PLAYBILL.COM'S WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 10-16: Enter the Plays

ICYMI   PLAYBILL.COM'S WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 10-16: Enter the Plays With the Jan. 11 exit of the well-regarded Broadway productions of Spamalot and Gypsy, as well as the limited-engagement revival of All My Sons, Broadway seemed eager in the past week to quickly rebalance itself for what's imminently ahead in 2009. That is, producers made casting and theatre announcements for new productions.
http://images.playbill.com/photo/w/i/wircloses92.jpg

In this nervous economy, it has been noted, plays seem to be the thing. For starters, they are cheaper to produce than big musicals. Even better if you budget them with a limited-engagement plan, and spike the marquee with stars. Observers have often moaned in recent years of the dearth of plays on Broadway, but here come some genuinely new or unfamiliar non-musical titles, with movie or TV stars attached: Jane Fonda in writer-director Moisés Kaufman's 33 Variations, Jeff Daniels in God of Carnage and Geoffrey Rush in Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King.

It was announced this week that Colin Hanks (Tom's son), Samantha Mathis, Zach Grenier, Don Amendolia, Susan Kellermann and Erik Steele had joined 33 Variations, about a modern woman (played by Fonda) investigating the genius of Beethoven (played by Grenier) while dealing with her own issues (Mathis plays her daughter, Hanks plays a nurse). The play will surely please classical music fans; the respected pianist Diane Walsh is also part of the cast. Performances begin Feb. 9 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. The official opening will be March 9. The limited engagement will play through May 24.

Also this week, Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden were announced for the Broadway staging of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage — translated by Christopher Hampton — which will begin previews at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre Feb. 28. The play, seen in London, will open on Broadway March 22 with this American cast, directed by Matthew Warchus.

It's "a comedy of manners without the manners," the producers said. It "deals with the aftermath of a playground altercation between two boys and what happens when their parents meet to talk about it."

Official word about a Broadway run of Ionesco's Exit the King came this week also. "Six Feet Under" star Lauren Ambrose of Broadway's Awake and Sing!, Tony Award winner Andrea Martin (My Favorite Year, Young Frankenstein) will star with Rush, who won an Academy Award for his performance in "Shine," and fellow Oscar winner Susan Sarandon. Performances will begin March 7 at the Barrymore Theatre with an official opening March 26; the limited engagement will run through June 14.

Australian director Neil Armfield will helm the production. He directed the play, which features a translation by the director and actor Rush, last year at the Belvoir St. Theatre in Sydney. Rush also starred Down Under.

Exit the King is called "a hilarious and poignant comedy about a megalomaniacal ruler, King Berenger (Rush) whose incompetence has left his country in near ruin. Despite the efforts of Queen Marguerite (Sarandon) and the other members of the court to convince the King he has only 90 minutes left to live, he refuses to relinquish any control."

***

Scene from Soul of Shaolin
photo by Joan Marcus

Soul of Shaolin, the martial arts-driven tale of an orphan boy raised in the ancient ways of monks, opened at the Marquis Theatre Jan. 15, marking the first time a production from the People's Republic of China has appeared on Broadway. Seen in other cities throughout the world, this mix of dance, martial arts, acrobatics, potent music and vivid theatrical design, plays only 24 performances, to Jan. 31. Previews began Jan. 13. Nederlander Worldwide Productions, LLC and The Eastern Shanghai International Culture Film & Television Group are partnering to present the production, under the producing brand China on Broadway. Executive producers are Fang Jun and Robert Nederlander, Jr.

***

"Fargo" Academy Award nominee William H. Macy stepped into the role of Bobby Gould Jan. 13 in the acclaimed Broadway revival of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Macy succeeded Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz, who played his final performance Jan. 11. Butz had replaced original star Jeremy Piven, who abruptly departed the production in December 2008 citing high levels of mercury in his system, a result, he said, of eating sushi every day for the past 20 years.

In a televised Golden Globes Awards red-carpet interview with former pro football player (turned journalist) Tiki Barber on Jan. 11, Piven spoke of the illness. He seemed thrown when Barber suggested that ballplayers are trained to suck it up and get back the game. (We're not making this up.)

Speed-the-Plow, which co-stars Raul Esparza and Elisabeth Moss, is playing a limited engagement through Feb. 22. ***

Tom O'Horgan, the Drama Desk Award-winning, Tony-nominated director who brought a downtown ethic to his Broadway projects, including the original Broadway productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, died in his sleep Jan. 11 at his home in Venice, FL. He was influential in helping re-shape Hair between its Public Theater launch in 1967 and its Broadway bow in 1968. O'Horgan, a composer, singer, actor, director and musician who directed many productions for Café La Mama, the downtown Manhattan institution that embraced experimental and non-commercial works, had suffered from Alzheimer's disease in recent years. He was 84 years old.

In the early 1970s Mr. O'Horgan was a major name on Broadway, challenging the establishment and making money for it at the same time. At one point, he had four Broadway projects on the boards: He was director of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Lenny and Inner City.

In 1969 he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for Hair.

***

Bad news this week for fans of risky Off-Broadway fare in midtown Manhattan: The Zipper Factory, the funky West 37th Street space that offered edgy plays, pop and rock musicals, concerts, comedy and more, closed its doors Jan. 13, owner Lee Z. Davis announced. No other explanation was given.

The Zipper — housed in a former zipper production space in the fashion/garment district just below Times Square — opened in October 2001 with a production of Charles L. Mee's True Love directed by Daniel Fish and starring Dallas Roberts and Jayne Houdyshell. Over the years, and run by various partners, the theatre was home to such shows as Margaret Cho's The Sensuous Woman (fall 2007); Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (2006-07); Here Lies Jenny starring Bebe Neuwirth (summer-fall 2004); Sarah Silverman's Jesus is Magic (spring 2003), BETTY Rules (fall 2002-spring 2003); and Alan Cumming's adaptation of Jean Genet's Elle (summer 2002).

The auditorium seating, comprised of abandoned car seats (some with seatbelts intact), gave the venue a shaggy East Villlage vibe, blocks away from the Broadway theatre district.

***

The Really Useful Group, the musical entertainment company founded by Andrew Lloyd Webber, has begun discussions with several video game publishers, it was announced this week.

The company, according to a press statement, is looking to "take its portfolio of world-famous brands into the interactive entertainment sphere." The Really Useful Group owns such global properties as Cats, Sunset Blvd., Evita and The Phantom of the Opera.

Can we expect Phantom: Combat Zone, Killing Norma Desmond and Shooting Cats in a Junkyard?

Douglas Glen, head of Digital Strategy for The Really Useful Group, said in a statement, "With the video gaming audience having moved from its male-dominated roots towards a more family-oriented demographic, now is the perfect time for us to take some of the best-known names in musical entertainment in a more interactive direction. Our aim is to find a partner who will work across our entire catalogue to deliver high-quality games on a variety of hardware platforms."

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com.)