PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 24-Dec. 1: Three for Broadway

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 24-Dec. 1: Three for Broadway Broadway seemed like a pretty eventful place this week. Between Sunday and Thursday, three of the biggest shows of the fall season opened, stirring the blood of the community and its critics. They were: the first peak of Tom Stoppard's mountainous work, The Coast of Utopia; current Golden Boy director John Doyle's new spin on Stephen Sondheim's Company; and the latest from the world's preeminent political playwright David Hare, The Vertical Hour. Taken together, they gave the critical corps—men and women who typically have to spin straw into gold, so paltry is the material they often have to wrestle with—lots to chew on.

The reception of The Coast of Utopia - Voyage was something of a happy surprise. The trilogy got mixed marks in London, but a winnowing of the text seemed to do the trick and the critics all sounded downright surprised that that they like the show so much. Calling it involving, exciting, expertly staged and acted, and declaring their appetite well-whetted for Part Two, they did prose back flips to convince their readers the show was more than just the snob hit of the season. An extension is expected. There's still Shipwreck and Salvage to come, and anything could happen, but for now Lincoln Center Theatre must be feeling that its millions were spent well.

Company came next, loaded down with expectations. Doyle's reinvention of Sweeney Todd was the toast of last season, and the Cincinnati premiere of the Doyle Company was heralded by reviewers earlier this year. Could Doyle escape the sophomore jinx? Well, yes and no. Reviews weren't as warm this time around. Some found the cast a notch below that in Todd, while others observed the travails of commitment-phobic Bobby were not in the same league as murderous malcontent Sweeney. Some found the cool staging elegant, others chilly and overly presentational. Still, many reviewers found Doyle's actors-as-orchestra gambit remained fresh and invigorating, and his treatment of the classic material illuminating. And since the good notices included the three major dailies and Variety, the show could be said to have scored a hit. All, too, considered Raul Esparza's laconic, sad, ruminative Bobby effective. Some called him the best Bobby yet.

Finally, came The Vertical Hour, Hare's latest dramatic assault on 9/11, Iraq, Bush and all that America uber alles stuff that has troubled the globe for the past five years. The play starred Julianne Moore and Bill Nighy, so reviews had three major bases to cover. The score: all A's for the sly, shifty and charismatic Nighy (rarely has an actor been so commented on for his expressive limbs and joints), who plays a charming British surgeon with a messy personal life and a sharp mind that can carve up any pro-Iraq argument in an epigram or two. Moore's average was a bit lower, though many gave her extra stars for effort in her portrayal of a restless, pro-war academic who's dating Nighy's son. Hare, too, got some high scores (invigorating, challenging) and some low (unfocused, heavy-handed), though most admitted he was hard to beat for intellectual engagement. As John Simon put it, "David Hare has attempted the most daring and difficult form of theatre: the play of ideas. It is only half-successful, which in this demanding mode is nevertheless worth a dozen of today's hits."

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Tom Stoppard got some more good news this week. His play Rock 'n' Roll won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play, and the production's star, Rufus Sewell, also won. Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change won for Best Musical. ***

Zoe Caldwell has found a reason to return to the stage. She will star American and English-language premiere of Yasmina Reza's A Spanish Play at the Classic Stage Company, Off-Broadway, beginning Jan. 10, 2007. John Turturro will direct the David Ives translation of the ensemble play about the rehearsal of a play. Co-starring are Katherine Borowitz, Linda Emond, Denis O'Hare and Larry Pine.

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Finally, lyricist-librettist Betty Comden died on Thanksgiving, giving everyone in the theatre less to be thankful for. Her writing partner of more than half a century, Adolph Green, predeceased her in 2002. Together, they filled the musical stage with enough fizz, pop and zip to power a Coca-Cola bottling plant for a year. You could find their enthusiasm for the theatre, for life and for New York City in their shows' very titles: On the Town, Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing, Hallelujah, Baby!, Applause, Peter Pan, The Will Rogers Follies. She was the button-down, worker bee of the duo, if either of them could be characterized in such serious terms; neither could be said to have "worn a tie" to work a day in their lives. So, sadly, Comden and Green's six-decade party is over. And, believe me, for them it was always a party.

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