PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 15-21: Big Stars Open on Broadway and Remembering the Great Mike Nichols

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 15-21: Big Stars Open on Broadway and Remembering the Great Mike Nichols Two shows that are already hits — at the box office, anyway — opened this week, just to see what the critics thought of them. As if it mattered.

Hugh Jackman
Hugh Jackman Photo by Richard Termine

The first was The River, a new play by the fine British playwright Jez Butterworth. But he could be Mrs. Butterworth, for all that theatregoers care. They bought tickets to see Hugh Jackman, who could appear in a production of East Lynne (look it up) and the folks would flock.

The River was advertised as a new mysterious drama that unfolds in a remote cabin in the woods, where a man brings his new girlfriend for an evening of…wait for it…trout fishing! The 85-minute play had its premiere in 2012 at the Royal Court Theatre. Ian Rickson, who directed Butterworth's Jerusalem, and who helmed the London premiere of the play, again directed. Also in the production are original London cast member Laura Donnelly and Cush Jumbo.

The New York Times found it similar in theme to Jeruselum, if not as satisfying. "This artfully staged production, set in a rural fishing cabin that is one man's insular kingdom, is guaranteed to hold your attention. But you're likely to leave it feeling hungry, and not just because it aims to mystify. Be grateful, then, that any pangs of emptiness are counterbalanced by the intriguing heft of Mr. Jackman's strangely radiant opacity." ("Strangely radiant opacity." Pretty sure I'm not going to encounter that phrase again in this life.)

Comparisons to the sprawling, ambitious Jerusalem seemed required in the reviews. "For those turned on to Butterworth by 2011's Jerusalem," wrote Time Out, "the new work clearly continues his fascination with self-destructive outsiders in pastoral isolation. The River may lack the Rabelaisian exuberance of Jerusalem but offers more intimacy and outright strangeness. Those attending simply to ogle Jackman (buff and charismatic as always) get an extra treat, if they can appreciate it: a movie star facing an acting challenge in an exceptional piece of stage writing."

Others were less impressed by the play than Jackman. Said the Daily News: "The show is all about Jackman. His sturdy star turn is manly, measured and speckled with melancholy. Without him, The River is a play that could flow by in a small Off-Broadway theater and not make much of a ripple." Many reviews, in fact, seemed intent on giving Jackman a pat on the back for attempting to stretch his acting muscles and bring an obscure work to Broadway. The man sure knows how to generate good will. By week's end, the limited engagement had extended. Hello, recoupment!

John Lithgow and Glenn Close
John Lithgow and Glenn Close Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

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Another show to open this week was the starry revival of A Delicate Balance, Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning family drama, which has two really famous actors in it (Glenn Close and John Lithgow), three sort-of famous actors (Lindsay Duncan, Bob Balaban and Martha Plimpton) and one just plain good actor (Clare Higgins). It opened on Broadway Nov. 20 following previews that began Oct. 20 at the John Golden Theatre.

Opinions were split, particularly on the matter of whether director Pam MacKinnon failed the play or did it up proud.

The Times was not impressed calling it a "carefully color-coordinated, dust-free, energy-free environs that have been installed onstage. To be sure, the three talented and celebrated people we have been watching up there thus far — Glenn Close, John Lithgow and Lindsay Duncan — have been delivering their characters' zingers and stingers with crispness, clarity and, when one feels an important theme coming on, heavy italics. Yet they have the distant, flattened dimensions of specimens under glass."

AP did not agree. It said the play "is superbly directed by Pam MacKinnon and so well performed by a trans-Atlantic ensemble that each actor manages to convince you that they are the focus of the show." "At its best, it's thought-provoking and sometimes challenging," wrote the Wall Street Journal, "but it takes a long time to get moving, and I wonder whether modern-day audiences will be willing to wait for it."

"Although the play still dazzles with wit, gorgeous writing and the lurking terror of mortality," wrote Newsday, "we miss the accumulating shock he gave to the characters' lives of cozy self-satisfaction. Director Pam MacKinnon... spells things out here instead of letting Albee toy with us through suggestion and suspense."

Award for best summing-up line, however, goes to the New York Post: "This new A Delicate Balance is like a Christmas fruitcake that's been left out too long: It's boozy and loaded with goodies — Glenn Close! John Lithgow! — but it's also on the dry side."

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Mike Nichols
Mike Nichols Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The Shubert Organization, which owns 17 of the 40 Broadway theatres, now owns some more theatres. It has completed an agreement to acquire New World Stages, the complex of five Off-Broadway playhouses located at 340 West 50th Street.

The Shubert Organization announced Nov. 18 that all currently running productions at New World Stages, Avenue Q, Gazillion Bubble Show, Blank! The Musical and iLuminate, will continue under the agreement. The five theatres at New World Stages range in size from 199 to 499 seats.

As previously reported, the Shuberts were expected to spend seven figures to take over New World Stages. The news was reported this summer that the organization planned to purchase the complex.

It is expected that the move will create opportunity for the Shubert Organization to transfer fading Broadway shows into the Off-Broadway venue, as has been a common habit over the past decade.

*** The theatre will never see the likes of Mike Nichols again. The master of all directing domains (stage, film, TV) died this week at the age of 83.

Throughout his 50-plus year, Nichols was always active and nearly infallible — of, at least, he gave off that aura. His urbane, unflappable image as an all-knowing, supremely confident artist was forged in the '60s, when he abandoned a career as a worshipped comic performer (one half of Nichols & May), to become a stage director that couldn't seem to stage a flop (he piloted Neil Simon's early, career-defining comedies) and a film director that mastered the medium right out of the gate ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?").

He collected awards like baseball cards and worked with whatever actors he wanted, because every actor wanted to work with him. They had good reason. Though Nichols was never considered an auteur with a particular point of view (to me, he also seemed more like a cooler, modern George Abbott — expert, professional, imperious and a workaholic), he was known to coax brave and inventive performances out of actors.

Like Orson Welles and Elia Kazan (his idol) before him — and few others — he was equally successful in film and stage, directing not just well, and not just hits, but a number of productions in both disciplines that were both good and hits. There will not be another Mike Nichols. The time when a director could bridge both the theatre and movie worlds has passed. Theatre directors no longer have the prestige and cachet that would grant them an easy entry to Hollywood. And successful Hollywood directors don't see the benefit of bothering with Broadway more than one or twice. Nichols never left the theatre — though, like Kazan, he easily could have — because he liked it, was good at it and liked being good at it. His final stage show was Betrayal last season. It was a typical Nichols production: laden with stars, directed with polish and seeming ease. And a hit.

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