PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 9-15: Victory for Churchill

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 9-15: Victory for Churchill Playwright Caryl Churchill reigns on either side of the sea. Off Broadway, New York Theatre Workshop unveiled her haunting Far Away, starring Frances McDormand and directed by Stephen Daldry. Critics exulted and tickets are almost gone. In London, her work about cloning, A Number, also directed by Daldry and starring Michael Gambon, is a success at the Royal Court. No doubt due to Far Away's grand reception in New York, people are now talking about a Broadway production of Number.

Playwright Caryl Churchill reigns on either side of the sea. Off Broadway, New York Theatre Workshop unveiled her haunting Far Away, starring Frances McDormand and directed by Stephen Daldry. Critics exulted and tickets are almost gone. In London, her work about cloning, A Number, also directed by Daldry and starring Michael Gambon, is a success at the Royal Court. No doubt due to Far Away's grand reception in New York, people are now talking about a Broadway production of Number.

It's a welcome reversal of fortunes for Churchill. She had her biggest successes in the late '70s and early '80s with plays like Cloud Nine and Top Girls. She shared the left-wing political views of her contemporary, David Hare, and feasted upon the social inequities of the go-go '80s. When conservative leaders Reagan and Thatcher stepped down from power, many thought that she, like Hare, lost her artistic compass. Her only notable success on these shores in the past 10 years was Mad Forest, another study in corrupt politics, this time those of Romania.

With Far Away and A Number, Churchill seems again attuned to the political and social climate. Both plays are about the unspoken fear of a violent and unpredictable world that we now all wear on our sleeves. However, the popularity of these works can additionally be attributed to another quality: their brevity. Both are under an hour and, by all accounts, audiences don't feel cheated—they're fairly skipping down the lane to be let out by 9 PM. As Edith Wharton once said, people are even more eager to get away from their entertainments than they are to get to them.

The Goat will be gone by Dec. 15. It lasted less than a year and failed to recoup. Be that as it may, everyone in the theatre community seems to regard the Edward Albee play as a resounding success. A straight play on a serious topic, it faced an uphill climb from the start. Then the reviews not only gave it mixed marks, but revealed the main plot point—a man's affair with a goat. That put off many potential ticketbuyers. But producers stuck with it. It developed an audience and won some major awards, including the Tony. People said it would never survive the summer. It survived. People said it would close when stars Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman left. Sally Field and Bill Irwin took over the roles and the production prospered further. All in all, a fine example of brave, principled, old-school producing from Elizabeth McCann and her associates.

Russell Simmons' evening of charged, spoken word verse, Def Poetry Jam—the kind of show which makes theatre folks realize how little they know about what's going on in other art forms—opened at the Longacre Theatre on Nov. 14. And lo and behold, the reviews were good. Now to see if the marketing people can figure out how to properly sell the thing. A few new works began previews Off-Broadway. Christopher Shinn, the 27-year-old American writer whose plays have all world premiered in London, has What Didn't Happen making its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons, with Chris Noth among the cast. Rattlestick Productions rose the curtain on Bliss, a new play by Ben Bettenbender starring Johanna Day of Proof. And Revelation Theatre, a new nonprofit Off Broadway outfit, made a splashy debut with Temporary Help by David Wiltse, and starring a couple Broadway veterans, Robert Cuccioli and Margaret Colin. A fourth show, Adult Entertainment by Elaine May, and starring Danny Aiello and Jeannie Berlin, will begin previews Off Broadway Nov. 16. Opening night has changed from Dec. 2 to Dec. 9 to Dec. 11. Stay tuned. Also Off-Broadway, Richard Easton, Scott Wolf and Christopher Fitzgerald will star in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Frank McGuinness' Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. Easton has virtually become Lincoln Center's in-house actor. He won a Tony for his work in LCT's The Invention of Love. He is also starring in its upcoming production of Henry IV.

Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman, whose production of Metamorphoses began at Off Broadway's Second Stage Theatre and transferred to Broadway, will not direct a revival of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci as her latest show at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, as previously announced. Instead, she will pilot Seneca's classic tragedy, The Trojan Women. Notebooks will still play Second Stage in 2003 as announced, and may visit the Goodman afterwards.

Finally, Lee Wilkof — who starred as skid-row schlub Seymour in the original Off Broadway company of Little Shop of Horrors — is in negotiations to play plant shop owner Mushnik in the musical's upcoming Broadway premiere. It's a safe bet that the talks won't last long and may take place over a breakfast table. The revival's director, Connie Grappo, is Wilkof's wife.

—By Robert Simonson

The "Theatre Week in Review" column will be suspended for the next two weeks while Robert Simonson is on vacation. When he returns, on Dec. 3, Dance of the Vampires will still be in previews.