PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 12-18: Three New Broadway Openings and The Flick Takes the Pulitzer

By Robert Simonson
April 18, 2014

The snowstorm on Tuesday night might have been freakish for New York, but the fact that three Broadway shows opened this week was not. It's that pre-Tony time of year when the Street bears whatever the traffic will allow.



As long as this column has been going (16 years, in case anyone is counting. Anyone?), there has been no such thing as a bad review for Audra McDonald. Heck, the worst this actress usually does on Broadway is that she doesn't win a Tony but only a Tony nomination! And such was the case with her latest show, playing Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson's play with music, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, which officially opened April 13 at the Circle in the Square.

"The much-decorated McDonald… evokes the tough steel and rough velvet of Holiday's singing with uncanny precision," observed the Daily News. "But this isn't about mimicry. It's about the heart and soul, bruised and battered, that comes through. Audra McDonald channels Billie Holiday… This is McDonald at her most intimate."

"McDonald does honor to her troubled spirit," wrote AP. "As for the singing, it's a testament to McDonald, who has one of the strongest voices in musical theater, that she molds hers to fit Holiday's sound, whether it's in a subdued 'Crazy He Calls Me' or a sassy 'Baby Doll.' She manages to capture that smoky, peanut-buttery, sometimes staccato delivery. It's haunting. Close your eyes and Lady Day is back." USA Today, meanwhile, noted, "McDonald gets to show off her comedic skills, naughtily teasing her conductor and pianist and wandering among the audience members who sit at tables incorporated into the set."

The closest to grousing came from the New York Times, which found the play itself. "Still, it's worth putting up with the show's tackier (and duller) aspects," said the paper, "for the pleasure of hearing Ms. McDonald breathe aching life into some of Holiday's greatest songs."

The limited run has been extended through Aug. 10.

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A few days later, Hollywood refugees James Franco and Chris O'Dowd had their day on trial as the stars of a new Broadway revival of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men at the Longacre Theatre. The capable Anna D. Shapiro directs.

James Franco
Photo by Richard Phibbs
There was a lot of critical argument as to who or what was the real star of the show. Hollywood Reporter argued it was Steinbeck: "The headline news in this stirring Broadway remount is the stage debut of peripatetic artistic adventurer James Franco, starring opposite the wonderful Chris O'Dowd as itinerant ranch workers George and Lennie. But the real satisfaction comes from those unforgettable characters, their joy and wrenching sorrow, and the enduring power of their story of friendship sustained by illusory dreams in a world of solitude."

Variety disagreed, saying, "But the other star of the show is helmer Anna D. Shapiro, who turns in an impeccably mounted production without a single blemish. The ensemble acting is flawless. The design work is breathtaking. And Steinbeck's Depression-based views on the human connections that are our only hope of survival in desperate times are just as relevant — even imperative — for living through our own cruel times."

Most others, however, gave the prize to O'Dowd. "Chris O'Dowd... turns in a very impressive performance as the mentally challenged Lennie in a fine revival," opined AP. "Franco? He's pretty good in his Broadway debut as George, but O'Dowd, in a tricky role, steals the show." Time Out NY concurred: "Franco gives an easy, well-shaded performance, but it's O'Dowd who stuns with a harrowingly real Lennie. The role of a mentally disabled character can be either technically overdone or a wallow in bathos, but O'Dowd is superb."

The Times, meanwhile, didn't find much to like besides O'Dowd, writing, "somehow Ms. Shapiro's handsome, meticulously designed production feels about as fluid as a diorama in a history museum. And its two undeniably talented leading men, though known as quirky and adventurous screen stars, here wear their archetypes like armor... Lennie is a role that is pretty hard to get wrong, if the performer has the right physical dimensions. Mr. O'Dowd gives the expected gentle-giant performance, though he uses his left hand in surprisingly delicate gestures that bring affecting grace notes to Lennie's lumbering presence. Though he sports a Yosemite Sam accent, Mr. Franco is often understated to the point of near invisibility. It's a tight, internal performance begging for a camera's close-up."

All in all, not a bad showing for Franco & Co.

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Santino Fontana and Tony Shalhoub
Photo by Joan Marcus

And what of Moss Hart & Co.? Act One, the new stage production based on the memoir of Broadway playwright, director and lyricist Hart, officially opened on Broadway April 17 at Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont Theater. Santino Fontana, Tony Shalhoub and Andrea Martin are members of an ensemble that is perhaps the largest for a play on Broadway. James Lapine adapted the work and directed.

Act One, despite the fame of the title (well, in theatre circles, anyway), hasn't been getting much attention. A burst of great reviews would help raise its profile.

"Mr. Shalhoub and Mr. Fontana's shimmering performances are reason enough to celebrate," offered the Times, "and to heave a sigh of relief. If the lively but overblown production that surrounds them isn't always up to their high standards, I'm still not grousing...That's because whatever its flaws, Act One, which Mr. Lapine also directed, brims contagiously with the ineffable, irrational and irrefutable passion for that endangered religion called the Theater."

AP called the play "sweet" and added, "The majority of the 22 actors play multiple parts, jumping in and out of characters and costumes while the bold, complex set by Beowulf Boritt spins and spins. So in its very fiber and execution, it's a celebration of the theater itself."

The verdict on Lapine's work as a writer was mixed. Time Out NY thought the adaptation "quite faithful and wrought with abundant skill and empathy," but noted that "less smoothly transferred from page to stage is Hart's narrative tone." However, the Hollywood Reporter thought, "all the magic is confined to the design department," and that Lapine's adaptation was "botched." New York Magazine, meanwhile, stated, "Unfortunately, the production that has actually resulted will likely satisfy neither the acolytes nor the cynics. Act One, the play, is too mild for the former and too credulous for me." (I guess we now know that Jesse Green categorizes himself as a cynic. But, then, he's a critic. Of course he is.)

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Playwright Annie Baker's The Flick — an existential, three-hour work about three underpaid employees who mop the floors and talk about this and that (and sometimes, don't talk at all) at the last 35 millimeter film projectors in the state — was the semi-surprising winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which was announced April 14.

Semi-suprising because, while the play was generally well-received critically, it was controversial work that divided audiences, so much so that Playwrights Horizons brass were compelled to defend themselves to subscribers.

Louisa Krause in The Flick.
Photo by Joan Marcus
As a reward, the play will be returning to Off-Broadway — so people can argue about it all over again.

The Flick marks the sixth production to have its premiere at Playwrights Horizons prior to taking the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Other Playwrights Horizons' works to win the Pulitzer include: Clybourne Park (2011); I Am My Own Wife (2004); The Heidi Chronicles (1989); Driving Miss Daisy (1988); and Sunday in the Park With George (1985).

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Speaking of Clybourne Park, playwright Bruce Norris was announced as the latest ensemble member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Many of Norris' plays have appeared at the nonprofit. Norris is the company's first new ensemble member since 2010, when Tarell Alvin McCraney was inducted.

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Finally, Judy Kuhn, Howard McGillin, Roger Rees and Nancy Opel will join Tony Award winner Chita Rivera in the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Kander and Ebb's The Visit, it was announced.

Tony Award-winning director John Doyle (Sweeney Todd, Company) will stage the production that runs July 31-Aug. 17.