PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 23-29: Of Mice and Men and Violet Coming to Broadway, Stewart and McKellen Open to Raves and The Flea to Expand

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29 Nov 2013

James Franco
James Franco
ABC

Film actor James Franco seems to have done a little bit of everything with his still young career — acting, screenwriting, directing, teaching and being a famously truant NYU graduate student. Now, the Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner will give Broadway a try.

Franco and Chris O'Dowd will make their Broadway debuts in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which will begin previews at Broadway's Longacre Theatre March 19, 2014. Franco will play George, the small, smart one, and O'Dowd will be Lenny, the big, mentally disabled one. Anna D. Shapiro will direct.

"Of Mice and Men" began as a novella published in 1937 by Nobel Prize winner Steinbeck. It was adapted for the screen several times and as a radio play for the BBC. The first stage production was directed by George S. Kaufman in 1937 and ran for 207 performances.

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Only one season old and New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center — an off-shoot of Encores! that focuses on past Off-Broadway musicals — already has its first Broadway transfer.

Sutton Foster will star in the Broadway premiere of Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's 1997 musical Violet, about a disfigured young woman on a cross-country journey seeking transformation through faith. It will be presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company and directed by Leigh Silverman, beginning performances March 28, 2014, at the American Airlines Theatre.

This production is based on the 2013 Encores! Off-Center production of Violet, which starred Foster and was directed by Silverman.

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Mark Rylance in Tweflth Night.
photo by Joan Marcus

The fall's first in-repertory attractions — Mark Rylance's Twelfth Night and Richard III — opened to huzzahs earlier this month. This week, it was the turn of the season's second rotating double bill of classics, Harold Pinter's No Man's Land and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. And they were equally well-received.

Mostly, critics were delighted with the actors and the chance to see them gnaw away on a quartet of classic roles. "Both actors," said Newsday, "neither one immune to the lure of excess showmanship, are terrific — stylish, disciplined, strikingly different." A few critics noted how Stewart and McKellen's showmanship made the famously enigmatic plays more accessible. "Both Land and Godot, in fact, prove that the most challenging and unsettling material can make for accessible, even buoyant, entertainment," wrote USA Today. The New York Times echoed the sentiment, saying, "I have never before heard American audiences respond to any production of Pinter of Beckett with such warm and embracing laughter."

Laila Robins, Sally Murphy and Maryann Plunkett in Regular Singing.
Photo by Jan Marcus

The Times offered a "caveat" to its praise, however: "[The] productions seldom give full value to the deep mortal chill of these plays, of the fraught dangers in Pinter's universe or the aching pathos within Beckett's. Ideally, you should leave No Man's Land and Godot with a shiver as well as a smile. These productions mostly stay, comfortably and tantalizingly, on the surface."

The shows also proved a return to form for their director. "Sean Mathias redeems himself for the misstep of Breakfast at Tiffany's on this same Broadway stage last season with his tight direction of the ensemble here," declared Hollywood Reporter.

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The week also saw the opening of Regular Singing, the final work in Richard Nelson's four-play series about one garrulous and close-knit American family. As with the previous three plays about the Apple family of Rhinebeck, NY, it opened on the day the play's action is set: Nov. 22, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Over the past three years, and three preceding dramas, the series has grown in reputation. The first play, 2010's That Hopey Changey Thing, was thought to be an interesting experience in of-the-moment playwriting, and passed without a great deal of notice. The second, Sweet and Sad, received the best notices of the four. By the time the third, Sorry, arrived last year, the Apple Family plays had attained to level of Important Cultural Event.

The cast of Regular Singing includes four actors who have appeared in all of the plays: Maryann Plunkett, Jon DeVries, Laila Robins and Jay O. Sanders. Newly added to the cast were Stephen Kunken and Sally Murphy, who played roles created by J. Smith-Cameron and Shuler Hensley, who are occupied performing other plays this fall.

This ensemble of seasoned character actors — all respected, but none of them stars — was, as usual, lavishly praised. "And so it has fallen to the six-person cast to create the plays each night," wrote New York magazine. "I cannot recall a finer or more extreme example of naturalistic ensemble acting in all my years of theatergoing. I say 'extreme' because naturalism actually gets uncomfortable when it seems to shed the protective layer of artifice. It’s not that the metaphorical fourth wall is broken, it’s that it moves behind you intact; you are sealed in the room. As such, each actor is radically exposed, even when not speaking."

The Daily News, in true tabloid form, put it in pithier terms: "Another night with the fictional Apple family, another master class in acting so natural that the six-member ensemble should come with ORGANIC stamps."

All four plays run in rep through mid-December.

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Why should only the big boys of New York theatre get to do the expanding?

The Flea Theater artistic director Jim Simpson — perhaps inspired by the growing dimensions of such companies as Signature Theatre Company, Theatre for a New Audience and St. Ann's Warehouse — announced that the Off-Off-Broadway company will build a three-theatre performing arts complex that will serve as the organization's new home in TriBeCa. A groundbreaking ceremony for the project will take place Dec. 5.

Simpson said in a statement that the reason for the new building is "because we've outgrown our old one. With 16 shows a year our dressing rooms are cramped, storage is non-existent and we turn projects away due to scheduling constraints. The new Flea will give three beautiful, unique and intimate spaces to the off-off-Broadway community and let us do more of what we do best: help emerging artists practice their craft, established artists try new things and mid-career artists establish their identity."

The Flea was founded in 1995 at its current location at 41 White Street. The current space features two theatres, the original 74-seat upstairs flexible space and a downstairs 40-seat playhouse that was added later. The company previously purchased a building at 20 Thomas Street, four blocks south of their current location, with seed money from their board of directors and state and city funding. Now, the company has raised 95 percent of the funds needed to build the performing arts complex.

Maybe now the company will have to name itself after a bigger bug.

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Less than a decade after the playwright's death and only four years after opening its doors, Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center for African American Culture is facing closure, according to the New York Times.

The $42 million culture center opened in 2009 after raising $36 million from government and private sources. It also took on a $11 million loan from Dollar Bank to complete its construction.

In September Dollar Bank sued to foreclose after having not been paid for eight months.

Mark Clayton Southers, a former director of its theatre program, said in an interview with the New York Times that the Wilson Center was unable to find an audience among the people portrayed in Wilson's plays.

"You can't build it and they will come," Southers told the Times. "Not when you're trying to work with a community that is not traditional theatregoers or cultural consumers."