PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 14-20: Where Angels Fear to Tread

ICYMI   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 14-20: Where Angels Fear to Tread Conventional wisdom has it that producers are the hardest nuts in the theatre world. Actors, playwrights, directors are all idealistic dreamers. But producers? They're overtly pragmatic, cynical, earth-bound; the bottom-line eyeing, hard-line bosses of the business called show.
Aaron Tveit and Alice Ripley in Next to Normal; Carla Gugino and Brian Dennehy in Desire Under the Elms
Aaron Tveit and Alice Ripley in Next to Normal; Carla Gugino and Brian Dennehy in Desire Under the Elms Photo by Joan Marcus; Liz Lauren

But, in this deepening recession, it is the producers who are behind the biggest chances being taken. When sense says hoard your pennies and wait for sunnier weather, a few hardy optimists continue to make daring, one might even say foolhardy, choices. Two such professional journeys out onto a quivering limb were announced this week. Producers David Stone, James L. Nederlander, Barbara Whitman, Patrick Catullo and Second Stage Theatre will bring Next to Normal to Broadway's Longacre Theatre March 27. The show, about a dysfunctional family headed by a bi-polar mother, played by Alice Ripley, received a fair amount of critical encouragement when it ran Off-Broadway at Second Stage last year. There was some talk of a transfer, but nothing came of it.

Since then, the show has played Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Creators Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and director Michael Greif retooled it for the production and were rewarded with a rave review from the Washington Post.

Kitt and Yorkey are not names known to the wide public, and neither is Ripley (as seasoned a performer as she is), so Stone (the man who tends the Golden Goose known as Wicked) and company must surely believe in the project. Stone told The New York Times, "We [wanted] an 800-seat theatre but none were available, and this is a very emotional play and I'm a big believer in creating the theatre space you need."

Meanwhile, producers Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, and Steve Traxler are chasing their own dream by bringing to Broadway Chicago's Goodman Theatre's acclaimed new production of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, the 1924 tale of lust, possessions, promises, property and familial bonds broken. Director Robert Falls and his Chicago cast — including two-time Tony Award winner Brian Dennehy, stage and screen star Carla Gugino and Tony nominee Pablo Schreiber — will reunite at Broadway's St. James Theatre starting April 14; the extended Goodman run ends March 1 in Chicago.

O'Neill is never a box-office sure thing, but recently "event" productions of The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night (the latter starring Dennehy and directed by Falls) have rung the bell. Desire hasn't been done on Broadway in 57 years. Falls cut ten characters out of the play, and streamlined it to 100 minutes, focusing on the turbulent family drama at the core. Producer Richards is a man known to take chances and, for the most part (Spring Awakening, August: Osage County), they have paid off. It can't have hurt that his two most recent Broadway ventures, Speed-the-Plow and You're Welcome, America. A Final Night with George W. Bush , recently recouped their investment. (Richards has four more openings before this season is over: Desire, Hair, reasons to be pretty and Blithe Spirit.)

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The news of Desire Under the Elms' triumphant return to Broadway comes the same week that a rare revival of another seldom-seen O'Neill work, Mourning Becomes Electra, received a fairly severe beatdown by the New York critics. The New Group's ambitious multi-hour staging of the Greek tragedy-inspired drama, was deemed uneven and unintentionally funny, with some critics wondering if they would ever escape (The New York Times) or, conversely, if the audience would mutiny (Variety).

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The other big opening of the week, the Neil Bartram and Brian Hill two-hander musical about a male friendship was either not praised, or damned with faint praise as "modest," "gentle," "lean" and "simple" — words that never caused a stampede at the box office. The two stars, Will Chase and Malcolm Gets, were generally given good marks; director Richard Maltby Jr. less so.

Malcolm Gets and Will Chase in <i>The Story of My Life</i>
Malcolm Gets and Will Chase in The Story of My Life Photo by Aaron Epstein
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