THE BOOK SHELF: Fifty Years of "The National Theatre Story," Plus Angels in America and Outside Mullingar

By Steven Suskin
March 2, 2014

This month's column looks at Daniel Rosenthal's masterful chronicle "The National Theatre Story," as well as playscripts of Tony Kushner's Angels in America and John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar.



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It is impossible to expect anyone to be able to boil down the full and complete history of London's National Theatre Company and reduce it to one, overstuffed volume. There are 50 years-worth of performances under a string of artistic directors — Laurence Olivier, Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner (recently replaced by Rufus Norris) — with more than 800 productions. And that doesn't includge a 50-year history of striving towards the formation of a national theatre company and the first production in 1963 — Hamlet, fittingly, directed by Olivier and starring newly-minted movie star Peter O'Toole.

Impossible, yes. The best that can be hoped is that such a book is written by someone who has a keen sense of what is important, what is eyebrow raising and what is of more-than-passing interest to modern-day readers. Daniel Rosenthal, a writer who has done numerous projects with the National, turns out to be just the person for the job. "The National Theatre Story" [Oberon/Theatre Communications Group] is not exactly a take-to-the-beach page-turner, as it runs about 1,000 pages and weighs almost four pounds. But it is jam-packed with theatre tales. I've only read parts thus far — selective browsing, plus extended searches for a few plays of personal interest — and I find it fascinating at every turn of the page.

Rosenthal worked with the cooperation of the National, which granted full access to its archives which include countless private documents, letters and journals that are studded with famous plays and famous names. One example is a note from Joan Plowright turning down the role of Martha in a 1981 production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She explained that her ailing husband — Olivier, who had stepped down under difficult circumstances in 1973 — would not allow her to do it unless he himself was director. ("I knew that Larry was not well enough," but he said "it would provide grounds for divorce if I went ahead.") We also get Olivier's list of actors for the initial company, consisting of 13 actors he considered "renowned" (including O'Toole, Plowright, Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Rosemary Harris and himself) and eight labeled "to be renowned" (including Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Robert Stephens and Lynn Redgrave). Artistic directors Olivier and Hall, especially, offer plenty for our attention.

The author reasonably zeroes in on the more important/famous National productions, keeping us fully engaged. Thus, there are extended discussions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; AmadeusEquus; The History Boys; War Horse; One Man, Two Guvnors; and many more. "The National Theatre Story" tells quite a story indeed, and is one of those books you will turn back to again and again.

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Tony Kushner's Angels in America was revived in the fall of 2010 by the Signature Theatre, just before they moved east along 42nd Street, with a remarkably good cast led by Zachary Quinto (Louis), Bill Heck (Joe), Christian Borle (Prior Walter) and Billy Porter (Belize), that was directed by Michael Greif. Kushner took the opportunity to continue working on the script, focusing mainly on the second of the two plays (Perestroika). Now, the Tony and Pulitzer winner has been published in a "Revised and Complete Edition" by TCG. Included is a new introduction by Kushner in which he explains what he has changed and why; a dozen pages of notes about the staging; production notes including the casts of 15 productions (who here saw Daniel Craig as Joe Pitt at the National in 1993?); and two scenes that the playwright has seen fit to cut from this "final" version of Perestroika.

Also from TCG comes John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar, which is a delightful, moonstruck, Irish romance. Read it, or — if you can get over to the Samuel Friedman Theatre by March 16 — catch Brían F. O'Byrne, Debra Messing, Peter Maloney and Dearbhla Molloy in the Manhattan Theatre Club's entrancing production.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)