PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 7-13: Is All the Way Broadway Bound? and Fetch Clay, Make Man and The Old Friends Open

ICYMI   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 7-13: Is All the Way Broadway Bound? and Fetch Clay, Make Man and The Old Friends Open
 
Should all the stars align, one of the hottest tickets on Broadway this spring will be a historical drama — a genre that rarely makes hay in New York — that had its premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — an admired company, but one that has never sent a production to Gotham — written by a playwright whose work hasn't graced Broadway in more than two decades, Robert Schenkkan.

Bryan Cranston
Bryan Cranston Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The lynchpin making all these improbabilities distinctly probable is actor Bryan Cranston, who plays President Lyndon Johnson in Schenkkan's All The Way. Cranston, the Emmy-winning star of AMC's "Breaking Bad" — now in its final season — is, without exaggeration, the most acclaimed actor in television today, a magnetic figure who, based on his towering performances as milquetoast-turned-drug-king Walter White lends electricity to every project he touches.

Until now, those projects were largely movies. All the Way is the first play Cranston has tackled in, well, forever. And he has sent the property through the roof. The drama got good reviews in Oregon and its run at the American Repertory Theater, set to begin Sept. 13, is nearly sold out. Producers are circling the production like sharks who haven't had a good dinner in a week. (Jeffrey Richards, who has a relationship with ART, is, as always, the leading candidate here.) If the reviews are good in Boston, and Cranston is available, the project will likely be rocketed to Broadway. Heck, even if the reviews are bad, the thing will get there, if Cranston is willing. There are probably few fans of "Breaking Bad" who wouldn't be willing to spend $100 to see what the man can do on a stage.

The drama follows Johnson during his first year in office, from the assassination of JFK to the passage of his landmark Civil Rights legislation. In addition to Cranston, the premiere cast includes Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King Jr., Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover, Reed Birney as Hubert Humphrey and Betsy Aidem as Lady Bird Johnson.

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There were a few significant Off-Broadway openings this week. The New York Theatre Workshop production of Will Power's Fetch Clay, Make Man officially opened Sept. 12. Directed by Des McAnuff, the play tells of the unlikely friendship between the proudly individualistic boxer Cassius Clay (who would become Muhammad Ali) with the Hollywood star Stepin Fetchit, who made his fortune playing black stereotypes on the screen.

Betty Buckley
Photo by Joan Marcus

The reviews were good, all inevitably saying the production "packed a punch." The Daily News cheered the show, writing, "Elegantly acted, directed and designed, the drama is showcased in a knockout production at New York Theatre Workshop." Time Out New York said, "Power lays them out with satisfying complexity, and the play’s crash of symbols has lingering resonance." The New York Times agreed that it was "an eye-poppingly sleek production" and an intriguing play," but that "the dramatic adrenaline necessary to create a powerful play does not entirely materialize." McAnuff won particular praise in many reviews. "Somehow, the odd pairing works," wrote the New York Post, "a tribute to the equally surprising addition of director Des McAnuff, famed for flashier Broadway spectacles like Jersey Boys. His staging here is so kinetic and stylish — and makes such excellent use of Justin Ellington’s original music — that you stay engaged even when Power’s script loses momentum in the second act." 

A very different sort of premiere, of Horton Foote's quiet drama The Old Friends, opened the same day at the at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The production stars Betty Buckley and old Foote hands ("Foote hands," heh heh) Hallie Foote and Lois Smith

Directed by Michael Wilson, the play tells of matriarch Mamie Borden and the remaining members of two longtime Texas farming families as they await a visit from Mamie's son Hugo and his wife Sybil — who arrive with alarming news that divides the old friends. 

Critics found the work, first written in the 1960s but often revived, an admirable enough piece of Footean prose, but "more voluble and melodramatic territory than his usually more genteel efforts" (The Hollywood Reporter).

The Times called the play disorientingly of-its-time, for a Foote work, "a lively potboiler of a production" that "suggests that Foote might have been dipping into the best-selling fiction of his contemporary Harold Robbins." Variety found the terrain welcoming in its familiarity: "There’s a lot of exposition to get through before the festivities can begin, but once the awkward preliminaries are over and the cast hits its stride, we can relax and enjoy the endearing monsters that Foote has created."

Harvey Fierstein

The Daily News, however, observed that the fine production "can’t camouflage moments that reek of shrill soap opera — louder, less gentle and more cartoonish than Foote’s best works. And drunker. Liquor flows freely in this colorful character study about resilience and patience." ***

In the last decade, Harvey Fierstein has successfully revived his careers as an actor (Hairspray, Fiddler on the Roof, etc.) and bookwriter (Newsies, Kinky Boots). But his standing as a playwright remains somewhat in the doldrums — an irony, perhaps, given that it was that skill that first brought him to widespread attention with 1982's Torch Song Trilogy.

This spring will see Fierstein's first new Broadway play in more than a quarter century. Casa Valentina will receive its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in April 2014.

Directed by Joe Mantello, the play is set in 1962, and takes places at an inconspicuous bungalow colony in the Catskills "that catered to a very special clientele: heterosexual men whose favorite pastime was dressing and acting as women." The work is inspired by factual events, and is based on a true location, the Chevalier d'Eon resort, also known as Casa Susana. No casting has been announced.

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The acclaimed Off-Broadway production of Jonathan Tolins' one-man comedy Buyer & Cellar, which stars Michael Urie, is going national.

The surprise hit, which recently recouped its investment, will play a Chicago engagement in spring 2014 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. Daryl Roth, Darren Bagert, Dan Shaheen and Ted Snowdon will present the Chicago engagement of the comedy about an unemployed actor who lands a new job working in Barbra Streisand's basement.

Plans are also underway to take the production to San Francisco, Toronto and Dallas.

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