PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 22-28: Hot Young Things

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 22-28: Hot Young Things Will Ethan Hawke be the Virgil to guide Off-Broadway out of the commercial pit it has dwelled in since 9/11?
Ethan Hawke in Hurlyburly
Ethan Hawke in Hurlyburly Photo by Carol Rosegg

Well, maybe Ethan Hawke and his young, hip Hollywood pals. Small theatres in New York continue to regularly attract a series of hot stars and starlets and the result at the box office has often been gratifying. Hawke's current vehicle, The New Group's revival of David Rabe's corrosive Tinseltown drama Hurlyburly, woke Jan. 28 to a raft of extension-spurring reviews. Hawke and his colleagues Parker Posey and Josh Hamilton were roundly praised, a nice benefit for their having put their film careers on hold a bit.

The same happy fate fell Jeremy Piven and Keri Russell when they made their New York stage debut in Neil LaBute's Fat Pig last December. Another dark show (cynical dramas seem to be catnip to cool-conscious film actors), the show extended and is still playing at the Lucille Lortel. And this week it was announced that another LaBute play, This Is How It Goes at the Public Theater, will sport the marquee names of Ben Stiller and Jeffrey Wright (and possibly Renee Zellweger). Given Stiller's performance at cineplex box offices during 2004, it's hard to imagine that production won't also attract a lot of heat.

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Also in that Hurlyburly cast is Wallace Shawn, who lately has risen in the theatre community from his usual status as cult playwright of dark, wordy dramas, to all-around player. Last season, The New Group had a hit with their revival of Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon. Now, in the Rabe play, Shawn—who typically earns his walking-around money through goofy cameo appearances in films—takes on a rare stage role. Director Scott Elliott, artistic director of The New Group, is the agent of all this activity. He has also hired Shawn to write an adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, which will see the Broadway stage at the Roundabout Theatre Company next season, according to Elliott.

*** There were some comings and going on the nonprofit circuit. David Esbjornson, who cut himself free of Off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company in 1998, and landing work directing the premieres of literary lions like Arthur Miller and Edward Albee, has returned to the institutional life. He was named the new artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre.

On the East Coast, meanwhile, Joanne Woodward, who gave the summer stock institution Westport Country Playhouse a new lease on life when she took up the reins as artistic director in 2001, said she will resign her position at the end of this year to become artistic director emeritus.

The arrival of Woodward changed the fortunes of the Playhouse, which until then had been soldiering on for many years without artistic distinction. Under her stewardship, the theatre saw its first transfer to Broadway in decades: a production of Our Town starring Paul Newman (her husband). Her most significant contribution, however, is doubtless the long-planned and now finally achieved renovation of the theatre's home. Woodward will participate in the selection of her successor. Whoever it is, though, they will—unfortunately for the Playhouse—not be married to Paul Newman.

One other significant departure was Rob Fisher, who has decided to leave as musical director of the hugely popular Encores! series at City Center, having held his place at the podium since 1994 through three artistic directors—Walter Bobbie, Kathleen Marshall and now Jack Viertel. He also served as musical director and conductor on Chicago and Wonderful Town—the two Encores! shows which transferred to Broadway. Finding a replacement as skilled should prove as big a challenge as Encores! has ever faced.

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Terrence McNally, who was for years associated with Manhattan Theatre Club, but hasn't been produced there since Corpus Christi in 1998, appears to have found in Primary Stages a second New York home. The company produced his Stendhal Syndrome last season. Now it will launch its 2005-2006 season in July with the New York premiere of McNally's Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams. Michael Morris directs the work which debuted at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in August 2004.

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Finally, it does not look like the new Disney musical On the Record will be a long-playing record. The show, which features songs from both classic Disney films and Disney's Broadway outings, will close after its July engagement at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The show had been expected to tour longer and, one expected, eventually reach New York. There were signs of trouble when star Emily Skinner left the show in December, and was replaced by Kaitlin Hopkins. Disney Theatricals President Thomas Schumacher told Daily Variety, "[On the Record] captured the people who love the Disney catalog, but once we got into a market, (business) didn't expand from there. We don't get walk-up business. . . .There is no reason to stop [the tour] today. All of these theatres need nine to 12 months to announce a season." He also added that there is the possibility that the show may play venues overseas. A cast album has been recorded.