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  • Jonathan Kalb

Mad Spring Roundup



Well, it’s happened again. The torrid pace of new openings this spring has outstripped my ability to write essays on everything I’ve seen. Here, then, are some short takes instead!




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J.T. Rogers (Oslo, Blood and Gifts) exhibits all his talent for organizing massive quantities of information in Corruption, about the fall of Rebekah Brooks (star British media exec and Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenant) in the phone-hacking scandal of 2010. It’s amazing how much he fits in, and director Barlett Sher is at his best keeping it all clear, using video projections on the back wall and a circle of TV-studio monitors hanging over the thrust to give us quick context and let the live actors cut to the dramatic chase. The play covers territory we should all care about—the insidious corrupting influence of media conglomerates on democracy—but despite some fine actors (Dylan Baker, T. Ryder Smith) it’s too burdened by information for its own good, too tenuously interested in the emotion of its human stories. Corruption isn’t a musical but it reminded me of one of those musicals (like Lempicka) in which every number is a blaring anthem or torch-song. Art needs contrast: light depends on dark, as fast depends on slow, to be properly appreciated. At 2 hours and 40 minutes Corruption is a bit of an ordeal even though its tale couldn’t be more relevant to our current moment.

 



 

 

That The Notebook is gripping (as evidenced by the sheer number of sniffles all around me) was a complete surprise, because both the novel and the 2004 movie were shamelessly treacly. Most people who buy a ticket to this show, I suspect, will know what’s coming: a woman in dementia who no longer recognizes her husband will suddenly recover her memory after he patiently reads the story of their life from a notebook she penned when first diagnosed. Such a show, which acts out the life story in flashback, pretty much has to be sentimental and predictable to tell its story at all, but the artful way this one jerks its tears is impressive. The effect is utterly dependent on the emotional delivery system of music—Michaelson’s songs are lovely, with a few rising to dreamy flights that recall Dear Evan Hanson—but the acting is a big factor too. Maryann Plunkett is extraordinary as the old woman Allie, so unbending in her failure to know her husband Noah (Dorian Harewood) that she breaks our hearts. Her utter unreachability makes the climax when she finally comes round a real gut punch. Plunkett and Harewood share the lead roles with four other actors, each portraying the character at a different age. All six performers have differently magnificent voices, which adds moving variety and color to the story. The carefully modulated direction is by Michael Greif and Schele Williams. Michaelson’s lyrics, it should be said, are less artful than her music: lines like “I want him to kiss me on the neck kiss me on my forehead” and “knots in my stomach the kind that never heal” are unworthy of their melodies.

 



 

Like The Notebook, this new musical is a much stronger artwork than its sources. Its tale about a young guy who joins the circus during the Depression after a family tragedy derails his veterinary career—which made for a pretty good novel, then an appallingly schmaltzy Hollywood movie—has found its natural form onstage. The book by Rick Elice is snappy and clever, way less hamfisted than the movie, thank god. More important, the musical makes excellent use of circus performance skills. To be fully appreciated, such skills have to be witnessed live, and their liveness here is made integral to the world the show builds. Rope dancing, pole tricks, hoop throwing, gymnastics, clowning—all that breathtaking risk, physical prowess, and eccentricity is key to what seduces the protagonist Jacob and makes him want to stay. It seduces us too. We decide this is a joyful and vibrant world we want to stay in even before we meet gorgeous Marlena, the brutal boss’s wife whom Jacob inconveniently falls in love with. Pigpen Theatre wrote the delightfully folksy soft-rock music. Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll made sure the circus acts helped tell the story. It was a brilliant stroke to use puppets for the circus animals, and fully assemble the heroic elephant Rosie only at the act curtain. Water for Elephants is smart, fun, sexy, and never takes itself too seriously, so it should appeal to tourists and families. Here’s hoping it survives long enough in a glutted Broadway field to tap that market.

 



 

 

If, like me, you’ve stayed away from this musical about American suffragists in the early 20th century out of fear it would be obvious or irritatingly didactic, think again. The show (at least in this Broadway version, revised after its 2022 run at the Public Theater) anticipates every objection like that and steers into new pleasures and fascinating discoveries whenever the material threatens to get preachy. Shaina Taub—who also plays the lead role of Alice Paul—selects about a dozen fascinating characters from the long saga of women winning the right to vote and intertwines their stories grippingly. She makes us care about every single one. Passage of the 19th amendment is the grail everyone seeks, but since we all know it did eventually pass (in 1920), the show gets to concentrate on how that occurred, on making it fun to learn about that. That is a sneaky mixture of pleasure and Brechtian tutelage, using the frivolous tools of musical theater to make feminism a hoot. Taub’s sharp portrayal of the rabble-rousing Paul as a soulful spitfire is the heart of the show, but several other stellar performances also anchor it, including Nikki M. James as Ida B. Wells, Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt, and Hannah Cruz as Inez Milholland. The cast is all women—of course!—who play their male antagonists too. Grace McLean’s hilarious sendup of Woodrow Wilson is alone worth the price of a ticket.

 



 

 

Like Corruption, Patriots is a dramatized piece of long-form journalism. Directed by Rupert Goold, it’s a probing deep-dive into the relationship between Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky who made Putin’s rise possible. Peter Morgan—creator of the TV series The Crown and the plays The Audience and Frost/Nixon—is fascinated by power and the human costs of getting and keeping it. Here he has spun a sort of Frankenstein tale about a magnate who helps enthrone someone he thinks is a controllable nebbish but who turns out to be a ruthless autocrat who destroys him. It’s a quick-moving yet often grim play set in a dark, round-walled brick space that could be a dungeon or chic dance club. A giant neon Russian star hovers overhead; women are mere eye-candy or afterthoughts in this place. Morgan’s chief interest is evidently the intensely personal nature of the dependency and rivalry between Putin and Berezovsky, which recalls Othello and Iago in that both act despicably. Yet the play is sprinkled with details that invite sympathy with Berezovsky, for no evident reason (why show him as a gawky teen and math whiz, for instance, and try to tug heartstrings with his sweet fondness for his math tutor?). Both main characters are fantastic roles, and the stars handle them marvelously. Will Keen’s Putin is slithery-stiff and wonderfully icy, wearing his thick streak of insecurity like a hump. Michael Stuhlbarg’s Berezovsky is an entitled, self-made mama’s boy who never quite grasps that he’s a monster until he meets a bigger one, and then he’s as indignant as he is aghast. Both these actors are worth seeing whatever the ambivalences in Morgan’s script.

 



 

Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya has been adapted by so many English-speaking playwrights it’s beginning to look like a rite of passage, a sort of demand or credential that the writer be taken seriously. Conor McPherson, Annie Baker, Craig Lucas, Simon Stephens, David Mamet, Neil Labute, Robert Icke, and Michael Frayn: all of these and others have offered new “versions” in recent decades. Not all have been brilliant, but it’s remarkable to me how many have been good, and I’d count Heidi Schreck’s among them. This is an acutely perceptive contemporary American transmutation that sets the action on a remote farm with no cell service, where Chekhov’s various feckless, oblivious and unhappy characters move among mid-century modern furniture and sip Glenfiddich and Pinot Noir. The gently efficient script cuts to the core of their various impasses with one another and themselves, and fits with effortless vernacular eloquence in the mouths of a first-rate ensemble directed by Lila Neugebauer. Seamlessly blended live and recorded music is part of this show’s enchantment, but it’s greatest strength is its acting. Look carefully at every choice of Mia Katigbek as the nurse Marina—I’ve rarely felt such clarity in this pointedly muzzy character. William Jackson Harper is no less compelling as the genially self-destructive doctor Astrov; he makes you trust him, yet wonder where his true affections lie, right up until the end. It's true that the headliner Steve Carell never reaches the depth of despondency and self-loathing as Vanya that’s necessary to drive home the sorrow in the final scene. Alison Pill’s Sonia, however, is so searing and believable in that scene that she almost makes up the deficit. Anyone who cares about Chekhov, or acting, or fine writing, or the fascinating question of why so many of our finest writers have felt compelled to inhabit this 127-year-old play, should run out and see this production.


Photo credits: T. Charles Erickson (Corruption); Julieta Cervantes (The Notebook); Matthew Murphy (Water for Elephants and Patriots); Joan Marcus (Suffs); Marc J. Franklin (Uncle Vanya).



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