PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 21-27: And the Stars Came Out

ICYMI   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 21-27: And the Stars Came Out There has been much talk this season about how producers have used star-power as their surest weapon against ticket-buyer cautiousness during this deepening recession.
God of Carnage's Daniels, Davis, Harden and Gandolfini; Impressionism's Allen and Irons; and Exit the King's Sarandon and Ambrose
God of Carnage's Daniels, Davis, Harden and Gandolfini; Impressionism's Allen and Irons; and Exit the King's Sarandon and Ambrose Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Proof positive of this phenomenon came this week, as three shows opened on Broadway with enough names (and Oscar-winners) to fill a Woody Allen film. The week began with Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage starring Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and the erstwhile biggest name in television, "The Sopranos" star James Gandolfini. Two days later came the unveiling of Michael Jacobs' Impressionism featuring two Tony-winners long absent from the stage, Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons. Capping it all was the Australian-born revival of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King, with Geoffrey Rush making his Broadway debut in the title role, and Susan Saradon and Lauren Ambrose offering able support.

These are the kind of shows that basically force the New York Times culture desk to write feature articles about their leading players.

Few would have predicted that the Ionesco play — a seldom-seen work of Absurdism in which a stubborn king dies (or refuses to die) for two hours — would come off best. But it did. Critics heralded Rush's bravura physical performance as a masterly fulsome portrait of expert slapstick and unexpected pathos, and the production's vaudevillian attack on the script as a genius stroke that packed surprising depth. Reviews also noted that the play was unexpectedly timeless, yet contemporary, speaking to the age-old subject of mankind's unwillingness to accept its final end, while also addressing the circumstances of a fading, foolishly led kingdom that did not look altogether unfamiliar to the beleaguered members of the audience.

God of Carnage also reaped its share of kudos, though critics seemed to cast one eye of suspicion on the production even as they doled out the praise. Reza's play — about the disintegrated civility of two sets of parents who meet to discuss an altercation between their two children on the playground — was monstrous good entertainment, they all agreed, though the play was not as deep as it was meant to be. Furthermore, the reviews chalked a lot of the production's success up to the four stars, who were at the top of their game and wonderful to watch. (If you cast your mind back a decade, there was a similar tone to the reviews that greeted Reza's Art.) Combine those reviews, however hedged, with the heft of the actors' names, and it's hard to imagine the producers not coming up with a hit.

Making a hit out of Impressionism will require something more that pulling quotes from the notices. For they were not the sort of notices you pull quotes from. Reviewers thought the play thin, pretentious, dull, and, moreover, unworthy of the attentions of the very talented people who had devoted their energies to it — not just Irons and Allen, but director Jack O'Brien. ***

Playwright Sarah Ruhl's ascendancy continues. Lincoln Center Theater, which produced her The Clean Room, can't get enough of the whimsical scribe. It will hand Ruhl her Broadway debut this fall by producing her new work, titled In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.

Meanwhile, out in Ohio, John Doyle will direct Ruhl's new adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters as part of the 2009-2010 season at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park.

***

LCT likes its Ruhl; MTC likes its Margulies.

Donald Margulies
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Manhattan Theatre Club will produce not one, but two plays by Donald Margulies this coming season. The playwright's ten-year-old Collected Stories — first produced at MTC, but better known for a later commercial Off-Broadway run that starred Uta Hagen — will play the company's Broadway venue, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, while Margulies' new Time Stands Still is one of three shows planned for MTC's Off-Broadway theatre, New York City Center Stage I. MTC has previously followed this route — taking one of its past Off-Broadway premieres and giving it a Broadway revival — with Margulies' Sight Unseen and Richard Greenberg's The American Plan.

Also scheduled is a new go-round of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family starring John Glover, Rosemary Harris, Reg Rogers and Jan Maxwell. Doug Hughes will direct.

***

Garth Drabinsky. Myron Gottlieb.

In 2009, those names feel like figures from a dream, a mist-swathed, dimly remembered past when Times Square was still kinda grubby, 42nd Street revitalization was still just a nice idea and financial scandals were a little less common then they are today.

It's been so many years since the two men brought down their own vast, publicly traded, theatrical empire, Livent, that one was tempted to imagine that they had ultimately gotten away with all the chicanery and book-cooking that they were accused of in the late '90s. But the lawmen of Canada never forgot about the impresarios, who once brought Show Boat, Ragtime and hope to the American theatre. On March 25, they were found guilty of fraud and forgery by a Canadian court.

The trial took 11 months. The judge said they were guilty "widespread and long-standing" fraud and "deliberate misrepresentation…I have been satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that you knew what was happening."

Each of the men could be sentenced to up to 10 years for fraud and 14 years for forgery. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 8. Both remain fugitives from justice in the U.S., where they have been under indictment since 1999.

Meanwhile, Drabinsky is going ahead with plans to air a second season of "Triple Sensation," an "American Idol"-like reality series in which he looks for young stars who can sing, act and dance. The man could give Bernie Madoff a few pointers on gall.