PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 7-13: Magic/Bird Opens, John Guare's Next Play, Donna Murphy's Witch

By Robert Simonson
April 13, 2012

How is it that Neil LaBute and August Strindberg haven't gotten together before now? If ever there were predestined BFFs, it's these two guys.



Sweden's favorite malcontent dramatist will be married in print to America's most prominent misanthrope playwright in a new adaptation of Miss Julie which will bow at the Geffen Playhouse next February. LaBute himself will direct the story — about a flirtation between the daughter of a wealthy landowner and one of her daddy's footmen that doesn't go so well. There's plenty of viciousness on both ends, which is just LaBute's cup of meat. No word on what new twists he'll bring to the classic text.

Also set to premiere at Geffen next season will be Coney Island Christmas, a new work from playwright Donald Margulies. Based on a short story by Grace Paley, the fall production is billing as "a holiday show for people of all ages and all faiths," and tells of "Shirley Abramowitz, a young Jewish girl who (much to her immigrant parents' exasperation) is cast as Jesus in the School's Christmas pageant. As Shirley, now much older, recounts the memorable story to her great-granddaughter, the play captures a timeless and universal tale of what it means to be an American during the holidays." Margulies, we are reminded, is Jewish and was raised in Brooklyn, not far from Coney Island.

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The sweetest bit of casting this week was the announcement that Donna Murphy will play the Witch in the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park staging of the oft-revived Into the Woods. The role of the wise but wicked Witch was created in the original 1987 Broadway production by Bernadette Peters and played in the musical's revival by Vanessa Williams. The other role in the Sondheim musical that is traditionally handed over to star material — the Baker's Wife — will be played by film actress Amy Adams, who, after hanging out with muppets on screen last year, will spend some time with giants this summer.

Donna Murphy

Almost as exciting — if you're a Kenneth Lonergan fan — was the news that the Signature Theatre world premiere of his Medieval Play would star Anthony Arkin, Heather Burns, Tate Donovan, Kevin Geer, Josh Hamilton and David Pittu.

To followers of the erratic playwright's work, this news screamed only one thing: Lonergan reunion! Hamilton acted in the writer's breakout work, This Is Our Youth. Arkin was in The Waverly Gallery. Burns and Donovan, meanwhile, were two of the stars of Lobby Hero. (Throw in Matthew Broderick and Mark Ruffalo and the gang would all be here.)

As previously reported, the kooky new work is about two French mercenary knights on a quest for "relative moral redemption" against a "background of late 14th century ecclesiastical politics."

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Magic/Bird was the only Broadway opening this week. The story of the legendary rivalry between 1980s basketball stars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, it brought together the same team who created last sesaon's Lombardi: playwright Eric Simonson, director Thomas Kail, and producer Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo. Give this quartet another few years and sports plays will soon cease to be the Broadway novelty they've been in the past. (The producers refer to Magic/Bird as the latest in a "series" of sports plays.)

Plays set in stadia may be becoming more common in New York, but that doesn't mean that New York critics are getting any more used to them. The critical reaction to Magic/Bird was largely an instant replay of the mixed Lombardi notices. There were a few positive reviews. Michael Sommers said the play "gives sports- and theatre-loving customers alike an enjoyable mix of strong story, smart writing and real-life video that zooms by in 100 minutes." And the New York Post said, "Yep, as far as bioplays go, this one's got bounce." And Time Out called it "an affable and warmhearted diversion."

Those less wowed by the tale complained of a flatness of story, a lack of dimension in the central performances of newcomers Kevin Daniels and Tug Coker, and the absence of the sort of central conflict that makes for good drama. The Times called it "an efficiently informative but uninspired trek." Bloomberg said the play was "Tasteful to a fault, the play is unlikely to offend anyone, particularly the National Basketball Association or Johnson, both involved in producing." Critic Scott Brown was more to the point: "It can't conceal what it is: an animatronic Epcot pavilion seemingly designed and operated by the NBA."

Variety, finally, took the middle ground: "Lacking an actual basketball game on an actual basketball court, Magic/Bird has zip drama. But techno-savvy designers make terrific use of classic NBA footage, and the actors playing Magic and Bird are cute enough to carry it off. Basketball fans are the obvious target aud, but their dates should have a good time, too."

Paul Gross
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

John Guare spent a decade or so writing his last play, the sprawling and ambitious A Free Man of Color, which lasted only a couple inglorious months at Lincoln Center Theater. Guare's latest, however, arrived in considerably more haste.

Are You There, McPhee? will run at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre in May. Canadian actor Paul Gross, seen in the recent Broadway revival of Private Lives, will head the cast, which also includes Gideon Banner, John Behlmann, Jeremy Bobb, Molly Camp, Patrick Carroll, Alicia Goranson, Jenn Lyon, Danny Mastrogiorgio and Lusia Strusof. Sam Buntrock directs.

The plot is a typically Guareian soup of crazy, seemingly unrelated elements. Press notes state that a "playwright is inexorably sucked into the tangle of the lives of a pair of abandoned children." Expect "an old Nantucket house, the secret of a long-dead children's book author, a group of amateur actors, a career opportunity, and a mysterious stranger collide in this whirlwind of a play."

God bless playwrights. Without them, there would be no stories where playwrights are the central characters.

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Who says you can't get rich working in the theatre?

Bloomberg.com reported this week that nearly everyone who's ever touched Wicked, the long-running Broadway musical and international sensation, is now as rich as Croesus.

Bloomberg.com obtained its information from papers released by the New York State attorney general's office in June 2010. (A production spokesperson could not confirm the figures to Playbill.com.) Because newer figures are not yet available, Bloomberg.com says its story "undoubtedly understates total compensation to date for the producers, investors and creative team behind Wicked."

So. Let's imagine these figures as understating the matter. Authors Gregory Maguire, Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman have earned more than $95 million. Director Joe Mantello's take has exceeded $23 million. Others who have profited include set designer Eugene Lee (more than $6.6 million), choreographer Wayne Cilento (more than $6.3 million) and costume designer Susan Hilferty (more than $2.2 million).

Millionaire costume designers. Who knew?

Another interesting tidbit from the article: Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, gets royalties for her uncredited work on some scenes. Eve Ensler: Show Doctor. Now, there's a novel concept.

Follow Robert Simonson on Twitter at @RobertOSimonson.