Seen on Broadway:

Henry IV

, at the Vivian Beaumont, offers the kind of Shakespeare production that we rarely get--thoroughly traditional, vigorously staged, well-spoken, and epic in scale. In Jack O'Brien's muscular staging, the action moves swiftly from palace to bawdy house, from farce to high drama; in scene after scene, crowds emerge from the depths of the Beaumont's wings, carousing drunkenly through London or rushing onto the fields of battle. Adapter Dakin Matthews has melded the two parts of Henry IV, focusing on the Freudian, father-son triangle of Henry, Falstaff, and Prince Hal. Kevin Kline's highly original approach to Falstaff handles the character's robust comedy with a delicate touch--this Falstaff is suitably dissipated, but he retains an air of gentility with a strong undertone of sadness; somewhere, deep inside, he knows Hal will eventually betray him. Michael Hayden's Prince Hal is an amused observer of the whores and thieves around him, yet he knows all too clearly that he is slumming and must someday accept the responsibilities of kingship. One of the production's most telling moments comes when, in a moment of drunken foolery, Falstaff pretends to be the King chiding his son; Hal reverses the roles, pretending to be his father, denouncing Falstaff with an unaccounted-for anger. Suddenly the two men stare are each other, stunned by the speaking of a truth that neither can acknowledge. The rest of the somewhat uneven cast is overshadowed by these two: Richard Easton does solid work as anxious, guilt-ridden Henry, but, as Hotspur, Ethan Hawke's modern speech patterns are irritating. Dana Ivey is uproarious as the bawdy house hostess Dame Quickly and a suitably grand Lady Northumberland, but Audra MacDonald lacks a sense of period style as Lady Percy.


Henry IV

. Photo: Paul Kolnik

What matters here is the overall sweep of the storytelling. O'Brien is not afraid of grand gestures: John of Lancaster (Lorenzo Pisoni) contemptuously hurling a goblet of wine into the face of Owen Glendower (Dakin Matthews); a burst of pyro effects as Hal heaves his sword into Hotspur's chest; Hal, now king, imperiously forcing Falstaff to kneel before him in front of the court. Ralph Funicello's timbered superstructure of a setting is reminiscent of Ming Cho Lee's work for Shakespeare in the Park in the 1960s; it facilitates the production's fast pace, allowing the action to move quickly from location to location. Funicello is the first designer in years to make full use of the Beaumont's stage and the results are exciting. Jess Goldstein's first-rate costumes take period silhouettes and add modern touches, such as long leather coats. His outfits for members of the court are gorgeously appointed and his skin-tight leatherwear for Hal and Hotspur are both masculine and sensual. Brian MacDevitt's lighting gives each stage picture the lush chiaroscuro feel of a Rembrandt canvas. Mark Bennett's music and sound effects, including explosions, crowd noises, and the chiming of bells, complete this wholly imagined world. This production is a timely reminder that Shakespeare doesn't need some laborious concept staging to work; all you need is intelligence and theatricality.

When I Am My Own Wife opened at Playwrights Horizons last spring, it seemed to be a fascinating, wholly original work. Now on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, it looks like the play of the year, with Jefferson Mays currently the man to beat for the Best Actor Tony. Mays plays Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an elderly German transvestite who somehow managed to survive both the Nazi and Communist regimes, operating a museum devoted to German industrial design circa 1880-1900. May is also everyone else in the play as, after the Berlin Wall falls, Charlotte becomes a German culture hero, then is disgraced when secret government files are released that reveal her work with the secret police. Mays' performance is possibly the most purely spellbinding to be found on Broadway right now, and Wright's script skillfully explores the unsolvable mysteries surrounding Charlotte. The design fits beautifully into a Broadway house: Derek McLane's small, spare unit setting expands under David Lander's stunning lighting design to become a storehouse of Charlotte's holdings, revealing the oddly airless world in which she lived for so long. Andre J. Pluess' sound is a major design element, blending an array of effects, including, eerily, the voice of the real Charlotte. Janice Pytel's costume work is solid work, as well. I Am My Own Wife is not to be missed.


Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife. Photo: Joan Marcus

The new/old musical Never Gonna Dance at the Broadhurst kept reminding me of those colorized movies Ted Turner used to broadcast. Those films looked like vintage Hollywood works, yet something about them was off; so it is here with this stage adaptation of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film Swing Time, featuring a score of Jerome Kern standards. It clearly intends to be big, fun, nostalgic hit like Crazy for You, but from the get-go, something doesn't gel. There are, I think three reasons for this: First, Jeffrey Hatcher's book, about a hoofer who makes a bet that he can earn $25,000 without dancing, fails to capture the fast pace and giddy hilarity of 30s screwball comedy; Hatcher's plot, involving the Major Bowes Amateur hour, a fixed dance contest, a lucky quarter, and various mistaken-identity situations, is lame, riddled with holes, and loaded with limp wisecracks. Second, the leads, the relatively unknown Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager, are skilled dancers, but are notably weak in the singing and acting department. Third, Robin Wagner's bland scenery and Paul Gallo's characterless lighting don't provide a much-needed romantic view of New York in the 30s. Some things work--Karen Ziemba is fun as Lemenager's obligatory wisecracking friend; a first-act number, set to "I Won't Dance," featuring Racey and the chorus, is rousing(choreographer Jerry Mitchell's work is classy throughout, working the dance vocabulary of Hermes Pan to good effect); one or two sets, especially a view of the city from an unfinished skyscraper, have some visual oomph. It helps that costume designer William Ivey Long has a special affinity for 30s wear and his work does not disappoint--students of costume design would do well to check out both this show and Wonderful Town (designed by Martin Pakledinaz) to see two very different, and equally valid-approaches to the clothes of the period. (I'm of two minds about Acme Sound Partners' sound design; it's not their best, but then I wouldn't want to have to deal with such weak lead singers.) Ultimately, director Michael Greif isn't at home with this kind of lighweight material. In spite of some great choreography, it never really does dance.--David Barbour


Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager are Never Gonna Dance. Photo: Joan Marcus

Seen at Madison Square Garden Simon and Garfinkel's Old Friends tour met with a thunderous response last week. Just over the age of 60, they have known each other since they were 11, and as they noted, started arguing when they were 14. For the purposes of the tour at least, they have put their differences aside and put on a great show, complete with an interlude by the Everley Brothers (with such songs as "Wake Up Little Susie"). What is interesting is that the Everlys are not a warm-up band but appear in the middle of the show as an example of how their music influenced that of Simon and Garfunkel. The set/lighting design is a large tree made of truss, with branches that stretch out of the stage. LD Patrick Woodroffe, of Rolling Stones fame, designed the lighting, using the tree as the center focus. He's very smart in his choices: when the music is quiet the lighting is quiet as well with the tree glowing in a single color, from gold to deep saturated blue. But when the music heats up, the lighting keeps pace, with automated fixtures adding kinetic flash. Lighting director Jon Pollak--who is out on the tour and running the Wholehog II console--was in for a surprise when he arrived in New York. The decision had been made to videotape the concerts, which meant a major re-look at the lighting. LD Alan Adelman was brought in and he sat right next to Pollak during the show to check on the levels for the cameras. Additional Omnilights (from Lowel-Light) on stands were added on stage to pump up the lighting on the singers, but the major change was flying in a pair of trusses (one of either side of the central scoreboard) over the audience. Additonal Martin Professional automated fixtures--15 on each truss--were used primarily to add light on the audience for the cameras. The end result was small pools of light on the audience at times, and a larger general wash at other moments. The Martin fixtures allowed the LDs to choose the same colors that Woodroffe had specified for any given song so there was a blending of the stage and audience lighting. The lighting tree also supports a large video screen, used for both a few film clips of the younger Simon and Garfunkel, as well as scenes from The Graduate that segued into a rendition of "Mrs. Robinson." Throughout the concert, the screen is used for a live mix of Imag images, giving the audience in the far bleachers a chance to see what is going on. The crowd would have stayed all night--after all, these are New York's home boys! --Ellen Lampert-Greaux


Simon and Garfunkle. Photo: Steve Jennings

Seen at the Movies: I'm second to none in my devotion to Tim Burton's cinema, but his latest, Big Fish, doesn't really do it for me. The director's visual imagination is unflagging, yet the narrative (based on a novel by Daniel Wallace) is a treacly, erratic concoction, and the air of gee-whiz whimsicality is not offset by a big enough dose of Burton's darker conjurings. The story is of tall-tale-spinning Alabaman Edward Bloom, played by Albert Finney as if he's rolling a particularly big plum around his jowly cheeks. Bloom is visited on his deathbed by estranged son Billy Crudup, who's fed up with the old man's stories and emotional withholding. But he must endure them once more as they're enacted for us in flashback, with Ewan McGregor taking on the role of Bloom as a young man. We see the character leave his hometown, meet a giant, visit a strange village where all the residents go barefoot, join a circus run by Danny DeVito, who moonlights as a werewolf, meet a beautiful pair of Siamese twins behind Korean enemy lines, and court the love of his life (Alison Lohman, who ages into Jessica Lange). We also see him wrestle the big fish of the title, and come across Burton paramour Helena Bonham Carter in the guise of a one-eyed witch.


Big Fish Photo: Columbia Pictures

As you may gather, Big Fish is an episodic affair, with some episodes more engaging than others. But the cumulative effect is syrupy, and comes down hard on the advantages of myth over boring fact. Granted, some of these myths, especially the illusion that Karl the Giant (Matthew McGrory) is an even bigger giant than he is, and that the film's pair of identical twins are actually conjoined, are given a magical realization by the visual effects artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks. Colleen Atwood's costumes are also reliably colorful, mixing period and fanciful elements in perfect proportion. But I found Dennis Gassner's production design, particularly in the barefoot-denizen town, to be a bit too Disneyfied. Similarly, Philippe Rousselot's cinematography is very heavily weighted on the sunny side. This is a movie that could use a few more clouds.

Speaking of sunniness, consider Diane Keaton, who casts such a warm glow over Nancy Meyers' Something's Gotta Give that I happily overlooked any of the romantic comedy's deficiencies of wit or character. Actually, for what it is, the film isn't bad at all, and it's given a potent injection of star power not only by Keaton, who's cast as a successful but lovelorn divorced playwright, but also Jack Nicholson, who plays a music business entrepreneur with an exclusive taste for ladies under 30. His current romantic interest (Amanda Peet) just happens to be Keaton's daughter. But the interventions of a mild heart attack suffered at the indignant mother's Hamptons beach house, and of a handsome younger doctor (Keanu Reeves) with an eye for more mature women, serves to reshuffle the romantic deck.

Something's Gotta Give is nothing if not glossy; Meyers, whose past credits as writer and/or director include Baby Boom, Father of the Bride, and What Women Want, never met a Martha Stewart-ready interior she didn't like. Production designer Jon Hutman gives us a beach house to envy, though I might want to throw some newspapers or old shoes around just to make the place seem a little more lived-in. Costume designer Suzanne McCabe goofs on Keaton's famous modesty by cladding her in weather-inappropriate long sleeves and turtlenecks, though when she dresses up in a simple black dress for a date with Reeves, she is the biggest knockout imaginable. In fact, Keaton's apparent eschewal of plastic surgery stands as a rebuke to almost every other actress of a certain age in Hollywood. DP Michael Ballhaus' images are a model of softly lit romantic photography, and the movie, though overlong, is often funny and very satisfying.

The Farrelly Brothers' Stuck on You is also too long, as are all of the comedy writing-directing team's taste-challenged movies. But at least the film, which stars Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear as non-identical conjoined twins, is more smoothly paced than their last few efforts. Unlike the raunchy There's Something About Mary, the PG-13-rated Stuck on You is not a knee-slapper; rather, it's a sweet story of brotherly love that seems to be taking place in a surprisingly well sustained alternate universe. The movie charts the brothers' adventures as they move to Hollywood in pursuit of Kinnear's acting fame (Damon, of necessity, must come along for the ride). Cher, half-heartedly playing herself, casts Kinnear in her TV sitcom, while the show's camera crew works overtime to keep Damon out of frame. That's the kind of movie it is. The serviceable cinematography and production design are by Daniel Mindel and Sydney J. Bartholomew, Jr.; kudos to costume designer Deena Appel for her conjoined though often ill-matched ensembles, and to makeup effects supervisor Tony Gardner for the brothers' attached-at-the-hip prosthetic. The whole loopy enterprise somehow ends up with a musical version of Bonnie and Clyde featuring Meryl Streep. Well, why not?--John Calhoun


Stuck on You. Photo: Glenn Watson/20th Century Fox

Seen Off Broadway: The Story, at the Public Theatre, is, as they used to say, ripped from today's headlines; that immediacy is only one of the attractions of Tracey Scott Wilson's new drama. Erika Alexander makes a strong impression as Yvonne, a highly ambitious black reporter assigned to the black-themed special section of a metropolitan newspaper. Yvonne's feels consigned to a kind of employment ghetto, an attitude that makes her no friends among her colleagues, including her tart-tongued boss Pat (Phylicia Rashad). Yvonne sees a way out of her dilemma when she identifies the key suspect in a notorious, racially tinged murder case--or does she? In this provocative tangle of racial, sexual, and office politics, it turns out that virtually everyone is playing everyone else--including Pat, who worries about the political implications of every news story; Jeff, Yvonne's lover, who wants to keep their relationship secret; and Latisha, the troubled teenager, who may or may not hold the keys to the murder. Wilson's writing is tough, funny, skeptical, unimpressed by any orthodoxy; she's also remarkably skillful at making any number of complex points in the course of a fast-moving two hours. She is aided enormously by Loretta Greco's taut, pacy direction, a skilled cast, and a very classy design. Robert Brill's set is a gray space dominated by city-newsroom mural and is lit skillfully by James Vermeuelen. Emilio Sosa's costumes make a number of subtle points about each characters and sound designer. Robert Kaplowitz creates an unnerving medley of camera clicks during a press conference scene. The Story looks to be one of the season's real sleepers.


Phylicia Rashad and Erika Alexander in The Story. Photo: Michal Daniel

"Who do you know that's nice? Seriously?" asks one of the characters in Juvenilia, at Playwrights Horizons. Good question; niceness is not in oversupply here. Wendy MacLeod's play begins with a blindingly obvious triangle: Henry, a nerdy, lust-addled, guilt-ridden college senior; Brodie, his boozing, philandering best friend, and Meredith, Brodie's terrifyingly willful girlfriend. With their casual betrayals and scathing insights, Brodie and Meredith are a kind of undergraduate version of Edward Albee's George and Martha. All three characters are crippled by their detachment ("I wasn't offering you a blow job; it was an ironic blow job," sneers Meredith in a typically untender moment.) Like George and Martha, they even concoct a game of Get the Guests, trying to embroil, Angie, Henry's attractive and very Christian neighbor, in a sexual threesome (Meredith wants to watch). After that, nothing expected happens, as everyone learns some unwelcome truths about him or herself over the course of one long night. MacLeod provides something entirely original in Angie, whose religious beliefs are only one part of a complex character. Even more daringly, MacLeod allows her characters to consider the possibility that goodness and happiness might be the same thing. Under David Petrarca's direction, the entire cast is strong, and you will probably finding yourself caring very much what happens to these rather oversophisticated waifs. Michael Yeargan's setting, a concrete box that, with a few changes, becomes either Henry or Angie's dorm room, is cleverly done, and is fronted by a lovely mural of an idealized college campus. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are up-to-the-minute; however, given the general disdain onstage for Britney Spears, would Meredith really adopt the pop star's slutty schoolgirl look? Mark McCullough's lighting adds a chilling touch of blue neon to the corners of the set and provides some lurid color changes during a sexual encounter. The sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen provides a playlist of various pop sounds, and makes wicked use of Enrique Iglesias as background music for seduction. Juvenilia isn't a major work, but it's surprisingly funny and touching.


Juvenilia. Photo: Joan Marcus

You think your family reunions are tough? Consider what happens in Keith Reddin's new play Frame 312, at the Atlantic Theatre: Daughter Stephanie complains endlessly about her dead-end job and her addiction to tranquilizers. Son Tom shows up for his mother's birthday party, principally to chisel $75,000 out of her for a house he can't afford and doesn't need. And then Lynette, their mother, announces that she has in her possession the original Zapruder film, depicting the murder of John F. Kennedy. After that bombshell, the action moves back and forth, explaining how Lynette, who worked at Life magazine in the 60s got possession of this politically hot document. There are some amusing moments--Stephanie unsentimentally greets by bother, saying, "Why don't you get a hairpiece?"--and I loved Lynette's recollection of how her job involved keeping the Life staff writers liquored up on deadline day. But Reddins' overall concept--Lynette's four decades of suburban life is a metaphor for an America that has hysterically repressed its painful memories--strikes me as too facile. Also, his treatment of the Kennedy assassination is even vaguer and more generically ominous than Oliver Stone's--if that's possible. Under Karen Kohlhaas' uneven direction, there are a number of good performances, principally Mary Beth Peil as Lynette. The design is extremely strong: Walt Spanlger's two-level set is a hypperreal depiction of the exterior of a suburban New Jersey home; Robert Perry's lighting efficiently transforms the set into many other locations. Mimi O'Donnell's costumes provide a strong contrast between the fashions of 1963 and 1998 and Scott Myers' sound design is most effective at turning the sound of film running through a projector into something unspeakably creepy.


Frame 312. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Luigi Pirandello's early modernist classic Right You Are is back in vogue, thanks to Franco Zefferelli's well-received production (under the title Absolutely? Perhaps!) in the West End last summer. Here in New York, critics were less kind to Fabrizio Melano's arthritic staging for the National Actors Theatre at Pace University. The problems here are many: the actors seemingly lack confidence, especially Tony Randall, as the house skeptic among a group of gossips theorizing wildly about the odd private life of a local official. Randall, in a role that calls out for the assurance and smooth charm of the younger Philip Bosco, isn't on top of his lines, which hurts enormously. More troubling is the tonal uncertainty: the actors are suspended somewhere between farce and drama, never settling on a coherent style. The design is similarly stranded somewhere between naturalism and abstraction. James Noone's set, which moves the action from 1916 to Fascist Italy in the 30s, is, with its shiny black walls and giant statues, either a tribute to Futurist architecture or a faithful rendition of a foyer at Caeasar's Palace. Noel Taylor's costumes are stylish, but nobody changes their clothes in a play that unfolds over three days. Kirk Bookman's lighting moves between a standard, well-done stage wash and highly noticeable cues during scenes of interrogation (a monologue featuring Randall is covered by moving lights and their fan noise is very, very noticeable). Richard Fitzgerald's sound is solid if unremarkable. Let's hope that, the next time out, this fascinating play gets the production it deserves.--DB


Right You Are. Photo: Joan Marcus