PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 19-25: Goodbye to Lanford Wilson, Hello Mormon Boys and Priscilla

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25 Mar 2011

Lanford Wilson
Lanford Wilson

Playwright Lanford Wilson, one of the most important American theatre voices of the last 40 years, died this week at the age of 73.

Wilson got his start where many of the significant post-postwar American playwrights did: in the shabby West Village and East Village performance caves of the early 1960s Off-Off-Broadway movement. His artistic father was Joe Cino of Caffe Cino; his artistic mother was Ellen Stewart of La MaMa E.T.C. (who died earlier this year). They staged his early one-acts before scrawny crowds and encouraged him to grow and experiment. He rewarded their loyalty with early major works like Balm in Gilead, The Madness of Lady Bright and The Rimers of Eldrich. After a decade of tutelage, he and three friends formed their own theatre, the Circle Rep Company. The plays he wrote for its acting ensemble graduated to long runs Off-Broadway and on Broadway. By 1979, Wilson was a Pulitzer Prize winner for Talley's Folly (the mildest and most conventional of his plays) and as towering a member of his playwriting generation as any.

Still, throughout, there was a tendency to underestimate Wilson's talent and contribution. He was not as obviously scary smart and angry as Edward Albee. He didn't mature into a kind of mythic embodiment of the American West, as did his Caffe Cino-La MaMa colleague Sam Shepard. Like his characters, he was a gentle outsider — humane, even-tempered and sympathetic. Over the years, these laudable characteristics came to be mistaken for a somewhat mundane, and slightly sentimental naturalism. But some of the enormous heart and Chekhovian mastery of his work was re-remembered when the Signature Theatre Company dedicated its 2002-03 season to his work.

If commercial Broadway and Off-Broadway largely abandoned him, the actors and directors of regional theatre, always hungry for meaty, humanistic work, never forget his work. At his death, major productions of Burn This and Hot l Baltimore were getting underway in Los Angeles and Chicago. If fact, actors have always loved his work best of all. As long as they continue to have a say in what's produced (as they do at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where Hot l Baltimore is being done), Wilson's light will never dim. Here's the Playbill.com obituary.

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Matt Stone and Trey Parker
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The most unlikely new Broadway songwriting team of the season — "South Park"'s eternally cheeky duo Trey Parker and Matt Stone — got their Broadway debut on March 24, when The Book of Mormon opened at the O'Neill Theatre.

What did the critics think of the musical tale of a pair of Mormon missionaries who venture from Salt Lake City to AIDS-ravaged Uganda in the hopes of converting villagers with the story of Joseph Smith and the founding of the Mormon Church? Well, they found it an "old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical" full of "sweetness."

Huh? Aren't these writers known for kicking profanity, blasphemy and bathroom humor around like hacky sacks? Yes, they are. And the show's got loads of that. It has "manifold scato-theological" humor and is "viciously hilarious"; it "packs plenty of blissful profanity, sacrilege and politically incorrect mischief" and has dream sequences that feature Adolf Hitler, lawyer Johnnie Cochran, Genghis Khan and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. (I can see those four getting along.) But that doesn't mean the show isn't damn "exuberantly entertaining," or "hugely entertaining," if you like. Stone and Parker, it seems, love the musical form as much as they love impaling sacred cows. And so, "If there's such a thing as an intelligent sophomoric musical that the whole family can enjoy," wrote one critic, "then writers Robert Lopez, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have successfully stalked it."

For Grandma and Grandpa, maybe not. For your culture-bored teenage kids, a definite yes.

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John Leguizamo
photo by Carol Rosegg

It's officially spring now, which means Broadway's getting busy. There were two other openings this week, one about a clown, one about a queen.

Ghetto Klown, the new solo show conceived by and starring John Leguizamo, in which the actor recalled his adolescence growing up in Queens and his early career in the New York theatre and Hollywood, officially opened at the Lyceum Theatre March 22. Critics commended Leguizamo on his dependable exuberance, invention and charisma, but remarked that the show — his fifth solo outing — was a bit repetitious, predictable and thin in the material department. As one critic put it, it has become apparent how many times one could go to the same well.

Following its North American debut engagement in Toronto, Priscilla Queen of the Desert — drawn from the film "The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert" — opened at Broadway's Palace Theatre March 20, with a soundtrack of '70s and '80s favorites, and Tony Sheldon, Will Swenson and Nick Adams as a trio of friends who hop aboard a battered old bus in search for love and friendship in the middle of the Australian outback, because that's what you look for when you hop aboard a battered old bus in the Australian outback.

Hear the one about the musical where the audience went out humming the scenery? Well, with Priscilla, the over-the-top costumes got the best reviews. Otherwise, while critics were hardly bowled over, they felt that the show's good will and lustful intent to please covered many sins of plot and storytelling. "The show is campier than a tentful of Boy Scouts (working on their choreography merit badge)," wrote one. "And there's a dance-party atmosphere that helps compensate for the show's plot implausibilities and clunkier moments." Another said, "Inartful here, crass there, this rollicking crowd-pleaser in sequins nonetheless packs enough heart to leave the masses enthralled." While another complained it "panders to a crowd that doesn't need winning over..." The New York Times, the grumpiest of the bunch, said you were "likely to feel slightly dazed and stultified" at the end, "as if you'd been conked on the head with a disco ball."

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Milwaukee Repertory Theater announced its 2011-12 season on March 21, and among the 11 titles was a new play that takes on a subject close to home. (No, not Republican Governor Scott Walker's union-busting crusade; you'll have to wait until next season for that one.)

Ten Chimneys, written by Jeffrey Hatcher, is set in the famous Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, home of theatre greats Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The show, which will open the season in August, a described as "a lush new comedy that peeks into the private lives of the most public of figures." Among the characters: Ten Chimneys habitués Noel Coward, Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier to their secluded Genesee Depot retreat. The plot track what happens "When a young starlet arrives to rehearse the Lunts' latest production, [and] unwittingly ignites a romantic triangle that eclipses any on-stage drama."

Given the long-speculated-upon sexuality of Lunt and Olivier, and the never-in-doubt leanings of Coward, one had to wonder who in the cast of characters makes a play for the young actress.