In Case You Missed It: What Did Critics Think of the Two Plays that Bowed on Broadway?

News   In Case You Missed It: What Did Critics Think of the Two Plays that Bowed on Broadway?
 
Broadway had two big openings this past week. First, the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of Harold Pinter's Old Times officially opened at the American Airlines Theatre. Directed by Douglas Hodge, the cast included Clive Owen, who is making his Broadway debut in the role of Deeley, along with Eve Best and Kelly Reilly.

The critics were torn on the production but on board with the performances, particularly Owen's.

"Once you can see past the, uh, smoke screen, there's evidence of real emotional embers smoldering among this talented ensemble," wrote the Times, "who are just waiting for the moment to turn into human flamethrowers...Fortunately, Ms. Best, Ms. Reilly and Mr. Owen...are skilled and charismatic enough to fulfill these requirements without entirely overwhelming the play's more subtle essence."

AP said, "Clive Owen makes his Broadway debut with jaunty menace in this Roundabout Theatre Company production opposite the British actresses Eve Best and Kelly Reilly, both lovely and enigmatic and ferociously elegant in not-so-retro costumes by Constance Hoffman." And Hollywood Reporter observed, "Audience response will depend largely on the appetite for Pinter at his most opaque — or some might even say attenuated. This is not a play with the biting menace of earlier landmark works like The Birthday Party…Its fascination is quieter and more cryptic, to the point where some will find it bloodless."

But some critics took issue with Hodge's approach and vision. "The most baffling aspect of the production isn't the play's elusive meaning or Pinter's ambiguous dialogue,” said Variety, "it's the setting...what to make of that solid block of ice in the shape of a door that dominates the room, which itself takes a twirl on a turntable for no earthly reason? Or the eyeball-searing strobe lights and that giant psychedelic whirligig and the loud metallic assault on our ears?"

Time Out New York was confused, too, by "a back wall covered with a vertiginous vortex that lights up, the ‘converted farmhouse' specified in Pinter's stage directions rendered as an island of high-gloss black surfaces upon which chic modern furniture floats (close observers will note a turntable moving very slowly). Combined with incidental music by Radiohead's Thom Yorke (industrial and menacing, as you'd expect), the mood is abstract, ghostly, interior. Problem is, the play already does all that: The designers are overdoing it." ***

Also opening last week was the Broadway premiere of Sam Shepard's intense romantic drama Fool for Love, starring Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Daniel Aukin directed the Manhattan Theatre Club, after an engagement at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2014.

Many of the reviews praised the chemistry between the two central players.

"Love as a battlefield on which nobody wins has seldom been mapped as thrillingly as it is in Daniel Aukin's definitive revival of this bruising drama from 1983," wrote the Times. "That's in large part because as the inexorably coupled May and Eddie, Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell exude the sort of chemistry from which nuclear meltdowns are made."

Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda
Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

New York magazine said, "The production, already excellent when presented at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2014, has only improved. Physically, it is just about perfect, especially the lighting design by Justin Townsend, which creates its poetic effects (as the play does) from the most concrete situations. Arianda's alternately spitfire and limpetlike fierceness has rarely been channeled as effectively, and Rockwell, a string bean in a cowboy hat, with a mean lasso and a mortifying chicken dance, brings tremendous vulnerability to a role often played as a brick." Wall Street Journal commented that, "This show will make you sweat."

Hollywood Reporter, however, wasn't as sold on Arianda: "While there's no denying their combustible chemistry, I couldn't get past the impression that only Rockwell seems a natural inhabitant of Shepard country...The actor's loose physicality, his slyly ingratiating quality, his off-kilter swagger and insouciant humor all add flavor to a guy who has proved a fatal attraction for May since high school."

***

Hamilton continues to performs feats of wonder unmatched by any other show.

The show's 46-track Broadway cast album, which was digitally released on Sept. 25, debuted at #12 on the Billboard 200 chart for the week, the highest debut for a cast recording since the chart combined mono and stereo tallies in 1963. It also charted as the #3 best-selling Rap album, an unprecedented feat for a Broadway cast album.

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda in <i>Hamilton</i>
Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton Photo by Joan Marcus

Of course, the album also debuted at #1 on the Cast Album chart. Billboard magazine was impressed enough to call the showing "eye-popping" and "historic."

For a little perspective, the last cast album to debut in a higher position on Billboard 200 was Camelot at #4 the week of Jan. 23, 1961. Camelot, of course, was strongly associated with the Kennedy White House, just as Hamilton now is with the Obama White House. Unofficial Presidential endorsements are handy when it comes to sales.

***

The New York Times devoted some space in its pages this week to a take-down of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's plan to "translate" all of William Shakespeare's plays into modern English. Columbia University English professor James Shapiro didn't think much of this scheme and used an Op-Ed piece in the Gray Lady to express his view, which could have been titled "Don't Brush Up Your Shakespeare."

"I've had a chance to look over a prototype translation of Timon of Athens that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been sharing at workshops and readings for the past five years," he wrote. "While the work of an accomplished playwright, it is a hodgepodge, neither Elizabethan nor contemporary, and makes for dismal reading."

Shapiro says the problem is not with Shakespeare, but with the way actors and directors are trained, and the way they prepare to play the parts. "However well intended, this experiment is likely to be a waste of money and talent, for it misdiagnoses the reason that Shakespeare's plays can be hard for playgoers to follow. The problem is not the often knotty language; it's that even the best directors and actors — British as well as American — too frequently offer up Shakespeare's plays without themselves having a firm enough grasp of what his words mean."

Shapiro concludes, "I'd prefer to see [Oregon Shakespeare Festival] spend its money hiring such experts and enabling those 36 promising American playwrights to devote themselves to writing the next Broadway hit like Hamilton, rather than waste their time stripping away what's Shakespearean about King Lear or Hamlet."

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