Seen on Broadway: Child killings. Nasty surprises in strange boxes. And laughs. It can all only mean one thing: the UK’s Martin McDonagh, author of the Tony-nominated Leenane trilogy, is back in town, with The Pillowman. While much different than those black-comedy shockers ("it’s, it’s…-esque," says its main character, struggling to define the content of his short stories), it does not lack for jolts. On the shivery gray set Scott Pask has made out of the Booth Theatre, a detective (Jeff Goldblum, acting with every inch of his long and rubbery frame) and a policeman (a hair-trigger Zeljko Ivanek) interrogate a writer, Katurian (the shadily sympathetic Billy Crudup), whose grisly fables of child abuse and murder are coming true in the nameless totalitarian state where the play unfolds.
Now, as they say in webspeak when a reviewer doesn’t want to ruin anything, some possible spoilers. In the next room, undergoing torture, is the writer’s retarded brother (Michael Stuhlbarg, excellent in a demanding part), who may have played some role in the killings (that’s where the little red box, and one of the first of the evening’s chilling turns, comes in). Pask’s set looks like an imposing, walled-off prison, with small, high windows letting in slivers of Brian MacDevitt’s lighting—but when Crudup relates one of his perhaps autobiographical stories (the saga of the "little Jesus" being the most hair-raising), panels seamlessly placed at its midsection open up, and the tales, designed in a colorful, contemporary Grimm’s fairy-tale style, are enacted by the supporting players. The lengthy Act I is virtually a play in itself, and comes to what could be a definitive close, but I guarantee you won’t be napping at this Pillowman, and will be back for more in Act II, so well-executed this production is.
John Crowley’s direction of material that could easily fall to tatters is superb, and all of the design choices are faultless. Pask’s costumes, for example; Goldblum’s jacket and pants are mismatched, which right away conveys something about his character’s myopia. The lighting always feels right, whether in the almost-darkness of most of the play, occasionally relieved by flickering flames, or bursts of…well, that would be giving things away. Paul Arditti’s Olivier nomination for the London production, replicated here in every echoing scream, was well-earned. [A word, too, for Angelina Avallone’s surprising second-act makeup on one character.] Hudson Scenic supplied the sets while PRG handled the lights and audio. An import from the National Theatre of London, The Pillowman has made a far smoother transition to these shores than the soon-to-close Democracy, though everyone starved for provocative new plays on Broadway will be happy to have had them both. --Robert Cashill
Back on Broadway: Cry havoc, and let slip Denzel Washington…into the role of Brutus in Julius Caesar, his first Broadway appearance since 1988. The actor looks smashing in his Valentino suit and combat fatigues (this is a slickly modernized production) and rises to the challenge of his orations. Elsewhere, however, his performance has an uncertain quality; a fitting choice for the endlessly ambivalent Brutus, except that he speed-talks through his lines, rat-tat-tat in iambic pentameter, as if he has a 10:40 p.m. bus to catch from the Belasco Theatre. If and when he slows down, he’ll be fine, and the show, which has more concentrated performances by Colm Feore (Cassius), William Sadler (Caesar), and Jessica Hecht (Portia), will be the better for it. [I wasn’t too impressed, initially, with Eamonn Walker’s take on Mark Antony, but the actor, like the consummate pol he’s playing, seemed to get better and better as the audience registered its approval.] As it is, however, there’s something askew in Rome (or wherever the production is taking place) when the stage actor playing the weaselly Casca (Jack Willis) is more warmly applauded than the two-time Oscar winner whose availability is the whole raison d’etre of the evening.
The chief excitement of the production is watching the director, the gentlemanly Daniel Sullivan (Brooklyn Boy), unleash his pent-up Michael Bay (Bad Boys) on the audience. Julius Caesar is the first Shakespeare most of us encounter, given its forward-march storyline and, of course, its many choice phrases, which viewers who remember them from the ninth grade anticipate like the Monty Python routines in Spamalot. Like its star, the design has a cinematic panache that never stops to breathe. Early reports suggested that the play had been "repurposed" to Iraq 30 years after the current war, but this exhausted, unnecessary Public Theatre approach to "relevance" is, fortunately, just a suggestion, mostly in the Islamic music heard braying tinnily as the show opens. Ralph Funicello, Broadway’s leading interpreter of the Bard’s designs with last season’s King Lear and Henry IValso to his credit, has created extensive Romanesque ruins that take up the playing area and the balcony boxes, which are brought up-to-date with the addition of elements like metal detectors, futilely deployed right before Caesar’s assassination. Costumer Jess Goldstein responds with costumes that run the gamut from Brutus’ suits to Caesar’s regal wear, and a full assortment of fatigues as the battlefield machinations consume the second half of the show. Most of them get plenty bloodied as the assassins’ flashing knives call an end to Caesar’s reign; indeed, between this and The Pillowman, blood must be in short supply along the Rialto.
The second half of the show simply explodes, as if Full Metal Jacket, the play, were suddenly being staged. Special effects designer Gregory Meeh told me that Sullivan wanted the show to "look pyrotechnic without actually using pyrotechnics," and that’s exactly what’s up there, as Shakespeare’s words and a bunch of assault weapons fire away. LD Mimi Jordan Sherin supplies some action-packed lighting, which fades to mournfulness as the full measure of what’s lost in the conflict, rather than what’s gained, is taken. But the star of the production is undoubtedly sound and music designer Dan Moses Schreier, just about the hardest-working man in Broadway design. Here he abandons restraint for a high-decibel (but never shrill or unpleasant) advance on the eardrums—the sound of an approaching helicopter seemed to indicate that the ghost of Miss Saigon had taken up residence in the allegedly haunted theater. It’s a thrilling performance from the design team, with vendor contributions from Hudson Scenic (scenery and automation), GSD Productions (lighting), Masque Sound (audio), and Jauchem and Meeh (effects), that consummates handsomely for deficiencies elsewhere.--Robert Cashill
Seen Off-Broadway: The Transport Group’s production of The Audience is, in a word, ambitious. Written by 19 different playwrights with songs by 11 different composers, the 2-hour, one act musical purports to tell the tales of the denizens of a typical Broadway show. And boy does it! There is something about The Audience that reminds me of a Cirque du Soleil show: you don’t know where to look because you’re afraid you’re going to miss out on something. That is both a good and a bad thing, because invariably you do miss out on something. However, what you do see and hear is funny and often poignant.
A hint of what the show is about should be obvious from the character descriptions in the program: Four Old Jews, African American Yuppies, Older Gay Couple, Younger Gay Couple, Obsessed Fans, and—my favorite—The Staten Island Secretaries. Every single person reading this column has been in the theatre with the aforementioned stereotypes and I left many out. Directed by Jack Cummings III, The Audience moves along briskly as we are taken on a journey through a Broadway show and we get to see the reactions of a typical audience. From pre-show chatter to intermission and then to post-show wrap up, we get a peek into these people’s lives, loves, and losses. Throughout, we are treated to musical numbers that are the inner thoughts of these characters. Let’s face it, this show could have been three acts as only a handful of the characters get their own numbers. The only composer’s name I recognized was Michael John LaChiusa and his finale, that involved the entire cast of 46, was by far the best piece in the show.
It would be hard to pick a standout in a cast of 46 that is made up of unknowns (to me, anyway) as well as Broadway veterans and past Tony nominees. Jack Donahue is particularly strong as the faux Broadway show’s writer—who apparently received scathing reviews as the show is scheduled to close--and he serves as a link throughout to the other characters, scenes, and musical numbers. Gerry McIntyre has the only show-stopper as the husband in The African-American Yuppie Couple as he sings about the type of Broadway show he would create if given the chance. Eamon Foley as the young son of an Out-of-Town Family also shines as he discovers he actually likes what he’s seeing and indicates what the young boy’s future may hold (see Younger Gay Couple above). However, with a show like this, it is easy to go away wanting more because you only get a glimpse into these people’s lives. One of the most striking vignettes involved the Upper West Side Couple and Their Son played by Herndon Lackey, Leslie Alexander, and Sean MacLaughlin, who gives an especially touching performance as the son who is in his own fantasy world that only we, the real audience, are allowed into.
The design for The Audience was simple. Or was it? The stage is a row of nine theatre seats, five stacked rows each (they must’ve been in the mezzanine) and was created by John Story. It perfectly mimics every Broadway theatre’s auditorium. However, I will admit it was off-putting at first to have the entire cast staring back at me for two hours. Wear something nice when you see this show! The lighting by R. Lee Kennedy was brilliant in its subtlety and was amazing in its consistency considering it is a show that is lit with mostly conventional fixtures, which was not an easy task considering how many characters literally get their moment in the spotlight.
During the two numbers that include the full company with solos happening all over the stage, Kennedy relied on four Vari-Lite VL1000TS units to keep the right actors in the right light. One can only imagine the hours the LD spent cueing this show! The costume design is by Kathryn Rohle and was about as perfect as could be considering the variety of every day characters. At least the items were easy to find since the clothing was the same stuff you or I would wear (depending on our own stereotype).
The Audience only plays through April 23rd at the Connelly Theatre in Alphabet City, but if any show deserves a longer life, it is definitely this one. If you like theatre, you should see The Audience just to see how well you’re portrayed!--Mark A. Newman