PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Oct. 4-10: Curious Incident Thrills the Senses and We Bid Farewell to Marian Seldes

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Oct. 4-10: Curious Incident Thrills the Senses and We Bid Farewell to Marian Seldes There were two big openings on Broadway this week, one an already proven box-office success that did well with the critics as well, and one a box-office success that, that did well with some of the critics, but not others.

Alexander Sharp
Alexander Sharp Photo by Joan Marcus

The lucky first opening was the curious British import with the curious name The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The acclaimed new play by Simon Stephens, based on Mark Haddon's book, about a socially awkward, 15-year-old mathematical savant who must get to the bottom of the mysterious death of his neighbor's dog, officially opened Oct. 5 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Critics found the work an unusual, visually dazzling, and very much a thing all its own. It's doubtful the New York critics have ever used the word "sensory" as often as they did to describe this production, or refer as frequently to a person named Bunny.

"This is one of the most fully immersive works ever to wallop Broadway," declared the New York Times. "So be prepared to have all your emotional and sensory buttons pushed, including a few you may have not known existed."

Associated Press offered this slightly frightening description: "When [director Marianne] Elliott's kinetic vision and Bunny Christie's dazzling technological design — alternately playful and alarming — combine, the orderly grid explodes with fantastical projections including constellations, outer space, complicated city maps and terrifying escalators."

Time Out New York said the show was "awash in video projections and moving parts (the ingenious grid-lined set is by Bunny Christie)" and that "Simon Stephens's lean, fast-moving adaptation makes smart use of the ensemble to create a polyphony of voices for narrative heavy lifting, while his domestic scenes don't stint on grimness."

The Hollywood Reporter, taking pains (as did several critics) to praise every member of the design team, cheered that, "The technical elements alone are breathtaking — the kaleidoscopic wash of Paule Constable's lighting with its splashes of DayGlo fluorescence; the explosive cascades and geometric graphics of Finn Ross' video designs; the sensory grip of Ian Dickinson's wraparound sound; the pulsing jolts of Adrian Sutton's techno score; the bold starkness of Bunny Christie's set."

Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane
Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane Photo by Joan Marcus

Newsday chimed in with, "The results brilliantly capture the sensory overload in the journey of a sweet, compulsive, instinctive and unpredictably violent child."

Perhaps they should rename the show The Sensory Incident of the Theatre Designers in the Night-Time.

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The other opening was the out-of-the-gate box-office smash It's Only a Play. A revival of this 1980s Terrence McNally would have garnered little attention on its own. A revival starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick sent ticketbuyers scurrying to their laptops. (There's also an Oscar winner and "Harry Potter" actor in the cast, for what it's worth.) The backstage comedy, which takes place on the opening night of a Broadway play, officially opened Oct. 9 at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

Let it first be said that it doesn't really matter what the critics said on this one. The production's already a money-minting success. That stated, this is what the critics said. AP called it "a pure hoot, a rollicking comedy with perfect casting and deft direction in Jack O'Brien that gleefully dissects modern Broadway and doesn't pretend to mask its targets by using fake names...Lane is the unquestionable star here, at his droll best with perfect timing, mugging when he needs to or raising a haughty eyebrow to sell a joke the next. The rest of the cast — including a really remarkable Broadway debut by Stock in a company of powerful stars — is superb, all hysterical at first and then revealing deeper desires as the play continues."

The New York Times' Ben Brantley, when he got through talking about himself (Brantley is mentioned in the play), said, "[Lane's] portrayal here of James Wicker... is sterling. He and Ms. Channing — who is hilarious as a washed-up, substance-and-plastic-surgery-abusing Hollywood star — give the show a sheen and a heart it might otherwise lack... Mr. McNally's play is a bit more old-fashioned, perhaps, but then so is the theater, God bless it."

"Nobody does mean-nasty-vicious like Terrence McNally, bless his black heart," wrote Variety. "The comedy's slight plot, about the high drama (and low comedy) of the opening night of a new Broadway show, is still a trifle. But the well-aimed and highly personal zingers are more malicious, and delicious, this time out."

Not everyone was happy though. The Daily News labeled it "wildly hit and miss — Lane is the hit, while Broderick is the, well, you know." The Chicago Tribune called it "a depressingly uneven production."

"Mostly plotless and spun from the sketchiest of stereotypes and hoariest of showbiz prejudices, this insider trifle is too long, too shallow and not nearly funny enough," commented Time Out New York. "There are the customary paeans to the nobility of theater artists and their sacrifices for the wicked stage, but the evening's dominant mood is bitter, out-of-touch self-regard."

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Paul Nolan
Paul Nolan Photo by Joan Marcus

The Tony Award and Grammy Award-winning Best Musical Once will play its final Broadway performance Jan. 4, 2015, producers announced Oct. 7.

By the time of closing, the musical will have played 1,167 regular performances and 22 previews. It hasn't been a big seller for some months but, probably owing to low production costs (one set, no stars, etc.), it chugged along for a good long time.

The most-awarded show of the 2012 New York theatre season, the lo-fi, unshowy Once won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The production also won Best Musical from the New York Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Drama League, Outer Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel Awards as well as the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.

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Marian Seldes did me the favor of writing the introduction to my 2004 collection of theatre profiles "On Broadway, Men Still Wear Hats." The book was filled with sketches of theatre eccentrics who made their singular livings on the sidelines and in the shadows of the New York theatre. Since Seldes was a singular character herself, she seemed a natural choice for the job.

Marian Seldes
Marian Seldes Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

That said, she needn't have done it. Seldes was a legend and an ever-busy actress. I'm sure she hadn't the time. But she was also a gracious person — the sort of woman who would do something simply because it was the right thing to do, and the nice thing to do — and one of the few stage actors who bothered to not only pay attention, but lavish attention on theatre journalists.

She not only wrote the introduction but agreed to participate in book-launch event at the Drama Book Shop, where she read a section from the book. We offered to send a car for her, but she insisted on taking public transportation. She arrived dressed in her usual royal purple, took me by the hand and called me "Darling." She may have held my face in her hands. (I'd like to think so; she certainly did that with many people she met.) She read beautifully, of course, with theatricality and feeling and paused only once before a section that contained some blue language. She declined to read that part because, she said, it would detract from her reputation as a lady.

Seldes dies this week at the age of 86. She was a career stage actress and an accomplished one, with the famous credits (mainly in Albee plays) and award nominations to show for it. But she was also something else that other career actresses never achieve. She was theatre itself.

In a world populated by florid characters, Ms. Seldes stood out. Tall and angular, her pale face, high cheekbones and arched eyebrows made up to Kabuki-like levels, she entered a room or a stage with the grandiosity and sense of pomp of a Katharine Cornell (one of her early teachers). Yet, in person, she was far from aloof. She listened attentively and spoke carefully in a highly affected, breathy voice which nonetheless, for her, sounded perfectly natural. Ms. Seldes espoused a seemingly sincere belief in the importance of community in theatre circles, and could not be made to publicly say a bad word about anyone.

On stage, her manner was a similar sui generis mix of histrionic mannerisms, theatrical elocution, poised technique and warm naturalism. She was generally accounted a good actress, if a highly stylized one. Perhaps no one else in the theatre could get away with the outsized gestures she executed. She was born into a rarified cultural world, the daughter of Alice "Amanda" Wadhams Hall, a socialite from a prominent WASP family, and Gilbert Seldes, the journalist, author, and editor who was drama critic of Dial Magazine. And she carried that sophisticated upbringing inside her for the rest of her life. She was more than art's humble servant. She was its happy emissary. As actress Laura Linney, a student of hers, once said, "Marian is our touchstone to those theatrical ancestors. She provides an inspiration that makes you want to reach outside of yourself to something more potent and powerful. When I'm in a show and Marian comes, it's like having a guardian there, a personified reminder of standard. "

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