The confirmation of how good most theatre people consider John Patrick Shanley's script and director Doug Hughes' production (not to mention the performances of Cherry Jones, Brian O'Byrne, Heather Goldenhersh and Adriane Lenox) stood in stark contrast to the reception afforded the week's three Broadway openings, which were greeted with reservations, to put it mildly.
The author of Julius Caesar, which opened on April 3, fears little for his reputation at this late date, but the star had a lot to prove. Not to audiences, no; tickets to this Denzel Washington vehicle have been selling like the proverbial hotcakes. But the man hasn't been on Broadway in 20 years, busy, as he's been, winning Oscars and all that. The squeals heard nightly when the handsome actor steps on stage at the Belasco did not come from the critics. Still, reviewers didn't hiss either, giving Washington respectable enough marks, with some going so far as to say that, by Broadway standards, this wasn't bad Bard.
The Bard, however, Robert Harling ain't, and the papers said as much the day after the April 4 opening of his Steel Magnolias, making its belated Broadway debut after two decades in the regional and community theatre repertory. Christine Ebersole, Rebecca Gayheart, Lily Rabe, Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen and Delta Burke were the southern ladies of Truvy's beauty parlor, but none was apparently charming enough to bewitch the critics out of their view that the text is on the artificial side.
Perhaps Steel Magnolias should have gone in for some daring casting and hired James Earl Jones to play Truvy. Certainly, that actor did wonders for a play that could be called a stylistic brother of Harling's—Ernest Thompson's heart-tugging comedy-drama On Golden Pond. In the case of this April 7 debut, reviewers often forgave what they saw as the script's hackneyed nature in light of the pleasure derived from Jones' presence.
*** It was all enough to make a dedicated follower of Broadway crave a little lie down. The unaffected, well-rested folks of Off-Broadway and regional theatre, however, went about their business, releasing vital information on their coming attractions. Playwrights Horizons announced the first three works of its season: James Lapine's Fran's Bed (directed by the author) starting Sept. 2; Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon (in a co-production with McCarter Theatre) starting Nov. 11; and the world premiere of Keith Bunin's The Busy World Is Hushed. ***
Center Theatre Group's new artistic director Michael Ritchie announced his first season. The highlight sounded like something Ritchie might have booked at his old theatre, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where classic plays adorned with flashy names were ever the order of the day. A new production of The Cherry Orchard will star movie actress Annette Bening in the role of Madame Ranyevskaya, under Sean Mathias' direction. Back in 1999, Bening starred in the same Jon Robin Baitz adaptation of Hedda Gabler that Ritchie's wife Kate Burton later took to Broadway. So there will be something to talk about at first read through.
In other news, Daniel Sullivan and Wendy Wasserstein are together again. Sullivan piloted Wasserstein's best known titles, The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig, but the two haven't worked together on a major production since 1997's An American Daughter, which was a critical and popular disappointment for both. Mark Brokaw directed the subsequent Wasserstein work Old Money. Sullivan returns to the helm, however, for Third, Wasserstein's latest, which will premiere at Lincoln Center Theater this fall.