PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Dec. 1-7: Hurry Up and Open

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Dec. 1-7: Hurry Up and Open This must be what it was like in the 1920s, where there was an opening on Broadway nearly every night.
From Top: Adam Dannheisser and Phylicia Rashad in Cymbeline, Amy Morton in August: Osage County and Jimmi Simpson in The Farnsworth Invention.
From Top: Adam Dannheisser and Phylicia Rashad in Cymbeline, Amy Morton in August: Osage County and Jimmi Simpson in The Farnsworth Invention. Photo by Paul Kolnik and Joan Marcus

Between Sunday, Dec. 2, and Thursday, Dec. 6, four Broadway shows officially unveiled themselves. The traffic jam was the result of the 19-day stagehands strike, which put the theatre community's life on hold, delaying several openings.

As has been previously noted by this reporter, this season has been one of plays a-plenty, so every one of those four openings was for a straight play, and three of them were new plays making their New York bow. The week began with Cymbeline, the late problem play by Shakespeare which, as one critic pointed out, is not actually as seldom-seen as some might think. (Someone is doing it in the city at least every two years.) This production, however, was the first big-deal Cymbeline in a long time, with none other than Lincoln Center Theater backing it. Director Mark Lamos directed a talented and various cast that included Martha Plimpton, Michael Cerveris, Phylicia Rashad and John Cullum. Reviews were split, which some critics taking issue with the unevenness of the cast. But, given that this play usually sets reviewers to carping, there were a notable number of very positive reactions, particularly in response to Cerveris and Plimpton, who is everybody's favorite "It" girl right now.

Next was Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention. This was the Broadway play that everyone in Hollywood is aware of, since a good percentage of Hollywood has worked for its TV titan author at one point or another. The drama, about the battle between inventor Philo T. Farnsworth and pioneering TV executive David Sarnoff for control of the boob tube, stars Jimmi Simpson and Hank Azaria and was directed by Des McAnuff. Most reviewers found it slickly entertaining, and a smart good time, even if the writing was a bit formulaic. One major dissenter was the New York Times, which saw the play as too simplistic by half.

The importance of the other openings notwithstanding, the week's central event was probably the shower of praise that greeted playwright Tracy Letts' three-act, three-hour-plus hall of familial horrors known as August: Osage County. This monumental work had already been hailed in its Chicago opening at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The Broadway berth gave the New York critics a chance to echo their Midwestern brothers. O'Neill, Albee, Hellman, Shepard, Chekhov—nearly every major playwright you can think of was referenced in the reviews, and all in a good way, saying Letts' look at the Great American Dysfunctional Family was a worthy addition to the canon and belongs in that company. The show also gave audiences a chance to see some of Chicago's finest acting talents, including Deanna Dunagan and Amy Morton.

Finally, at the end of the week, there was The Seafarer by Conor McPherson. The rueful Christmas tale of four Irish drunks playing a high-stakes (very high stakes) poker game with a mysterious visitor received high marks from most critics, though some called it clichéd. No one, however, had a bad thing to say about the tight, lived-in, five-man ensemble, composed of Conleth Hill, Ciarán Hinds, Sean Mahon, David Morse and Jim Norton. All in all, a pretty cheery showing for the first week following a dispiriting strike.

***

Of all the shows to come back from the dead, Busker Alley was surely one of the least likely candidates. The musical had long ago been consigned to the dustbin of Broadway never-wases. A little history: It was playing out of town in Tampa and scheduled to arrive on Broadway in 1995 when star Tommy Tune suffered the most famous broken foot in theatre history. And that was that.

Or so it seemed. This week saw an announcement that the show, which features a score by Robert and Richard Sherman, is aiming for a Broadway debut during the 2008-2009 season with Tony winner Jim Dale set to star as the story's central characters, a "devil-may-care" busker. Dale and his Barnum co-star, Glenn Close, had taken part in a successful one-night-only concert version of Busker Alley in November 2006 at the York Theatre. Tony Walton will direct and design the musical; Walton has never directed on Broadway before. Based on the 1938 British film "St. Martin's Lane," Busker Alley has a book by A J Carothers. Dale's feet have been insured for $1 million.

Joke. Joke.

***

I will be taking a brief break from the "Week in Review" column over the next three weeks. During that time, Kenneth Jones, Playbill.com esteemed and long-serving managing editor, will be sitting in.—RS

Conleth Hill and Jim Norton in <i>The Seafarer</i>.
Conleth Hill and Jim Norton in The Seafarer. Photo by Joan Marcus
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