PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 14-20: Critics Love Starcatcher, One Man and Clybourne Park

By Robert Simonson
April 20, 2012

Well, hallelujah! Broadway has not one, but three critical hits this week!



One, One Man, Two Guvnors, is a British import, as is often the case this time of year. But the other is all-American, Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park. The third, Peter and the Starcatcher, is American-made (playwright Rick Elice adapted it from the American kid-lit novel) but is co-directed by the Brit Roger Rees (with Alex Timbers).

It's such a pretty (and rare) sight when the critics are all pleased en masse. (Someone should take a picture.) Their heavenly week began with the April 18 opening the popular West End comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, an adaptation of a 1740s Carlo Goldoni comedy about a gluttonous manservant pulled between two bosses and two meal tickets. Starring James Corden as crazed butler Francis Henshall, and featuring audience participation and lively skiffle music, the show has burned with white-hot popularity since bowing at Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre of Great Britain. (Though Corden plays a corpulent character, the role is so athletic in its slapstick that he has reportedly lost 70 pounds since he first started playing it.)

So, what's it all add up to? According to the Post: "Pratfalls, spit takes, puns, improvisation, winking asides, slamming doors, clowning, audience participation, double entendres and triple takes." This is what Greek drama scholars would call "New Comedy" and what we think of as low comedy. But the critics weren't complaining. Satire and sophisticated wit is all very good, but we get quite a lot of that. Buffoonery and belly laughs — that we could use some of.

"This virtuoso banquet of slapstick farce and verbal jousting brings with it a shocking revelation: How starved we were for comedy," wrote Time Out, while Hollywood Reporter notes, "Few theatregoing experiences are as joyously liberating as being part of a packed house roaring with laughter at low comedy." The Times called it "ideal escapism for anxious times."

Of course you can't please everyone. Linda Winer of Newsday wasn't among those roaring faces. "There's the squeaky dry, silly-smart kind we know from Monty Python, Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard. I love that kind. Then there is the slapstick, pants-dropping, music-hall, silly-dumb sort that traces its stock-character, low-comedy pedigree back to 16th-century Italian commedia dell'arte, English pantomime and, clearly, Laurel (Brit) and Hardy (American). In this, I'm afraid you're on your own."

Christina Kirk and Frank Wood in Clybourne Park.
photo by Nathan Johnson

Winer was happier Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris' acidly pessimistic comedy-drama about racial and economic changes in a neighborhood over a 50-year period. The Pulitzer Prize winner opened April 19 after previous runs Off-Broadway and in Los Angeles. "Norris, who memorably said once in an interview that he doesn't 'do redemption,' has a clear-eyed — OK, delightfully mean-spirited — view about the marrow-deep limitations of selfishness and self-regard," wrote Winer. "Nobody — not even the pregnant deaf woman — is safe from his audacious revulsion with what one can either see as political correctness or hopeful civility. Even with ethnic-joke padding, the drama dares to disturb the placid chemistry of theatregoing with sparky, hilariously unrepentant observations about life — even life on Broadway — as we choose to know it."

Most critics had already seen the work (in this production) Off-Broadway in 2010. Their opinions of the play, the director, Pam MacKinnon, and the tight-knit cast had only improved since then. "Clybourne Park proves itself more vital and relevant than ever on a big Broadway stage," wrote the Times. AP said the work "is everything you want in a play: Smart, witty, provocative and wonderfully acted by the well-knit ensemble." Variety, meanwhile, observed, "Rarely in American drama have the gaps between what one wants to say, how one says it and what one really feels been as hilariously explored for dramatic effect as Norris is able to pull off here."

Critics were more split on the charms of Peter and the Starcatcher, a whimsically inventive and elemental retelling of how The Boy Who Never Grew Up came to be. Some believed the production had retained its scrappy charm. Others felt it had left it behind on Off-Broadway, where the show began. The Times called it "the most exhilarating example of locomotive storytelling on Broadway since the Royal Shakespeare Company's Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby visited three decades ago." And Backstage cried, "I'm happy to report that Peter has not given up a speck of its fairy dust-infused whimsy. This is a celebration of youth and of the power of theatre to inspire children and adults alike." However, AP thought while the "cast is fantastic and hardworking and collaborative, the sets are weirdly inventive, its trip north has not done it any favors. ...It's supposed to connect with kids and adults alike, but ends up shortchanging both with a frantic, indulgent mess." And Bloomberg snapped that the show "just can't stop crowing about how clever it is. I wanted to smack it."

Sam Underwood and Robert Beitzel in In Masks Outrageous and Austere
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Off-Broadway, producers Victor Syrmis and Carl Rumbaugh, along with Culture Project, presented In Masks Outrageous and Austere, a play which was dug out of the dustiest cedar chest in Tennessee Williams' sub-sub-basement to receive its very belated world premiere.

Critics largely thought that the play should have been left in the chest.

Relishing the big, juicy target before them, reviewers has a field day with the loopy script, which features an aging heiress named Babe, played by old Tennessee hand Shirley Knight. "That wilting, exquisite gentleman poet with the molasses accent?" wrote Ben Brantley in the Times. "That sweet, overgrown, sexually insatiable creature with the mind of a child? Those predatory monsters of institutional indifference? Don't any of them ring a bell? Well, then, look in the mirror, Babe, and tell me you haven't seen yourself before, embodied by famous actresses like Geraldine Page, Tallulah Bankhead or Elizabeth Taylor. Oh, Babe, honey. You’re just trapped in a Tennessee Williams play, or the agitated remnants of one."

Time Out New York's David Cote, arguably the most consistently funny of New York's drama critics, said, "Was there ever a playwright as posthumously prolific as Tennessee Williams?…Now comes his final full-length work, a hot mess left unfinished upon his death in 1983. In Masks Outrageous and Austere is late Williams at his most naked and desperate: strung out, bitchy, exhausted and paranoid…. Knight has a history with Williams, but here she's far too tentative (and even forgot a few lines). If your performance makes the spectator wonder if the role would be better served by a drag queen, you know there's trouble."

Well, back to reviving Streetcar, Cat and Menagerie, I guess. (By the way, did your read this week's Playbill Picks feature in which we chose the Five Most Memorable Divas of Tennessee Williams? Stars from Knight to Elizabeth Ashley to Judith Ivey gave us comments.)

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What's exactly classic about the less-than-20-year-old Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical Passion, I do not know. But the first-ever New York revival of the show is going to be hosted by the Classic Stage Company, which usually spends its seasons mucking about with Chekhov and Shakespeare.

Judy Kuhn and Melissa Errico — two talented musical theatre stars we haven't heard much from recently — will star as Fosca and Clara, in a new production by Let-Them-Play-Instruments director John Doyle. Performances are scheduled to begin in February 2013.

The production is not expected to employ Doyle's signature directorial approach of actors playing their own instruments. Too bad. Bassoon for Fosca, I'm thinking.

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Headlong, the U.K. touring company of which Rupert Goold is artistic director, has netted the world premiere of Duncan Shiek's new feel-good musical, American Psycho, a show based on the stomach-churning novel by Bret Easton Ellis that will feature a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

Goold will himself direct American Psycho, co-produced with Act 4 Entertainment and The Collective. A Sweeney Tood for the 21st century? We shall see.

 

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Actor Mark Rylance is not one to shy away from his various peculiar manias, be it a devotion to wearing hats, an aversion to miking stage shows, or the belief that Shakespeare didn't write his plays. And so the performer, who has commemorated both his Tony Award wins by reciting poems by Louis Jenkins, will not shrink from championing the work of that obscure Minnesota poet. Instead, he's collaborating with him!

Rylance and Jenkins have written a play. Called Nice Fish, it is based on the book of poetry by Jenkins, and will play Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater April 6-May 18, 2013.

Directed by Rylance with Claire van Kampen, Nice Fish, according to press notes, "begins with two men ice fishing on a frozen lake and proceeds into the realm of the mythic, with a taciturn giant on a snowmobile and the last blizzard of the season about to begin."

Sounds like a Jeff Daniels play. And if you get that reference, you attend too much theatre.