PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 26-May 2: Three, and 13

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 26-May 2: Three, and 13 Three Broadway openings featuring three big film stars were the highlights of this week of the fast-concluding 2007-08 season.
Frances McDormand and Morgan Freeman in The Country Girl.
Frances McDormand and Morgan Freeman in The Country Girl. Photo by Joan Marcus

Morgan Freeman opened in Clifford Odets' The Country Girl, the actor's first stage project in some time. Laurence Fishburne starred as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Thurgood, a one-man show penned by George Stevens Jr. And Laura Linney played a conniving French socialite in Broadway's new production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a Roundabout Theatre Company production. A backstage story; a bio-drama; sex and violence — sounds like a weekend at the Cineplex.

The biggest deal of the three is, of course, the Odets. And not just because of Freeman. The show co-stars Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher and was directed by Mike Nichols, arguably the only "star" play director still working on Broadway. It also possessed additional, unwanted notoriety because the deviled production has been dogged by gossip, primarily by way of a series of columns by Michael Riedel in the New York Post. Riedel's reports addressed Nichols' and playwright/rewrite man Jon Robin Baitz's changes to Odets' script, and Freeman's alleged inability to remember his lines. For some time now, theatre critics have gotten in the (often derided) habit of noting such scuttlebutt in their reviews of troubled productions. But the extent to which the notices featured the negative reports this time around was remarkable; hardly a major review of Country Girl failed to mention the staging's backstory (including The New York Times critic's assessment).

The skewed focus of the critiques all but obscured the actual reception of the piece, which was split. Most thought the production lacked something of a pulse. A few, however, zeroed in on the performances of the three key players as fine bits of acting.

Laurence Fishburne is another actor who's taken his sweet time getting back to the stage. But critics were glad that he finally did. They didn't think terribly much of Stevens' play, which they felt was dutifully historical but didn't have much new to say on the subject of Justice Marshall. But almost every reviewer thought Fishburne riveting and surprisingly exciting in what could have been a prosaic stage turn. Most agreed the actor made the evening a worthwhile one.

Finally came Les Liaisons, which also starred Ben Daniels as Le Vicomte de Valmont, partner in crime of Linney's malicious La Marquise de Merteuil. The production was directed by Englishman Rufus Norris, who was beaten up pretty well in his first foray on Broadway, Festen. As if they've never seen a little sex on stage before, the critics embraced this sensuous new production, particularly British Daniels for his stylish turn as rapacious Valmont. As for respected American actress Linney in the role of a European villainess, critics found her to be cool rather than humid, and that her stares into the middle-distance were part of a focused characterization (your affection for her take on La Marquise depends on the way you like your revenge served — crisp or juicy). The Times found the casting imbalanced, but Variety celebrated Linney's performance as "minutely measured." ***

In other Broadway news, producer Bob Boyett revealed that he would bring Jason Robert Brown and Dan Elish's musical 13 to Broadway. Folks have been expecting this news for some time. The show, directed by Jeremy Sams and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, played an acclaimed earlier engagement at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Following revisions and the addition of co-librettist Robert Horn, the musical about high-schoolers will play an engagement May 9-June 8 at Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT. Then, it's aiming for the Jacobs Theatre on Broadway.

***

Ben Williams, Susie Sokol and Vin Knight in The Sound and the Fury
photo by Joan Marcus

Off-Broadway, New York Theatre Workshop gave the well-respected, New York-based, experimental theatre troupe Elevator Repair Service its most high-profile staging to day by presenting its version of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. The show uses the first part of Faulkner's classic as its text, word for word, dividing the story up among several actors who trade their roles frequently. That description may sound a bit far-fetched, but then this is the company that has performed marathon readings of "The Great Gatsby" onstage across the world to copious praise. Critics found the Faulkner exercise fascinating and enveloping, if also a bit perplexing. Elsewhere Off-Broadway, it was announced that Mandy Patinkin will rule over a brave new world in September, when Classic Stage Company conjures The Tempest, launching the 2008-09 season of the Off-Broadway troupe.

***

Finally, a bit of award news. The Drama Desk announced the nominees for their 2008 awards. A Catered Affair, the new musical penned by composer John Bucchino and librettist Harvey Fierstein earned 12 nominations, the most of any show of the 2007-2008 season.

Others showered with multiple nominations: The acclaimed Off-Broadway musical The Adding Machine received nine nominations, while both the revival of South Pacific and the new Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein nabbed eight nominations apiece. Four shows received seven nominations each: August: Osage County, Passing Strange, Sunday in the Park with George and The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island.

Tom Wopat, Faith Prince and Harvey Fierstein in <i>A Catered Affair.</i>
Tom Wopat, Faith Prince and Harvey Fierstein in A Catered Affair. Photo by Jim Cox