PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 8-14: Rocky Opens on Broadway, Will Eno Has Two Plays in NYC and MTC Season Take Shape
By Robert Simonson
That blast of trumpets you heard at the Winter Garden Theatre March 13 was the opening of Rocky, the new musical based on the Academy Award-winning 1976 Sylvester Stallone film of the same name about a palooka fighter from Philly with little to cheer about in his life who suddenly gets a shot at the heavyweight title.
It features a score by Broadway babies Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and a book by Thomas Meehan (author of another feel-good entertainment of the era, Annie). Alex Timbers—hithertofore Mr. Edge, with credits including the offbeat musicals Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher and Here Lies Love—directs in what could be called his mainstream entertainment debut.
Reviews were mixed on the score and storytelling, but held back no adjective when getting to the show's final 15 minutes: that is, the fight. And, what a fight! The term "game-changer"—almost never dragged out in theatre criticism these days—was used more than once. Lead actor Andy Karl, too, was wreathed with praise.
"Something electric happens at the end of Rocky that gets theatergoers on their feet and writers scuttling for exclamation points," wrote the Post. "A boxing ring descends from the rafters, then glides into the orchestra! There's hooks, punches and blood - and a Jumbotron! And then: "Adriaaaaaaaan!" Director Alex Timbers earns his keep right there. If you could win a Tony based on just 20 minutes, Rocky would be a shoo-in. Problem is, that finale is preceded by an hour and a half of less thrilling moments."
"While the songs in this musicalization of the career-making 1976 Sylvester Stallone movie come and go without leaving much of an impression," offered the Hollywood Reporter, "the stage magic that director Alex Timbers and set designer Christopher Barreca work with the finale fight is so visceral and exhilarating that it sends the audience out on a high. Of course, having an indestructible story with underdog characters worth rooting for doesn't hurt either...The ace up the show's sleeve, however, is...talented lead Andy Karl, who sticks close enough to the Stallone model in his characterization as Rocky Balboa while at the same time injecting fresh vitality and humor into the role."
"For a show that ends with the most impressive 20-minute boxing match ever seen in a Broadway musical, Rocky lacks conflict," complained Variety. "Everyone is basically nice, even the gangsters, especially Andy Karl in a career-breakthrough performance as Rocky Balboa… in this earnest show, co-written by Stallone and Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan and directed with more conscientiousness than flair by Alex Timbers, one of the theater's most inventive forces."
The influential AP published one of the most negative notices: "The puzzling show Rocky opened Thursday at the Winter Garden Theatre, both lovingly faithful to the 1976 film written by and starring Sylvester Stallone and one that seems to forget it's supposed to be a musical midway through Act II… Which begs the question why this material screamed out to be a musical in the first place."
It was a Will Eno kind of week. The playwright's The Open House, featuring Hannah Bos, Michael Countryman, Peter Friedman, Danny McCarthy and Carolyn McCormick, officially opened at the Signature Center March 3.
The play was described (and Will Eno plays always need a description because their nature and intention are rarely readily apparent) as such: "People have been born into families since people started getting born at all. Playwrights have been trying to write Family Plays for a long time, too. And typically these plays try to answer endlessly complicated questions of blood and duty and inheritance and responsibility. They try to answer the question, 'Can things really change?' People have been trying nobly for years and years to have plays solve in two hours what hasn't been solved in many lifetimes. This has to stop."
Uh-huh. Reviews were split the way they often are with Eno plays, between the converts and the still-unpersuaded. "If there is a theme," wrote New York magazine, "Eno does not signal it, any more than he provides exposition or explanations. His is a highly purified dramaturgy: Albee seen and raised. The Open House shares with earlier Eno works such as Thom Pain (based on nothing) and Middletown a gem cutter’s interest in formal precision and symmetry rather than content."
The Daily News was less frustrated, saying, "Director Oliver Butler gets five impeccable performances from his cast, but Eno creates the delight in this story about permanence and leaving a mark." The Times, meanwhile, both liked and disliked it: "You’ve probably never seen a fractious family stage the uncanny disappearing act that takes place in The Open House,… By the conclusion of Mr. Eno’s mordantly funny but disappointingly hollow comedy, the nuclear family onstage has been nuked into nonexistence, to be replaced, after a fashion, by a new clan that happens to look suspiciously like the old."
Meanwhile, the starry Broadway premiere of playwright Eno's The Realistic Joneses, featuring Michael C. Hall, Toni Collette, Marisa Tomei and Tracy Letts, began performances March 13 at the Lyceum Theatre.
The play is about two suburban couples who share more than a surname—and maybe a lot more.
Manhattan Theatre Club announced its upcoming season, which is chock full of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights.
Donald Margulies, who has long had a home at MTC, brings the Chekhovian The Country House, which will be directed by Daniel Sullivan and star Blythe Danner as Anna Patterson, "the matriarch of a brood of famous and longing-to-be-famous creative artists who have gathered at their Berkshires summerhouse during the Williamstown Theatre Festival." (Well, they say write what you know, and what playwright doesn't know Williamstown.)
Also in the pipeline is David Auburn's Lost Lake, which will be presented Off-Broadway at New York City Center Stage I. Sullivan will direct this production as well. And, guess what! It also takes place in a country house! "The lakeside rental Veronica has managed to afford is a far cry from the idyllic getaway she and her children so desperately need," goes the plot. "And the disheveled property owner, Hogan, has problems of his own—problems that Veronica is inevitably—and irrevocably—pulled into."
Over in California, four-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening will step into the skin of Ruth Draper in the world premiere of Ruth Draper's Monologues at the Geffen Playhouse. Previews will begin April 8 prior to an official opening April 16.
Draper, a star in her day, is largely forgotten today, mainly because her art was so specific to herself. A Society-born woman, she specialized in long, subtle, character-driven monologues—some lightly humorous, some deeply dramatic—which she first performed in drawing rooms, and eventually brought to theatres, to much acclaim.
The production will feature some of Draper's best-known works, including her most famous, The Italian Lesson, about the many whims and distractions of a Park Avenue Grand Dame as she attempts to learn Italian, as well as Doctors and Diets, A Debutante at a Dance and A Class in Greek Poise.
Shelton Street Theatrical, LLC announced this week that it plans a stage adaptation of the beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces by the late American novelist John Kennedy Toole.
Confederacy is the sole novel by Toole, who, in despair over his failure to become a successful writer, committed suicide before it could get published in 1980. The story follows the picaresque adventures of the smart, but lazy protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly as he looks for a job in 1960s New Orleans.
A series of New York readings, beginning this spring, and developmental productions are planned, with A Confederacy of Dunces aiming to bow on Broadway.
Also opening this week was the MCC Theater production of Robert Askins' irreverent puppet comedy Hand to God, about a possessed Christian-ministry puppet, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Hand to God played an acclaimed, extended run at the Ensemble Studio Theatre during the 2011-12 season. It is staged by original director Moritz von Stuelpnagel and stars original actors Steven Boyer and Geneva Carr.
Critics hadn't forgotten how much they liked the play. "The irreverent puppetry in Avenue Q is kids' stuff compared with the devil-made-me-do-it depravities in Hand to God," said Newsday, and the Post said, " The show moves at great speed... By the time Hand to God reaches its Grand Guignol finale, you're reeling from shock and laughter."
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