PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 25-Oct. 1: Signs of Life

News   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 25-Oct. 1: Signs of Life The just begun New York fall theatre season hasn't exactly been given a tremendous vote of trust. Since returning from summer vacation, the theatre community seems to have greeted the autumn menu of attractions with little more than a stifled yawn. However, while the jury is still out of the yet-unopened Broadway line-up, a quiet and encouraging gathering of steam has occurred Off-Broadway.

The trend began with the Atlantic Theatre Company's less than hotly anticipated double bill of Ionesco revivals. Critics, perhaps expecting little, found themselves surprisingly pleased when the Carl Forsman-directed production opened on Sept. 19. But a couple days later, the same reviewers grimly hunched up their shoulders and dejectedly entered New York Theatre Workshop to witness Hedda Gabler, the latest reworking of a classic by avant garde Flemish director Ivo van Hove—who is a favorite of the fine folks at NYTW and very few others. Then, lo and behold! Far from experiencing their usual revulsion and exasperation when confronted with this auteur, critics (and not just the black-clad one sent by The Village Voice) used their pens to jot down adjectives like "gripping" and "enthralling."

From there, theatre scribes were blindsided again, pleasantly diverted by Michele Lowe's connect-the-lives comedy String of Pearls, which crept into Primary Stages on Sept. 23 with absolutely no buzz whatsoever. And, though it's not even opened yet, the Public Theater's production of Richard III, starring Peter Dinklage, has turned into the stealth hit of September, drawing press like a magnet, selling out its run and flirting with an extension. So, then—low expectations are not always confirmed in the theatre. Sometimes they lead to a renewed optimism.

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Sam Shepard and Ed Harris (who have collaborated before) are switching roles this fall. The exalted playwright—who often acts in films, but almost never does so on stage—will perform in the upcoming New York Theatre Workshop staging of Caryl Churchill's A Number, set to start Nov. 16. Meanwhile, actor Ed Harris—who directed the movie "Pollack" but is not known for similar feats in the theatre—will direct a new Roundabout Theatre Company staging of Shepard's Fool for Love. Harris won an Obie Award for his turn in the original 1983 New York mounting of Fool. Fool for Love will begin its limited run at the American Airlines Theatre Jan. 14, 2005. It will be, by the way, the third Shepard classic to have its Broadway debut in the past decade, following Buried Child in 1996 and True Love in 2000. If Shepard lives long enough, the now universally revered and sometimes even commercial (re: True West) playwright might see his entire oeuvre reach the Rialto.

*** On Sept. 25, the press office for the Broadway revival of Wonderful Town officially acknowledged what had been unofficially expected everyone from producers to ushers for weeks: that the show's Tony nominated star Donna Murphy, who was scheduled to play her final performance as Ruth in the Broadway revival of Wonderful Town on Sept. 26, would not return to that show to finish her run. The producers who had delayed the project for years until Murphy was available wished her, via a tellingly terse statement, "much luck and best wishes in all her future endeavors." Thus came the rather sad and disquieting end of Murphy's nearly year-long sojourn in the show—a tenure which must surely rank as one of the most turbulent and commented-upon in the history of Broadway. Universally heralded as delivering a classic musical comedy performance as Ruth Sherwood, Murphy, claiming illness, was frequently not at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre to recreate her kudos-winning portrayal. As the absences continued, the gossip column and chat room brickbats increased in number. Then came the producers' Aug. 20 announcement that Brooke Shields would replace Murphy on Sept. 26—some time before Murphy's contract was due to expire. There was little joy at 302 W. 45th after that. By most accounts, Murphy did not appear in the show after Aug. 29 (just a week after the Shields casting). Neither was her co-star, Jennifer Westfeldt, who also left after Aug. 29 because of a medical condition. Wonderful Town was played by understudies Linda Mugleston (as Ruth) and Nancy Anderson (as Eileen) for a month.

Two days after Shields began her run in Town, it was announced that Murphy would re-create the role of Fosca in a 10th anniversary concert of Stephen Sondheim's Passion—the show that made Murphy a Broadway star in the first place, and certainly a better memory for the actress. It plays Oct. 20 at the Ambassador Theatre