PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 5-11: Woody Allen's Broadway Musical Debut and Will Eno's Main Stem Bow

By Robert Simonson
11 Apr 2014

Zach Braff and Marin Mazzie
Zach Braff and Marin Mazzie
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The big opening of the week was Bullets Over Broadway, the stage adaptation of Woody Allen's popular 1994 film comedy of the same name, directed by Susan Stroman.

Between film and television star Zach Braff's Broadway debut, the drawn-out drama that was the casting of Marin Mazzie in the coveted role of stage diva Helen Sinclair, and the recent personal controversies swirling around Allen, few shows have gotten as much attention as Bullets. It also became something of a potential tentpole show around which many industry people hoped (if the reviews were good) they could hoist the excitement level of the season. As the Variety critic said, "Bullets Over Broadway is the show everyone hoped would get those flickering Broadway lights blazing again."

So, did critics aim to kill, or shoot their ink-filled guns into the air in glee? Well, a little bit of both. Bullets got one of those receptions that make you wonder if all the critics saw the same show.

Reviews don't get much better than the one in the Wall Street Journal. "How good can a jukebox musical be?" asked the paper, rhetorically, "As good as Bullets Over Broadway… The book is funny, the staging inventive, the cast outstanding, the sets and costumes satisfyingly slick. All that's missing is a purpose-written score, in place of which we get period-true arrangements of pop songs of the 1920s and '30s. Does that matter? It did to me-a lot-but I doubt that many other people will boggle over the absence of original songs from Bullets Over Broadway. Except for a flabby finale, it has the sweet scent of a box-office smash."



Newsday concurred, stating that "with Bullets Over Broadway, his first Broadway musical, Allen has created an old-fashioned, madcap lark of a show that seems precisely where it belongs. Director-choreographer Susan Stroman is back in idea-crazy form."

Variety, while keeping it positive, was less effusive: "Woody Allen's showbiz musical is the answer to a Broadway tinhorn's prayer. Surprisingly, though, the book (from Allen's own screenplay for his 1994 film) is feeble on laughs, and certain key performers don't seem comfortable navigating the earthy comic idiom of burlesque. So, let's call it close—but no cigar."

Hollywood Reporter, however, didn't even think it was a close call: "There's a ton of talent onstage in Bullets Over Broadway," the paper wrote. "So why does this musical, adapted by Woody Allen from his irresistible 1994 screen comedy about the tortured path of the artist, wind up shooting blanks? Flat where it should be frothy, the show is a watered-down champagne cocktail that too seldom gets beyond its recycled jokes and second-hand characterizations to assert an exciting new identity."

One of the worst notices came from the New York Times. The daily called Bullets "the occasionally funny but mostly just loud new show that opened at the St. James Theater on Thursday night, that would include the wit of Woody Allen," adding, "while the movie was a helium-light charmer, this all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing reincarnation is also all but charm-free." The review didn't get much better than that.

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Rising playwright Will Eno, who has found a cozy home at nonprofits such as the Vineyard Theatre and Signature Theatre Company over the past years, delighting and confounding audiences and critics with his peculiar brand of brittle, droll absurdism, had his Broadway debut this week.

Toni Collette and Michael C. Hall
photo by Joan Marcus

Eno's The Realistic Joneses, featuring Michael C. Hall, Toni Collette, Marisa Tomei and Tracy Letts, officially opened on Broadway April 6 at the Lyceum Theatre. Ubiquitous Sam Gold directed.

The play's plot begins with the fact that two suburban couples share a surname. Soon, however, they realize they share a lot more. "As their relationships begin to irrevocably intertwine," goes the press release, "the Joneses must decide between their idyllic fantasies and their imperfect realities. This contemporary comedy explores how our joys and sorrows—and how we choose to face them—can come to define our lives."

The money quote came, somewhat predictably, from Charles Isherwood of The New York Times. Isherwood, a longtime Eno fan, declared, "Plays as funny and moving, as wonderful and weird as The Realistic Joneses, by Will Eno, do not appear often on Broadway. Or ever, really. You're as likely to see a tumbleweed lolloping across 42nd Street as you are to see something as daring as Mr. Eno's meditation on the confounding business of being alive (or not) sprouting where only repurposed movies, plays by dead people and blaring musicals tend to thrive." That first sentence'll look mighty pretty on a marquee.

Most of the other critics, however, found themselves struggling virtuously to like Joneses more than they actually did. Many had admiring things to say about Eno, Gold and the cast, but had to cop to some misgivings in the departments of enjoyment and satisfaction.

"The play's emotional appeal," wrote the Chicago Tribune, "—and this one, weird as it most surely is, has more of that than any Eno work to date—comes from its equal recognition of the stress of taking care of the ill, the dying, the declining, the angst-ridden...Gold clearly understands that Eno is a writer with heart and compassion (and a useful touch of insecurity)."

USA Today began well, saying, "Using the intriguingly offbeat dialogue that is his hallmark—full of non sequiturs and blunt but often contradictory remarks that both evoke natural speech and lend a slightly surreal quality - Eno draws his four characters to each other in ways that, however predictable, movingly emphasize the ultimate commonality of the human condition." But the paper then added, somewhat ambiguously, "Joneses isn't a downer, though, and director Sam Gold and his excellent cast ensure that its humor and poignance are equally served. Predictably, there's no neat resolution; the play ends with all four of its characters in a relatively upbeat mood, yet not any surer how things will turn out. But that's life for you, isn't it?"

The Daily News was more cranky about the result: "It's funny how trying to connect with neighbors, spouses, God, whomever, can lead you nowhere. Will Eno takes that idea and runs with it in The Realistic Joneses, an anxious comedy that packs rueful zingers, four first-rate starry performances and - buzzkill time, kids - diminishing returns for the entire second half...Under Sam Gold's tight direction, the cast is natural and convincing. But three-quarters of an hour into the 95-minute show, the script simply circles without deepening, darkening or clarifying."

New York magazine perhaps summed up the underlying critical unease by saying, "So even though The Realistic Joneses is smart and witty and beautifully produced, it's not exactly enjoyable. As Groucho Marx, who knew from paraprosdokians, once said, 'I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it.'"

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Michael Cera

Speaking of Broadway debuts by talented playwrights, Kenneth Lonergan's 1996 drama This Is Our Youth—the drama that got the ball rolling for the writer—will have its belated Broadway premiere in August, following a Chicago engagement at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The cast is a semi-starry one, headed by indie movie poster boy Michael Cera ("Juno," etc.), and including Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson.  Anna D. Shapiro, who is developing a rep as one of the theatre's resident star-wranglers (see: James Franco in the current Of Mice and Men) will direct. The show arrives at the Cort Theatre on the unlikely date of Aug. 18, a dog days date when crickets can successfully be heard in Times Square. Producer Scott Rudin is behind the production.

This Is Our Youth, which centers on three aimless New York City teens, was first produced Off-Broadway in 1996 by the New Group. The original production launched the career of Mark Ruffalo.

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The MCC Theater production of Penelope Skinner's The Village Bike, which was thrown into turmoil last month when it lost its star, Maggie Gyllenhaal, has solved its dilemma by landing an even bigger star.

Replacing Gyllenhaal will be actress Greta Gerwig ("Francis Ha," "Greenberg," "Damsels in Distress," etc.), the indie film star whose profile has been rising steadily for several years now.

Gerwig will make her stage debut in the production, which will now begin performances May 22 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Directing is, yes, Sam Gold. (I'm beginning to think the man has cloned himself.)

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Those of you out there who were waiting for news of the status of A Night with Janis Joplin, there's this news: The show has postponed its reopening indefinitely due to production issues. Janis had been scheduled to open April 10 at the Gramercy Theatre following its Broadway engagement.

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The Tony Awards has solved its Jane Greenwood problem. Costume designer Greenwood is the Susan Lucci of the Tonys. For her work she has received 15 Tony Award nominations—the first was back in 1965, the most recent in 2009—and won not a single time.

It's entirely possible that Greenwood will be nominated again this year; she's already designed two productions, The Snow Geese and Act One. But she won't have to worry this time about leaving the ceremony without an award. The Administration Committee announced April 8 that this year's Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre will be presented to Greenwood. Well done.