 April 2012

The gimmick of an all black cast, which worked for 2010’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, has been stretched to Streetcar with mixed results at best.

The thought that this production kept the luminous Sydney Theatre Company/Cate Blanchett staging off Broadway is too disappointing to bear. Played quite coarsely for laughs, the timeless qualities of the classic play struggle to shine through. Emily Mann’s brisk direction makes excellent use of the ensemble during scene breaks but struggles to contribute anything of unique value to the leading players.

Nicole Ari Parker seems too gracious, slender and attractive to make any sense as Blanche. Daphne Rubin Vega is quite dear as Stella, the bond of the sisters one of the likable features of the acting. Blair Underwood pleases the vocal female audience members with a couple of shirtless scenes, and generally maintains a strong intensity as Stanley. Wood Harris is a believable and sincere Mitch.

Eugene Lee’s grimy set generates an oppressive air. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are a real highlight, attractively designed without being unrealistic.

Appealing advertising designs and a niche market may help this Streetcar sell tickets but it does not belong on anyone’s must see list.

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Clybourne Park
Walter Kerr Theater
8pm Friday 27 April 2012

The thought-provoking 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner is finally on Broadway in a highly entertaining, tightly directed staging.

What a gift for these seven actors to each play two distinct characters in two finely realised acts in the one night. Act one, set in 1959, sees all-white neighbourhood Clybourne Park rocked by the imminent arrival of a black couple, while act two sees a black couple and other urban locals annoyed at the grand design plans of a white couple moving back into the same house 50 years later.

Bruce Norris’ script makes all sorts of political, sexual and sociological statements abut people and society, wrapping the punches in some winning humour. The links, comparisons and contrasts between the two acts are extremely clever. Pam MacKinnon’s pacy direction features plenty of realistic overlapping dialogue, and, along with actors, she has created a recognisable and memorable set of seven pairs of characters. Daniel Ostling’s realistic design packs a punch at the opening of act two.

It is difficult to name standouts in the evenly matched ensemble cast. Christina Kirk’s distraught 50s housewife Bev and Jeremy Shamos’ obnoxious, insensitive Steve (2009) are two highlights. The chain of ill will caused by Steve’s joke was certainly the peak of the great script.

Clybourne Park is a wonderful mix of entertainment and food for thought.

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The Lyons
Cort Theater
3pm Sunday 29 April 2012

Lyons? More like Monsters, especially Mama Bear.

Living legend Linda Lavin rules the roost in this bleakly black comedy about death and dysfunction. Act one plays out a single superb scene as Papa Lyon lies dying in a hospital bed, attended by his ferocious wife and deeply troubled son and daughter. Secrets, insults and profanities are hurled about as the audience watch, eyes bulging and mouths open, waiting for each new zinger to land.

Lavin gives a towering performance, conveying more with a raised brow or flick of a crossed ankle than most can portray with their full capability. Dick Latessa gives a nuanced portrayal as the defeated, imperfect husband. These star performers are well complemented by two excellent younger actors, the classy Kate Jennings Grant and Michael Esper, who delivers an emotionally complex characterisation.

The Lyons is a well deserved hit on Broadway and is sure to be seen in Australia next year.

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The Columnist
Samuel J Friedman Theater
7pm Tuesday 1 May 2012

Even a non-political viewer like me, whose idea of world news is reading Playbill, this is an entertaining, emotionally gripping play that showcases a talented lead cast.

John Lithgow turns in a compelling, nuanced performance as closeted, cold war columnist Joseph Alsop. Friend to presidents, enemy to those whose views contrast with his own, Alsop maintained the facade of a marriage that covered his predilection for men. A liaison with a young Soviet, in particular, almost derailing his career.

The Columnist is by David Auburn, author of the acclaimed, and beloved, play Proof.

The strength of the play is its second act, in which Alsop has a series of confrontations, one with each main character. The pretense of his marriage crumbles as his wife, played by the delectable Margaret Colin, realises she cannot continue the charade. Alsop has a regrettable tirade against his brother, and co-columnist, played by the redoubtable Boyd Gaines. Alsop makes peace as best he can with his step-daughter Abigail, portrayed by winsome Grace Gummer (who looks strikingly similar to her sister Mamie). Finally, in a fictionalised scene, Alsop encounters the young Soviet (Damien H. Smith) again and crushes him as payback for the damage he attempted to cause.

Australian audiences, possibly unaware of the life of Joseph Alsop, would surely find the American politics of The Columnist accessible, if not fascinating.

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Death of a Salesman
Barrymore Theater
2pm Wednesday 9 May 2012

Believe it or not, I had never seen the “Great American Play.” That omission now remedied, I can report on this acclaimed new staging, albeit with no earlier productions as a reference point.

Legendary director Mike Nichols has gathered a dream cast to support the central star turn of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as doomed salesman Willy Loman. Linda Edmond, as Willy’s wife Linda, has a quality of tone and expression that catches your heart by surprise. Andrew Garfield captures the torment of Biff’s fractured existence not just in his facial expression but in his whole body language. His climactic explosions and implosions are masterfully acted, and he more than holds his own opposite the highly experienced Hoffman and Edmond. The three together are more heartbreaking than one can bear.

Finn Wittrock is a handsome Happy, effectively conveying the young man’s pathetic attempts to please his family. Song support comes from John Glover as Willy’s successful if somewhat eccentric brother Ben.

A unique aspect of the production is the use of Jo Mielziner’s original set design, a distorted framework outline of the cramped Brooklyn home. Alex North’s music also harks back to the original 1949 season.

The hottest ticket of the current Broadway season, Death of A Salesman’s limited run will no doubt be further bolstered by the Tony for Best Revival of a Play.

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Readers who have made it this far and have noticed a slight lack of bad reviews for plays may be interested to know the simple reason for this. With a bit of inside knowledge, I managed to avoid plays which I feared might be below par.
These included London import The End of the Rainbow, starring Tracie Bennett in a polarizing turn as Judy Garland in her final days.
I didn’t enjoy Boeing Boeing in London so the thought of its less funny sequel did not appeal.
Finally, sport and theatre do not mix, in my book, so I gave ill-conceived, short-lived play Magic/Bird a wide berth. Apparently there is a documentary that gives a more entertaining and insightful look into the friendship and on-court rivalry of NBA champs Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

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Photos: Simon Parris

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