PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 5-11: The Other Place, Water By the Spoonful, Bette Midler On Broadway

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11 Jan 2013

Fiona Shaw
Fiona Shaw

Two very different one-woman plays were announced for Broadway this week.

Fans of The Divine Miss M fell into a swoon when it was revealed that singer-actress Bette Midler — long lost to Hollywood, but once a New York icon — would return to Broadway in John Logan's new play (with a very Bette Midler title), I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers. It will open on Broadway April 24 at a Shubert theatre to be announced.

Directing is the ubiquitous and seemingly tireless Joe Mantello — he just opened the play The Other Place on Broadway. Producing are Arielle Tepper Madover, James L. Nederlander and The Shubert Organization, Broadway big-dealers who know a shoo-in box-office hit when they see it. Joining them is a wild card — novice producer Graydon Carter, who's better known as the swoop-haired editor of the glossy, Hollywood-loving magazine Vanity Fair, and as the owner of several swanky, hard-to-get-into Manhattan eateries. (One imagines he had something to do with luring Midler back to the stage.)

Midler will play the legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, who just died in 2011. She was that rare agent who was as well known as some of her clients. A refugee from Hitler's Germany, she is credited by some with creating the idea of the "superagent." During the 1970s, she represented almost every major star in Hollywood, from Cher to Gene Hackman to Bob Fosse. Characters in the films "The Last of Sheila" and "S.O.B." were based on her.

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If you like your one-woman shows less juicy and pulpy, and more ascetic and serious, you may instead want to take in The Testament of Mary, which depicts the story of Mary following the crucifixion of Christ. The play, directed by Deborah Warner, will star Fiona Shaw. Performances will begin March 26 at the Walter Kerr Theatre for a limited 12-week run.

Shaw and Warner have previously collaborated on productions of Medea, Happy Days, Mother Courage, Hedda Gabler, The Good Person of Sichuan and The Waste Land.

Mary is based on a short novel by Irish writer Colm Tóibín that was released in 2012. In it, the mother of Christ questions her son's death, his divinity and the followers who called him the son of God.

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Laurie Metcalf in The Other Place.
photo by Joan Marcus

The Other Place, Sharr White's play about an assured medical researcher whose health, homelife and workplace are shaken to their cores, opened this week at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The drama stars Laurie Metcalf, reprising her earlier Off-Broadway performance, plus Daniel Stern, Zoe Perry and John Schiappa.

Critics liked the play, but, moreover, felt that Metcalf — always a respected performer — had finally found a New York stage role that matched her talents.

The New York Times called the play "a cunningly constructed entertainment that discloses its nifty twists at intervals that keep us intrigued," and credited Metcalf with some of the production's success. "Thanks to the superb performance of Laurie Metcalf as Juliana, the less we are sure of, the more we are engaged. Our perceptions of Juliana's journey through a life upended by trauma may continually shift, but one thing remains fixed: the intense, complicated humanity of Ms. Metcalf's performance."

The AP called the play "so buffed and polished it now seems to squeak," and said the writing was "matched by a searing, brilliant performance by Laurie Metcalf, who is simply astonishing as she goes from snippy, bossy scientist to a broken, confused intruder wolfing down Chinese food on the floor." "In the role of a brittle biophysicist," wrote the Hollywood Reporter, "terrified, angered and ultimately humbled by her own illness, Metcalf has found a vehicle that allows her tremendous gifts to blaze fiercely."

Zabryna Guevara in Water By the Spoonful.
Photo by Richard Termine

Opening Off-Broadway was Water By the Spoonful, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Quiara Alegría Hudes. The Second Stage mounting starred Armando Riesco, Liza Colon-Zayas and Zabryna Guevara. Davis McCallum, who also helmed the world premiere in Hartford, returned to stage the New York City premiere of the drama, which centers on an American solider who returns home from the Iraq War, and is the second part of a trilogy by Hudes.

So, did it deserve the Pulitzer? The Times called it a "moving collage of lives" that "gives off a shimmering, sustaining warmth. Ms. Hudes writes with such empathy and vibrant humor about people helping one another to face down their demons that regeneration and renewal always seem to be just around the corner." Hollywood Reporter called the work "discursive, jarring at times, even chaotic. But the poignancy and thoughtfulness of the playwright's observations on addiction, family, forgiveness and human connection build a stealth impact." Backstage, however, found that "this uncontestably warm and generous play is hampered by conventional plotting and engaging but predictable characters."

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Coming to Off-Broadway in February will be Ike Holter's rock-propelled gay rights drama Hit the Wall, which premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Garage Theatre last winter. It will debut Off-Broadway Feb. 19 at the Barrow Street Theatre — just yards from where the Stonewall Riot that gives the play its story took place in 1969.

Hit the Wall focuses on that wild and enigmatic first night of the riots, outside New York City's Stonewall Inn on June 27, 1969, which many regard as having given birth of the gay rights movement. The play, which was shaped and populated by the artist collective The Inconvenience, and features a live band, was a Chicago hit.

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The new McCarter Theatre Center staging of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance has a cast that wouldn't look out of place on Broadway.

Penny Fuller recently joined a cast that already included Kathleen Chalfant, John Glover and Roberta Maxwell.

Emily Mann will direct the piece, which will begin performances at the New Jersey venue Jan. 18.

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Frank Rich and Stephen Sondheim can't seem to quit each other.

The connection between the composer and the former New York Times drama critic began back in the early '70s when then-college-student Rich wrote an insightful review of Sondheim's Follies which proved helpful to the creative team of the then-aborning musical. They have stayed connected ever since. Rich reviewed the Sondheim premieres that fell within his 1980-1993 reign as the New York Times' chief theatre critic, including Sunday in the Park With George, the initial success of which can largely be crediting to Rich's constant championing of the piece. When Sondheim turned 70, Rich penned a sprawling profile in the New York Times Magazine. It included a now-famous sidebar called "Songs I Wish I'd Written," in which Sondheim cherry-picked tunes by other that he admired over the years. The feature was later transformed into a cabaret show by Barbara Cook.

Now Rich — who is best known today as a leading liberal political columnist and pundit — is producing a new documentary the composer-lyricist for HBO. Rich signed a deal with HBO in 2008 to begin creating content for the cable network. A release date for the Sondheim documentary has not been announced. That will give Rich the Producer plenty of time to consider whether he should interview Rich the Sondheim Expert for the film.