PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, July 21-27: Vanya Rules!, La Mama Rises, Bebe and Bobbie Bond
By Robert Simonson
The phrase "hit Chekhov production" is such an oddity in the theatre that one must make a point of using it when one gets the rare chance.
Tiny Soho Rep's acclaimed, intimate staging of Uncle Vanya, adapted by Circle Mirror Transformation playwright Annie Baker, has become the hit of the summer. It has sold-out all its performances in its second extension through Aug. 26.
The in-the-round production opened to critical kudos on June 17 under the direction of hot-shot director Sam Gold. Gold's concept for Uncle Vanya was to place the audience and the cast together inside an A-frame house constructed within Soho Rep's home on Walker Street. Most of the theatregoers are seated on carpeted risers sitting cross-legged.
The cast is led by Reed Birney, a three-decade stage veteran whose work is often praised by theatre critics, but who rarely gets to enjoy the center spotlight, as he does here. Also in the cast are Maria Dizzia as Yelena; Georgia Engel, a long way from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," as Marina; Peter Friedman as Serebryakov; Michael Shannon as Astrov; Matthew Maher as Telegin; Paul Thureen as Yefim; Roberta Mawell as Maria; and Merritt Wever as Sonya.
Oddly, playwright Baker also designed the costumes for modern Vanya (sneakers, khakis, etc). I can imagine those actor-fitting sessions being the occasion of some interesting conversation. "No, that's a bit tight, Annie. And this line in scene three doesn't sound right."
In more Off-Off-Broadway news, the downtown stalwart La MaMa ETC announced an interesting line-up for its 2012-13 season.
For all its standing and history, La MaMa hasn't gotten a lot of love from the press in recent years. Its shows were rarely written up during the last seasons of founder Ellen Stewart's reign, mainly because the press had gotten used to Stewart booking the same, somewhat stale, standby groups — many of them hailing from foreign climes — that she had for years and years. There seemed to be no fresh movement there.
But it's hard to ignore some of the attractions and names in the spruce new season. Playwrights Neil LaBute and Marco Calvani will team-up for AdA (Author directing Author). As the title indicates, the respective playwrights will direct one another's works: LaBute's Lovely Head and Calvani's Things of This World. AdA will launch the season Sept. 27-Oct. 14.
Also in store are new works by noteworthy downtown artists Sheila Callaghan, who will bring her new play Port Out, Starboard Home to the theatre, and John Jahnke, who will stage his own Funeral Games. To make certain the past is not forgotten, old La MaMa hand Jean-Claude van Itallie will offer his Confessions and Conversation, which is billed as "an evening of song and dance and gossip about Ellen Stewart, life, love, Occupy Wall Street and Off-Off-Broadway theatre in the '60s."
Unbelievably, there was yet more headline-worthy Off-Off-Broadway news this week!
The Flea Theater, still under the artistic direction of Jim Simpson after all these years, has nabbed its share of big-deal stars over the years (including John Lithgow and Simpson's own longtime partner, Sigourney Weaver). It has drafted Alan Rickman to star in the company's premiere of Krapp Hour.
Krapp Hour is an adaptation of Beckett's famed solo piece of regret and rumination, Krapp's Last Tape, by Canadian poet Anne Carson. Performances are in August.
Also scheduled is Heresy, the seventh collaboration between playwright A.R. Gurney and Simpson. Performances will begin Sept. 29.
Off-Broadway, Bebe Neuwirth will reunite with her Chicago director, Walter Bobbie, this fall when she stars in his staging of the New York City premiere of Terrence McNally's Golden Age for Manhattan Theatre Club.
With the play, McNally returns to a favorite subject — opera. Neuwirth will play Maria Malibran, a famous opera singer of the 19th century. Previews begin Nov. 13 prior to an opening of Dec. 4 in a limited engagement at MTC's home at New York City Center. The play was previously seen in Philadelphia and Washington, DC.
There were a couple limited-run additions to the fall Broadway schedule this week.
Running on Empty, the latest politically charged show from comedian Lewis Black — who is never at a loss for cultural material to spur his rage at humanity — will play a week-long Broadway engagement at the Richard Rodgers Theatre this October.
And A Christmas Story: The Musical!, based on the Jean Shepherd stories and 1983 film of the same title, will play a limited holiday engagement beginning Nov. 5 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, producers announced. The musical, which has a score by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, launched a five-city U.S. tour last holiday season and was warmly received by critics nationwide. Much of that original touring creative team will repeat their work for the Broadway run, including director John Rando and choreographer Warren Carlyle.
One of the show's producers is Peter Billingsley, the former child actor who created the role of Ralphie Parker in the holiday film. The man obviously knows how to finesse a long career in the biz.
Finally, the new musical Sleepless in Seattle has its new songwriters, producers announced on the show's website. Composer Ben Toth and lyricist Sam Forman will pen the score for the show based on the hit film by Nora Ephron, who died earlier this summer.
As previously reported, the musical that will get its world premiere June 2, 2013, at Pasadena Playhouse has a book by Jeff Arch, who co-wrote the screenplay of the hit 1993 film comedy, and direction by Lonny Price.
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