PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 27-Oct. 3: You Can't Take It with You and Country House Open; Steppenwolf Gets a New AD

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 27-Oct. 3: You Can't Take It with You and Country House Open; Steppenwolf Gets a New AD
 
The big surprise of the week was the critical reception that greeted the new Broadway revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's 1936 comedy You Can't Take It With You, starring James Earl Jones and a host of other theatre vets. Critics reacted with a communal groan when the production was first announced, thinking it a safe choice, and doubtless entered the Longacre Theatre expecting to be underwhelmed by the bygone familiarity of it all.

Kristine Nielsen and James Earl Jones
Kristine Nielsen and James Earl Jones Photo by Joan Marcus

Ben Brantley of the New York Times admitted as much in his review. "Though it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama," he wrote, "the very mention of You Can’t Take It With You is known to elicit shivers of revulsion among people who saw or appeared in high school productions. Its reputation trails adjectives that trigger gag reflexes: madcap, warm, life-affirming and 'crazy,' spoken with that special fondness reserved for tales of wholesome eccentricity."

But Brantley, and others, ate those preconceptions. He called Scott Ellis' production "felicitous," and added, "The evening's tone is set and sustained by Mr. Jones and Ms. Nielsen, who waltz through the show with the secret but infectious smiles of people listening to unheard, endorphin-boosting strains."

"Masterful the blueprint may be, but a weak ensemble and tin-eared direction can screw it up," weighed in Time Out New York. "But this revival is stuffed with the city’s finest comic talents. Besides the aforementioned pros, marvelous Reg Rogers lopes around the periphery as a raffish Russian dance teacher, while Julie Halston stops the show as a dipsomaniacal stage hack Penny brings home. Scott Ellis conducts the escalating craziness with style and grace."

The New York Post enthused, "This new revival crackles and pops, thanks to the battalion of expert zanies surrounding its solid anchor, James Earl Jones — it’s like 'The Expendables' of comedy."

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Blythe Danner
Blythe Danner Photo by Joan Marcus

Also opening this week was Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Donald Margulies' neo-Chekhovian work The Country House, which hands Blythe Danner one of the few leading roles in a new Broadway work she has enjoyed in some time. She plays "the matriarch of a brood of famous and longing-to-be-famous creative artists who have gathered at their Berkshires summerhouse during the Williamstown Theatre Festival." (Talk about writing what you know.)

Playwrights are routinely attracted to Chekhov, and occasionally attempt to create works in the Russian master's inimitable, soulful, seriocomic, action-less style. Newsday thought that such temptations ought to be resisted: "It is easy to understand why playwrights, especially those fascinated by the layers of human relationships, are drawn to the work of Anton Chekhov...Except for the fine cast led by the formidably elegant Blythe Danner, however, there is little else that feels right enough about The Country House. ...[but] the banter is hackneyed and, ultimately, the crises are pointless. Worse, these people are dull."

Variety though Margulies extremely fortunately in his collaborators. "Donald Margulies gets a big, sloppy kiss from leading lady Blythe Danner," the paper wrote, "who is effortlessly lovely and irresistibly charismatic as the queenly head of a fractious theatrical family… The scribe also gets a big hug from Daniel Sullivan's buttery direction, which slathers a golden gloss over the plot holes and character cracks in his pleasant but hardly earth-moving play."

Most reviews pointed out Danner as the show's best feature. "The most satisfying and exasperating aspect …is Ms. Danner's performance," said the Times. "Because this actress is so good at playing an actress, she makes us long for another, deeper play that would allow her fuller range. As it is, Ms. Danner still commits fully to every trait, both magnetic and repellent, that Anna is meant to embody."

Likewise, most reviews singled out the play itself as the weakest link. "The tone wobbles like one of those air socks at a car dealership: now inflated, now bent, mostly becalmed and flaccid," said New York magazine. Critical comparison to car dealership air socks—that's a new one.

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Carlos Celdran
Carlos Celdran

What is it about Imelda Marcos that is so attractive to playwrights and composers?

The widow of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos was a character in Anne Washburn's 2004 play The Ladies. More famously, she is the central figure of the Fatboy Slim-David Byrne musical Here Lies Love.

And now we have another Imelda play. Ma-Yi Theater Company will present Livin’ La Vida Imelda by Carlos Celdran, which will open Nov. 5. According to the theatre, the play "began as a walking tour devised by Carlos Celdran that takes you through the vast cultural complex built by Imelda Marcos in Manila. This tour gave Mr. Celdran the map he needed to take a deep dive into Imelda’s history, and tell her story using architecture."

Imelda Marcos yet lives. She is 85. Perhaps she'll write a play herself, about herself. It's obviously a growth industry.

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Finding Neverland, the new musical based on the 2004 Miramax film about Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie, has had a troubled history. Nevertheless, it will arrive on Broadway as long planned.

The show will open in March 2015 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, producer Harvey Weinstein announced Sept. 29.

Finding Neverland, which features a score by U.K. pop songwriters Gary Barlow and Elliot Kennedy and is also based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, finished its pre-Broadway run at the American Repertory Theater Sept. 28. Diane Paulus directs.

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The Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company has announced its first new artistic director in two decades.

Tony Award-winning director Anna D. Shapiro has been named to succeed Martha Lavey. Lavey, who has served as the theatre's artistic director since 1995—nearly three times longer than any past a.d. in the 40-year history of the storied company—will step down following the 2014-15 season.

In the past several years, Shapiro has made an enormous name for herself as a director of critical and popular successes on Broadway, beginning with the Broadway transfer of Steppenwolf's August: Osage County. Shapiro is currently represented on Broadway with Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth, another Steppenwolf-to-Broadway transfer. Last season she helmed a Broadway revival of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and was Tony-nominated for her work on The Motherf**ker With the Hat in 2011. Shapiro's upcoming projects include the Broadway premiere of Larry David's Fish in the Dark this spring.

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