PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 22-28: An Enemy of the People, Sweet Bird of Youth, and a New Playwriting Prize

By Robert Simonson
September 28, 2012

As the Presidential political season enters its final lap, Manhattan Theatre Club treated Broadway to a heavy dose of political drama with its production of Ibsen's fiery social tract An Enemy of the People, adapted by British dramatist Rebecca Lenkiewicz and directed by Doug Hughes. Boyd Gaines plays the righteous title character, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who discovers that the spas that support his town's economy are fed by poisoned waters. Richard Thomas plays his expedience-minded mayor-brother. It opened Sept. 27.



Depending on their taste for the play's politics, and the unvarnished ferocity with which Ibsen presents them, some critics found much to admire in the production, while others found much that annoyed them. The criticisms had mainly to do with the hectoring, black-and-white tone that is part and parcel of the play's moralistic character. The Wall Street Journal, which never saw a leftist dramatic message it didn't want to broadside — those Newsies? a bunch of commies! — complained, "Ms. Lenkiewicz has made no attempt to paper over the play's contemptuous antipopulism." (Guess that population's willingness to risk poisoning people in the name of profit is less contemptuous.) "She has, however, cut the script ruthlessly, modernized Ibsen's language with four-letter words and ramped up the humor (such as it is) to the point of cartoonishness."

Even those who liked MTC's rendition said it got a little shouty. "Ibsen's potent play reaches a rapid boil in the seething confrontation between the brothers that concludes the first act," wrote the Times. "It rarely simmers down for the rest of the evening. The pedal-to-the-metal approach has its advantages. With voices clamoring from the stage at top volume for much of the evening, your attention is rarely likely to stray from the finely spun web of ideas animating Ibsen's play."

Entertainment Weekly called the play "crackling," while adding the "most serious flaw of this handsome, classical production is that it burns a bit too hot." Hollywood Reporter observed, "'Rollicking' is not a word that usually springs to mind in connection with Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, but it's the best way to describe the Manhattan Theatre Club's revival, [which] runs about an hour shorter than the original, features updated and colloquial language, and frequently accentuates the play's comic elements."

Of the lead actors, few found fault. Back Stage wrote, "The production succeeds on merit instead of flashiness or celebrity — with an outstanding cast of theatre veterans led by Richard Thomas and Boyd Gaines — and causes us to question just how far we are willing to go to stand up for our beliefs." 

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Nikolai and the Others, a world-premiere play with a very Chekhovian title, written by the prolific Richard Nelson, will debut Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in spring 2013.

David Cromer will helm the production. The story is set in 1948 during a spring weekend in Westport, CT, in which a close-knit group of Russian emigres, including choreographer George Balanchine, composer Igor Stravinsky, conductor Serge Koussevitsky, painter/set designer Sergey Sudeikin and composer Nikolai Nabokov, gather to eat, drink and talk.

Did I say Chekhov? Scratch that. Sounds more like Stoppard.

Finn Wittrock and Diane Lane
Photo by Liz Lauren

Speaking of David Cromer, his new production of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth, starring Diane Lane as a fading Hollywood starlet and Finn Wittrock as her equally desperate gigolo, opened Sept. 24 following previews from Sept. 14 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

The production has generated interest enough to get the New York Times' Ben Brantley flown out for the opening. Like the Chicago critics, he was mixed on the staging, but high on Lane. "Her scarily intelligent performance in David Cromer's insightful production of the fatally lopsided Sweet Bird suggests she has kept her eyes and ears wide open on the job," wrote Brantley. "More than any portrait that I've seen of Alexandra (a.k.a. the Princess Kosmonopolis), this one gives full weight to both the warping and sustaining effects of a life lived, desperately and adoringly, in front of the mirror and the camera." The Tribune echoed the assessment, saying, "Diane [Lane's] richly textured performance is a needed anchor for director David Cromer's passionate, arresting and unwieldy Goodman Theatre production."

Broadway hasn't seen a Sweet Bird in decades. Will it now? Time will tell.

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Rebecca star Jill Paice

The fact that a Broadway musical's cast is beginning rehearsals is usually not news. But when the show in question is the star-crossed musical Rebecca, it merits mention.

The cast of the rehearsal-delayed show was informed by producers in a Sept. 26 email that rehearsals would commence on Oct. 1, indicating that the show's previously reported capitalization issues are expected to be cleared up. A $4.5 million shortfall in funding prompted lead producers to postpone the start of rehearsals by two weeks. The producers said that an unnamed overseas investor responsible for that money had died. Rehearsals were to have begun Sept. 10 toward a Nov. 18 opening at the Broadhurst Theatre. Previews were scheduled to begin Oct. 30. New first-preview and opening dates are expected to be announced.

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Classic Stage Company's Chekhov productions of recent years have proved immensely popular. Sometimes even the press can't get in. (Ahem.) The upcoming production of Ivanov, starring Ethan Hawke, is no exception. The show has extended two additional weeks, to Dec. 9. Previews under the direction of Austin Pendleton begin Oct. 17. Pendleton directed the Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya for CSC.

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Mention of the name Senator Ted Kennedy evokes many thoughts and ideas. Theatre is not typically one of them.

And yet, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and Columbia University have announced the establishment of The Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History (EMK Prize). The award was created by Smith to honor the life and legacy of her late brother.

The EMK Prize—which carries a hefty $100,000 cash gift—will be given annually through the Columbia University Libraries to a new play or musical of merit that, in the words of the Prize's mission statement, "enlists theatre's power to explore the past of the United States, to participate meaningfully in the great issues of our day through the public conversation, grounded in historical understanding, that is essential to the functioning of a democracy." The first recipient of the EMK Prize will be announced on Senator Kennedy's birthday, Feb. 22, 2013.