PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 1-7: Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman and Broadway’s Latest Opening

By Robert Simonson
February 7, 2014

The theatre and film worlds received a unexpected shock this week when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, a titanic creative force on stage and screen for more than a decade, was found dead in his Greenwich Village apartment, the supposed victim of a drug overdose. He was only 46.



Hoffman had become such a redoubtable omnipresence that audiences and critics expected they had two or three decades more of performances from him coming to them. As it stands, he nonetheless left behind an enormous body of work. In the wave of articles that followed his death, reporters and critics found themselves challenged trying to tally up a list of his best performances — there were so many of them, and nearly all of them good, or, at least, memorable. Every journalist who had followed the man's work for any length of time knew the high level of talent he possessed, but many of those writing up post-mortem assessments of Hoffman's career seemed to find themselves staggering over the idea that the country had very possibly lost its best actor.

Hoffman's achievement was all the more impressive given the raw material he had to work with. Stocky and rumpled, with a pale, pinky complexion and an unruly shock of pale blonde hair, he was no one's typical idea of a leading man. Yet, over his 20-plus-year acting career, he slowly but surely ascended to the status of star, an actor of oddball charisma and intense gravity who could anchor a movie or a Broadway play.

He was also fearless in his choice of roles, more often than not playing characters who bordered, or straight-out dwelled in, the realm of human repugnance. And yet, you couldn't keep from watching him, even liking him. As critic A.O. Scott said, "He may have specialized in unhappiness, but you were always glad to see him."

Hoffman was also rare among actors who made the grade in Hollywood in that he held on fiercely to his theatre roots. He described his habit of doing a play every year as invigorating. Aside from regular roles on and Off-Broadway, he was for many years the co-artistic director of the kinetic Off-Broadway theatre company LAByrinth Theatre Company, a troupe he joined in 1995. Hoffman not only acted in occasional LAByrinth production, but frequently directed. He was particular associated with the gritty, emotional violent work of Stephen Adly Guirgis, a playwright whose career was fostered by the company.

"That kind of level is the best level," he told Playbill.com in 2000, talking about his commitment to small Off-Broadway productions. "You see work you don't see in other things. You're not under the pressure of getting fired. Or of money. Or what's 'expected of you.' There's just the pressure of their peers at the company. That creates an environment where you and your peers challenge each other, push each other to do great work."

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Audra Mcdonald
photo by Autumn de Wilde
Erstwhile talk show host, Academy Award nominee, Broadway producer and all-around entertainment deity Oprah Winfrey is in talks to make her Broadway debut in a revival of Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning two-hander 'night, Mother, opposite five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, according to the New York Times.

Norman, it should be remembered, penned the book to The Color Purple, on which Winfrey was lead producer. In 'night, Mother — which was revived on Broadway as recently as 2004 — Winfrey would play the mother struggling to stop her daughter from committing suicide. McDonald would play the daughter (though it's hard to imagine the hearty, vibrant McDonald playing someone beaten down by life). The production would mark Winfrey's Broadway debut.

George C. Wolfe would direct 'night, Mother, which is aiming for a Broadway bow in the 2015-16 season, according to theatre executives. Scott Sanders is lead producer. If Winfrey is willing, Sanders should go out an apply for a license to mint money. He'll need it.

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The sole Broadway opening this week was Bronx Bombers, the new Eric Simonson drama about the history of the New York Yankees framed through the eyes of baseball legend. It officially opened Feb. 6 at Circle in the Square.

This is the third sports play from Simonson and producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo in as many seasons. It follows Lombardi (football) and Magic/Bird (basketball). (Full disclosure: The playwright is this writer's brother).

Critics weren't won over by Lombardi or Magic/Bird, and Bronx Bombers seemed to do nothing to change their minds. Reviews complained of a lack of drama and an over-abundance of Yankees idolatry. And the corporate presence of the Yankees and MLB as producers grated on more than one reviewer.

"The drama inherent in clashing egos gives Bronx Bombers some natural juice in the early innings," wrote the New York Times, "but the suspense about whether Martin will be axed — and Berra will agree to replace him — more or less gets benched in the play's second act."

AP observed that "Simonson…also directs Bronx Bombers, and he does so with such reverence to the baseball franchise that it veers into fairy tale. Major League Baseball and the New York Yankees put money in the show, and it shows."

"If penning sports plays were a competition, Eric Simonson would be MVP," said the more positive Time Out. "Simonson, who directs his own script too laxly, touches on predictable tensions between individual excellence versus team spirit, but in terms of ideas or visual flair, there are no curves here."

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Anthony Crivello

Barrett Wilbert Weed, Ryan McCartan, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Elle McLemore, Alice Lee and Anthony Crivello will star in the Off-Broadway premiere of the new musical adaptation of the 1988 dark comedy Heathers, which will begin performances March 15 at New World Stages.

Legally Blonde composer Laurence O'Keefe collaborated with Kevin Murphy on book, music and lyrics for the musical. Andy Fickman will direct the production that will officially open March 31.

Several cast members from the sold-out 2013 Los Angeles premiere will return for the Off-Broadway engagement, including Weed as Veronica, McCartan as JD and McLemore as Heather McNamara.

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Finally, actor James Franco, the uncontrollable polymath who has dabbled in directing, producing, screenwriting, fiction-writing, recording, charitable fundraising and a dozen other areas of endeavor, is collaborating with Playhouse West to run his own acting school, named Studio 4.

And he's thisclose to getting his real estate license.