PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Oct. 22-28: Sons of the Prophet, Chinglish, Asuncion and Hugh Jackman

ICYMI   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Oct. 22-28: Sons of the Prophet, Chinglish, Asuncion and Hugh Jackman Tony Award winning playwright David Henry Hwang — whose most recent Broadway credits include curious musical items like Tarzan and Flower Drum Song, for which he wrote, or rewrote, the books — this week had his first Broadway opening of an original play since 1998's Golden Child. Chinglish, a comedy about an Ohio businessman selling his goods in China where there is mutual misunderstanding of language and business etiquette, was unveiled on Broadway Oct. 27 at the Longacre Theatre.

Jennifer Lim and Gary Wilmes
Jennifer Lim and Gary Wilmes Photo by Michael McCabe

Reception was mixed to positive. Everyone seemed to agree that the comedy was amusing; the argument was about just how amusing it was. More than a few critics thought the tale of Chinese-American business gone awry was a one-note joke "laid out with the frame-by-frame exactness of a comic strip." Others, however, believed the play's value went beyond that. "Hwang has built a bilingual farce about mistranslation that explores the cultural differences between China and America using two languages, and then layered a love story on top of it to illustrate the divide," said AP. "This is fresh, energetic and unlike anything else on Broadway." The Chicago Tribune wrote "that Americans and Chinese are doomed to misunderstand each other because of their semiotic incompatibilities — only takes the show so far...But it's the new power structure bubbling below the jokes, Hwang's savvy sense of the evolution in the tools of Chinese seduction and in the nature of Western vulnerability, that gives the show its restless undercurrent."

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Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Bartha in Asuncion.
photo by Sandra Coudert

The Rattlestick Playwrights Theater opened the latest actor-written play to premiere in New York this year. This one is the work of film star Jesse Eisenberg and called Asuncion, and stars Eisenberg himself as well as Justin Bartha, Remy Auberjonois and Camille Mana.

The critical verdict was that Eisenberg's entry was better than its predecessors — but only just. "Actors-turned-playwrights are proliferating this theatre season, and two prominent Off Broadway debuts — Zach Braff’s All Good People and Zoe Kazan’s We Live Here — have provided no compelling reason to celebrate the trend," wrote Hollywood Reporter. "But while those plays displayed too little skill, maturity or emotional authenticity to justify the production resources lavished upon them, Jesse Eisenberg's Asuncion shows promise." Other critics called the political-correctness-skewering comedy — about two self-inflating slackers who are asked to watch over one of the men's new sister-in-law, who is of Filipino descent — was "sly but slight" and "a wisp of a play." They found the forced plot a "nonstarter" that didn't stand up to critical analysis, but allowed that Eisenberg had a way with dialogue and character.

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Santino Fontano and Yusef Bulos in Sons of the Prophet.
photo by Joan Marcus

The big critical winner of the week was the Roundabout Theatre Company production of Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet, which it had commissioned, and which opened at the Laura Pels Theatre. (It opened Oct. 20 and should have been in last week's column; sorry, reader.)

The comic drama dwells on the travails of the star-crossed Douaihy family, and the various ways the people around them try to deal with, and/or exploit, their knack for tragedy. Critics found the play a deft, thoughtful and graceful mix of comedy and drama. "To observe that a play about extreme suffering is also explosively funny might seem absurd," wrote the Times. "But one of the many soul-piercing truths in Sons of the Prophet, the absolutely wonderful new comedy-drama by Stephen Karam, is that life rarely obeys the rules of dramatic consistency, or, for that matter, fair play." Variety observed that Karam "writes from an off-kilter sensibility that sees something bitterly funny in life's tragedies. In his dark comedy, [he] uses the biblical misfortunes of a Lebanese-American family to make light of death, disease, and physical infirmity — and the compulsion of our cynical age to exploit all that misery for the commercial marketplace."

By the end of this week, the play had been extended, the Roundabout said it hoped to move the show to Broadway, and the nonprofit announced it had commissioned Karam to write another play. Now, that's a good week for a playwright.

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Hugh Jackman
photo by Joan Marcus

As much as the Tonys might want to give a trophy to box-office rainmaker Hugh Jackman — whose one-man concert began previews on Broadway this week — they can't. Jackman, as well as Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, who are also concertizing this season, will not be eligible for the awards. A spokesperson for Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway and An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin said that the producers of both presentations "do not plan to invite awards organizations." Guess I should stop waiting for that press invite for Hugh's splash.

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13P, the Obie-winning playwrights collective established in 2003, announced its final productions: Erin Courtney's A Map of Virtue and a new play by Sarah Ruhl. And with that, the company will disband.

In its early days, 13P received a wheelbarrow-ful of press for it dedication to the playwright. The company was conceived as a dramatist-driven organization that focused on giving writers full productions, as opposed to endless readings and developmental workshops. The 13 writers of the title are Sheila Callaghan, Madeleine George, Rob Handel, Ann Marie Healy, Julia Jarcho, Young Jean Lee, Winter Miller, Kate E. Ryan, Lucy Thurber, Anne Washburn, Gary Winter, Courney and Ruhl.

That Ruhl should receive the final 13P production is not surprising. She's been busy. One of the ironies of the company's history is that, soon after its formation, Ruhl became the company's most famous writer — but for reasons wholly unrelated to her membership in the troupe. Plays by Ruhl landed at Lincoln Center Theater, Playwrights Horizons and on Broadway, and the writer collected a Tony nomination, a MacArthur Fellowship and was a Pulitzer finalist twice. No doubt, a Ruhl premiere will mean that 13P will go out with a bang — and a Charles Isherwood New York Times review.

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Sunday in the Park With George, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical inspection of the work and wife of French Post-Impressionist George Seurat, is finally going to get its premiere in the land of the painter's birth.

Jean-Luc Choplin, the director of the Le Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, said in an interview with Playbill.com this week that he is planning a 2012-13 season that includes a production of Sunday in the Park as part of his pioneering efforts to introduce the works of Sondheim, in English, to Parisian audiences. Its French premiere will be presented in English with French surtitles, as are all Châtelet productions of American musicals there.

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